Donchez cracks down on rentals
Bethlehem Mayor Robert Donchez responded to criticism of the apparent lack of enforcement of the new ordinance restricting the use of private residences as short-term rentals Sept. 18 at the city council’s meeting.
“Effective this weekend,” said Donchez, “there will be an increase in monitoring and enforcement of short-term lodging facilities throughout the city. We will now have on-call and proactive monitoring of our short-term lodging ordinance on Thursday and Friday evenings, as well as on Saturday and Sunday.”
The mayor encouraged the public to call the city’s non-emergency number, 610-865-7187 and speak with a dispatcher, leaving your name and phone number so an inspector can call you back to assess the situation. He said the inspectors will be available to come out to the site, gather evidence, and cite new violators of this ordinance. Questions during regular business hours should be directed to Mike Simonson, chief building inspector, 610-865-7091.
While citations may speed up, prosecutions for violations of the law remain slowed pending the outcome of an existing lawsuit brought by a property owner against the city.
The ordinance was designed to regulate the boom in local homes being rented out to weekend or other short-term renters, usually through Airbnb, the web-based room rental company.
Steve Diamond, a home owner with a house on Center Street, suggested that the ordinance looked like Catch-22. He said he thought the fines allowed by the ordinance would simply be accepted by violators as a cost of doing business and would not be a deterrent.
“We need fines that will cripple the offender,” said Diamond. “Put more ordinances in place with high fines for those who scoff at the law.”
In other business, council approved 7-0 the revised fireworks ordinance, which now sets the allowable hours for consumer fireworks at 9 a.m to 9 p.m.
The reasons given for the change was council’s belief “that sudden or repeating late-night noise and visual disturbances” from lighting off fireworks “are detrimental to the physical, mental, and social well-being of city residents as well as to their comfort, living conditions, general welfare and safety, and peaceful enjoyment of their residences.”
The ordinance also prohibits ignition of consumer fireworks on or from property owned by the City of Bethlehem, which includes sidewalks, parks, buildings or other property.
Penalties for violations for the first offense is a fine of $50 to $100; for a second offense – $100 to $300; and for third and each subsequent violation – $500 to $1,000 or 30 days imprisonment or both.
The general obligation note for $1, 785,000 was passed 5–2 by council. Councilwoman Dr. Paige Van Wirt and Councilwoman Olga Negrón opposed the measure which is ear-marked for improvements at the Bethlehem Golf Club. Van Wirt had in the previous meeting argued that she didn’t think the club’s business plan justified the investment. She reminded the administration that some costs are picked up by the city. For example, she said taxpayers pick up the tab for an annual water bill of $150,000.
Among other objections was one pointing out that the bill will be $2.6 million once the money has been paid back.
City Business Manager Eric Evans explained that the golf club is generally not funded by taxpayers.
Resident Barbara Diamond, in an email, echoed Councilwoman Van Wirt’s position: “Golf is in decline across the U. S. and even around the world. I am concerned that investing so much in the golf course is not going to solve the problem of profitability. Interest in golf has been declining for almost two decades because it, is according to surveys, too slow, takes too much time, costs too much, is too difficult to play especially for beginners and is seen by millennials as just not cool.”
Councilman Bryan Callahan, however said, “Golf, on a national level, is popular.”
One attendee who golfs at the Bethlehem Golf Club but wanted to remain anonymous argued that the popularity of golf was evident because golf was re-introduced to the 2016 Olympic Games even though the last time golf was an Olympic sport in the Summer Olympics was 1904. He also pointed out that golfers at the Bethlehem Golf Club are not elitist, as one speaker from the audience implied. He said most of the players are working class. He said there are also talented minority children playing golf in the Lehigh Valley.
Also related to funding for golf, council approved two resolutions to seek $450,000 in grant money from the Pa. Department of Community and Economic Development. The grant money, if received, will be used to improve the golf course.
In other business, council approved mayoral re-appointments to the Fine Arts Commission: Silagh M. C. White, Richard Begbie and Alison Gillespie.
Council also unanimously approved re-appointments of Lee Snyder and Salvatore Verrastro to the Codes Board of Appeals.