Residents who live in the area of a nearly 7-acre property on Easton Road in Hellertown packed a borough council meeting Monday to express their opposition to a proposed rezoning of it from R-1 to R-2 that could allow townhomes, multifamily dwellings and other types of higher-density housing to be built on it.
Their vocal opposition proved futile, however, when council voted 5-1 in favor of the rezoning, citing both possible future economic benefit to the borough in the form of property taxes if the rezoned land is developed and the property owner’s right to pursue the rezoning.
Councilman Matt Marcincin recused himself from the vote, later telling Saucon Source he did so because he was paid by owners Michael and Sarah Chaffier to perform seasonal maintenance on their property at 1527 Easton Road last year. Marcincin, who owns a landscaping business, won election to a two-year seat on council in November and was sworn in as a councilman earlier this month.
The Chaffiers did not attend the one-and-a-half hour public hearing that was held to discuss the proposed rezoning, however they were represented at it by their attorney, Joseph Fitzpatrick, as well as their son-in-law, attorney Jason Banonis. Banonis is also Lower Saucon Township Council vice president, and was sworn into office weeks ago.
“It’s their right (to have the land rezoned),” Fitzpatrick told borough council. “This is a reasonable request.”
He noted that the neighborhood directly across Easton Road from the Chaffiers’ land is zoned R-2, and called portions of the borough’s zoning ordinance “anachronistic” and “out of date.”
Calling Michael Chaffier “a pillar of the community” and noting that he has paid borough taxes for 40 years, Fitzpatrick said that in spite of the fact that 1527 Easton Road is “the largest undeveloped parcel in the borough” it “is simply not large enough to put single family homes on it.”
Borough zoning and codes enforcement officer Kris Russo later stated that the minimum lot size for a single-family detatched dwelling in the R-1 zoning district is 5,500 square feet, and slightly less than that in the R-2 district.
In the R-2 district Russo said up to 12 single-family attached dwellings–such as townhomes–can be built on an acre of developable land, assuming other requirements are met.
Neighbor Kevin Gough, of Morning Star Lane, said that by using those numbers he had calculated that up to 72 townhomes could potentially be built on the Chaffier property.
Fitzpatrick, however, said that not all of the property may be developable, and Banonis told borough council no engineering studies have been conducted on the land, part of which extends into Lower Saucon Township.
More than two-thirds of the property, or a little less than five acres, is in Hellertown borough. Two single family-dwellings are located on the property, with one wholly in the borough and another bisected by the borough-township line, according to maps and county assessment records.
Neighbor James O’Brien of Morning Star Lane spoke at length about his family’s opposition to the proposed rezoning, which he said could devalue their property and leave them with less privacy as well as more traffic in their neighborhood.
“I feel like I’m fighting for my property and my family,” said O’Brien, who told council that he and his wife moved to their development five years ago and are raising two young sons there.
O’Brien cited the borough’s zoning law in arguing against the rezoning, telling council that it states that if land is to be rezoned, “the proposed use shall not detract from nearby properties” and “will not affect a change in the character of the neighborhood.”
“Is this really needed and will it improve the lives of the residents around it? No, it will not,” he said.
Gough echoed remarks made by several other speakers when he told council that he too has been a taxpayer in the area for over 40 years.
“I kind of take offense to what the attorney (Fitzpatrick) said because my neighborhood is filled with many, many people who have lived here many years,” said Andrea Goshen of Easton Road.
Fitzpatrick later said that he did not mean to offend anyone.
Responding to Fitzpatrick’s statement that the Chaffiers have no specific plans to develop for the property and are “just asking for a chance” to do so in the future, Gough asked council, “If they sell it…who’s the next person who’s going to be coming in here?”
He said an opinion provided by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission in support of the rezoning was delivered without knowledge of and or any kind of emotional attachment to the community.
In contrast to LVPC’s recommendation, the borough’s planning commission voted 4-3 in November not to recommend the rezoning to council.
According to minutes from that meeting posted on the borough website Monday, borough engineer Bryan Smith of Barry Isett & Associates told the planning commission Nov. 12 that uses permitted under a rezoning to R-2 “could include multi-family dwellings, (a) mobile home park, membership clubs, housing for the elderly, forestry and cemeteries.”
Planning member Joseph Pampanin “pointed out that a majority of the property is surrounded by single family homes and not multi-family homes,” the minutes state.
Attorney Thomas Schlegel, representing the Chaffiers before the planning commission, “disagreed and noted that the properties across the street are multi-family,” according to the minutes.
A motion to deny the request to recommend rezoning the land was made by Pampanin and seconded by planner Kim LaBrake, however the minutes do not indicate how each planning commission member subsequently voted. The other members of the planning commission are Matthew Milliren, Francene Drake, Don Werkheiser, Maria Diaz-Joves and Philip Weber, who is also a member of borough council.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, Weber said he felt torn about the decision council faced, but was convinced that a “yes” vote was the right vote because of the borough’s future financial outlook, which Banonis told them they had a “duty” to consider.
“You also have a duty to the borough as a whole,” Banonis said, in addressing council. “You have financial constraints that are on you.”
“It’s for taxes. It’s for the health of Hellertown down the road,” Weber agreed.
Council president Tom Rieger said he too was considering “the needs of the whole (community)” in casting his “yes” vote.
“I think we owe it to a borough citizen to try to develop their property to the best of their ability,” added councilman Mike McKenna.
Also voting in support of the rezoning were councilmen Gil Stauffer and Earl Hill.
Only councilman James Hill opposed the rezoning by casting the lone dissenting vote when the question was called.
Another issue which was raised during the discussion about the rezoning amendment was whether the community had been adequately made aware that it was going to be under consideration.
Russo verified that he complied with the borough’s zoning law by completing the following three steps in order to make the public aware of the hearing:
- Seven days before the hearing date, the property was posted with a sign advertising the fact that a public hearing would be held.
- The public hearing notice was published twice in a local weekly print newspaper, The Valley Voice, on Jan. 10 and Jan. 17.
- The Chaffiers were notified that the hearing was scheduled.
There was no legal requirement under the borough’s zoning law to notify adjacent property owners of the hearing, and Russo complied with both state and local laws pertaining to public meeting notifications with his actions, borough council solicitor Michael Corriere confirmed.
The next Hellertown Borough Council meeting will be held Monday, Feb. 3 at 7 p.m. at Borough Hall.