A local political organization has taken the symbolic step of adopting a resolution condemning a controversial rezoning decision made by Hellertown Borough Council last week.
By a show of hands, about 20 members of Saucon Democrats–a group that formed last year–unanimously approved the resolution at their meeting Sunday in Hellertown.
Several elected officials who were in attendance–including Democratic Lower Saucon Township councilwoman Priscilla deLeon, Democratic Northampton County Council member Lori Vargo Heffner and Democratic Hellertown Borough councilman Mike McKenna–abstained when the vote was taken.
McKenna was one of five borough councilmen who voted in favor of the unpopular rezoning amendment, which was approved following a 90-minute public hearing that was attended by many of the residents who live near the rezoned property. One councilman–James Hill–voted against it. Another councilman, Matt Marcincin, abstained from the vote because he said he has worked for the landowner in the past.
All seven members of Hellertown Borough Council are Democrats.
Council’s rezoning decision effectively means that the largest undeveloped, privately-held tract in the borough could potentially be opened up to development that could include high-density housing such as townhouses and multifamily dwellings.
The majority of the nearly 7-acre parcel is located within borough limits, however about 2 acres are located in Lower Saucon Township, and that part of the property will also have to be rezoned if the current or future owners wish to develop it to its maximum potential.
Legal representatives for property owners Michael and Sarah Chaffier who spoke at council’s public hearing Jan. 21 said that they currently have no plans to develop the property, but deserve the chance to do so in the future.
McKenna agreed with that argument, saying “I think we owe it to a borough citizen to try to develop their property to the best of their ability.” He reiterated his rationale for supporting the rezoning at Sunday’s meeting.
Opponents of the rezoning decision, Chaffier neighbors James and Rebecca O’Brien of Morning Star Lane, were also at the meeting and said they are taking steps to try and have council’s decision reversed because they believe it was made in error.
In addition to launching an online petition against the rezoning of 1527 Easton Road from R-1 to R-2 that has garnered more than 400 signatures, James O’Brien said they are considering a formal appeal of the decision as well as other options.
O’Brien questioned why council voted the opposite of a recommendation by the Hellertown Planning Commission, which last fall recommended that the Chaffier property remain in the R-1 zoning district. He noted that some members of the planning commission who voted in favor of keeping the zoning as is are professsional architects with extensive knowledge of engineering, urban planning and development issues.
O’Brien also noted that there was no support for the rezoning expressed by members of the public at the hearing, where the only speakers to advocate for it were two attorneys speaking on behalf of the Chaffier family: Joseph Fitzpatrick and the Chaffiers’ son-in-law, Jason Banonis, who is also Lower Saucon Township Council vice president.
“By law right now, they could explore development options,” O’Brien said of the Chaffiers, explaining that given the size of their property additional single-family dwellings could presumably be built on it under the borough’s R-1 zoning regulations.
O’Brien said he believes they “stand to make millions” off the development of their property if their land in Lower Saucon Township is also rezoned, which he predicted will happen if something isn’t done to try and stop it.
“I’m here because I don’t want to give up,” he said, in an announcement that was greeted with applause by some of the other attendees.
O’Brien said the issue of the rezoning is an emotional one for him, and noted that following council’s vote to rezone 1527 Easton Road Tuesday “people were in tears.”
Saucon Democrats organizer Bill Broun, who led Sunday’s meeting, said the group’s vote to approve the resolution wasn’t a vote against rezoning or high-density residential development, but rather a statement about the process borough council used.
“We feel the process was not sensitive to the community members,” he said. “Their voices were not taken into consideration.”
Lower Saucon Township resident Jeff Kennedy went a step further in his assessment of what had happened, calling it part of “a power grab” he said he believes will benefit local developers and their wealthy stakeholders at the expense of the community as a whole.
“There’s big money coming in to try and influence how our neighborhoods look and the councils aren’t standing up to them,” Broun said.
Another highlight of the meeting at Braveheart Highland Pub Sunday was a presentation by state representative candidate and Hellertown business owner Kevin Branco, who discussed his views and asked local Democrats for their support for his campaign.