BETHLEHEM City Council: Van Wirt sworn in
Judge Stephen G. Baratta swore in new city council member Dr. Paige Van Wirt in a brief ceremony at the beginning of the regular meeting of the Bethlehem City Council Tuesday. Van Wirt was accompanied by Council Vice President Olga Negron. Dr. Van Wirt was appointed to replace Eric Evans, who resigned his council seat to be the new business manager for Bethlehem; Van Wirt took her seat immediately following being sworn in.
In a surprise move city council voted to indefinitely postpone an amendment to the zoning ordinance effectively killing an initiative put forward by the administration. The amendment would have increased the allowable building footprint of 30 percent by 10 percent. The resulting 40 percent allowable footprint effectively increased the potential size of buildings in densely populated RT zones by one-third as a matter right – no variance required.
The action came in response to public comments from several citizens, including William Scheirer, who pointed out that the amendment, which had been designed to reduce the number of requests from homeowners wanting to put sheds in their backyards and thus reduce the work load on the Zoning Hearing Board, was an invitation to developers to increase potential building footprints on residential lots by up to 30 percent.
Scheirer had argued that the proposed amendment was opening the door for “unintended consequences.”
Councilman William Reynolds said the proposal to quash the proposed ordinance received “zero pushback” from the administration.
Citizens, including Schierer, speaking during the public comment, had been encouraging council to be more like the Northampton County Commissioners – that is, to show some response, give some feedback to citizens who come before council. In other words, look and act like they care what citizens have to say.
Citizens get five minutes to bring their concerns to the council during public comment and are often met with stony silence and apparent indifference from the individual members; then maybe the council president will make a polite suggestion that the citizen meet with some city department official who may look into the resident’s concern.
Council approved the new definition of what constitutes a hotel in Bethlehem, a move to restrict the commercial use of private residences as hotels, such as is the business model of Arbnb, a company which has an online hospitality service to lease lodging for short terms.
The ordinance now defines a hotel as having one room instead of the previous definition of seven rooms.
Bethlehem resident and Lehigh University professor Dr. Seth Mogland said developers are buying up residential property in South Bethlehem with plans to develop luxury student housing. He urged the council to “not make it easier” for developers to building in our neighborhoods.
In a first reading ,council approved the sale of a narrow strip of city property bordered by Conestoga Street and Route 378 to Skyline West, LLC and company, in which Jeff Parks is a partner. Parks is the founder of MusikFest and former executive director of ArtsQuest. The sale of the property for $30,000 will allow Parks and his partners to proceed with plans to build multi-family residential housing on the narrow ridgeline overlooking Monocacy Creek and the Colonial section of Bethlehem behind the Hotel Bethlehem. Plans call for 50 luxury apartments to be built.
In other business the council heard that the state of Pennsylvania will give a $250,000 grant to the City of Bethlehem to be used to by ArtsQuest to redevelop the Banana Factory at 25 West Third Street in Bethlehem. This a recurring grant annually for the next two decades.
According to the resolution, “the sum of $250,000 shall be distributed annually for a period of 20 years.” ArtsQuest owns the Banana Factory.
The Council approved administrative orders from the Mayor appointing citizens to various authorities and commissions. Graig Schultz was appointed to the Bethlehem Human Relations Commission; Robert A. Melosky was appointed to the City Planning Commission and Vince Gentilcore and Nik Nikolov were appointed the Fine Arts Commission. Dennis Cunerd was appointed to the Redevelopment Authority and Joe Narevic and Mari Giradot were appointed to the Sister City Commission.