A Northampton County Court of Common Pleas judge issued a decision Tuesday, voiding a controversial 2022 landfill rezoning amendment passed 3-2 by Lower Saucon Township Council.
Judge Abraham Kassis ruled that township ordinance No. 2022-02 is void ab initio after a group of residents represented by attorney Gary Asteak appealed the decision to the court in January.
In his order and accompanying statement of reasons for it, Kassis said the rezoning of approximately 275 acres from rural agricultural (RA) to light industrial (LI) was void because the township failed to follow all of the procedural requirements for notifying the public about the rezoning proposal.
Kassis found that a notice published in the Express-Times newspaper on Nov. 28, 2022 and Dec. 5, 2022 was deficient because it contained “only the title of the proposed ordinance, and not a summary thereof, as required…”
“The instant notice additionally failed to state that both the text and map were available for public examination without cost, and confusingly stated that the public hearing would be held at the address identified as ‘Town Hall,’ while stating that that the text amendments could be viewed at the ‘municipal building,'” Kassis said.
The judge wrote that he also disagreed with township and Bethlehem Landfill attorneys who argued that maps of the proposed rezoning did not need to be included with what was submitted to the paper.
“The text of the ordinance refers to the maps as being ‘attached hereto and incorporated herein’ which leads to the necessary conclusion that the text of the ordinance is incomplete without the inclusion of the maps,” his ruling stated. “Further, the text of the ordinance, in the absence of the maps, does not otherwise identify the specific lands subject to rezoning and the public would not be able to ascertain which land would be affected without reference to the maps.”
Pursuant to the appeal, Northampton County Law Librarian Lisa Mann testified that she had received a Nov. 14, 2022 email from Lower Saucon Township Administrative Assistant Stacy Werkheiser with the proposed ordinance that included a notification of a zoning hearing that was scheduled for Dec. 7, 2022, the judge’s order stated.
On Nov. 17, Township Manager Mark Hudson emailed Mann to let her know that the hearing had been rescheduled for Dec. 21, 2022, and on Nov. 23 he emailed her again “stating that the previous draft ordinances provided to the Law Library incorrectly included the wrong public hearing date (December 7 instead of December 21),” the order said. It was also noted in it that the email “included updated attachments” along with two maps but “did not include an attestation.”
Mann testified that she never received the email.
“Therefore, this correct version of the ordinance, along with the correct hearing date, were not available to the public at the law library,” the court found. “We additionally note that even if the November 23, 2022 email had been received and properly filed in the law library, the proposed ordinance was still not an ‘attested copy,’ as clearly required by MPC Section 610(a)(2).”
It is unclear if the township and/or Bethlehem Landfill will appeal the judge’s decision, which was announced just a week before a primary in which the landfill is a central issue for the candidates running for Lower Saucon Township Council. It also comes near the end of a Conditional Use Hearing regarding the proposed landfill expansion. The hearing began in late February and is scheduled to continue this Friday, May 12 at 9 a.m. at Lower Saucon Town Hall. More information about upcoming dates and documents related to the hearing may be found online.
“This is a tremendous victory for the Lehigh Valley,” a group oppposed to the landfill expansion–Citizens for Responsible Development–said Tuesday in a statement issued by member and Democratic township council candidate Victoria Opthof-Cordaro. “Judge Kassis correctly ruled that Lower Saucon Township’s ordinance is invalid…protecting the 275 acres of beautiful forest from landfill destruction.”