Bethlehem Press

Monday, October 21, 2019

Camel Hump Farm issue resumes Sept. 25

Tuesday, September 17, 2019 by Lani Goins Special to the Bethlehem Press in Local News

Three hours was not enough time to resolve a zoning decicion appeal at the Aug. 28 meeting.

Victoria Bastidas, president of the Friends of Johnston Inc. and caretaker of the property at 1311 Santee Mill Road, was appealing a denial of a use permit for Camel’s Hump Farm on the Johnson Estate.

The appeal, continued from May, contained two issues: Whether the appeal should be granted because the proposed use of the property falls within its already defined use, or otherwise, asking for a variance for the proposed use of an environmental education center/childcare facility. Bastidas and the Friends of Johnson were represented by attorney David Berger.

Bastidas presented her case with several exhibits. She described the property’s three buildings, detailed her educational credentials and offered examples of other such centers.

Attorney James Preston, representing a neighbor opposed to proposal, objected on the grounds of hearsay.

Basitidas said the information was being presented because there is no definition of an environmental education center in the zoning code.

Bastidas’ plans for the property center around a school year operation for children ages three to six. Tuition from the preschool would potentially go to the upkeep of the entire property, and she suggested expanding a summer camp to 14,000 students as an alternative fundraiser.

Preston then represented an opposing view by one Allen Smith, asking about complaints and activities at 1311, to which Bastidas responded the only complaint was made on Facebook by Smith himself, regarding acres beyond the scope of the hearing, and the only activity in the past two years has been building restoration and birdwatching.

Certificates of occupancy were issued in 2017 and 2018, and Bastitas lives on the property with a roommate.

Preston pointed out that if you go to the Friends of Johnston website, there is a link to the Camel’s Hump Farm Nature Preschool. The preschool page lists operating hours and tuition rates for full-time and part-time students. Basitas said that the page was set up by a volunteer, and the preschool is not yet in operation.

“What are the state requirements?” Preston asked. Bastidas said there were no state regulations governing summer care.

“Your center qualifies as a daycare center,” Preston said. Bastidas replied that daycare centers do not have a curriculum, and her center provides curriculum.

Bastidas then answered an array of questions from board members.

She said she has completed the coursework, but needs a certificate of occupancy and inspection before she can receive her license to operate a school year center, and her curriculum is not regulated by the state, but was written “in line with Pennsylvania standards for environmental education,” following guidelines for early childhood education and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Bastidas was emphatic that her center will be an Environmental Education Center and not a traditional preschool or daycare.

Public questions came next.

Colleen Lidon of Easton asked what plans existed for the property prior the Bastidas’ purchase.

“A strip mall; no land trust wanted this project,” Bastidas responded.

Howard Goldstein, of Santee Mill Road, asked if Bastidas recalled conversations with him about her dog and goats. Bastidas responded that new gates are being installed. Goldstein also brought up traffic concerns.

Deborah Goldstein asked about a lack of communication about the center’s plans with neighbors. Basitidas explained there were yard signs and flyers and information on the website. “An Environmental Education Center is very different than the daycares, by definition, 50 percent of a child’s time is spent outside … a ton of benefits,” said Lorraine Lidon of Easton. “We need to change what we are doing (to educate children) and that is what Vicky (Bastidas) is doing.”

Katie Taylor, owner of a small farm in Bethlehem, spoke of her work with children at the center.

“I have two students with autism; no broken bones, amazing improvements in interactions with friends,” she said.

The board asked for a legal definition of the issue at hand.

“The reason we are here is to consider zoning relief that will allow Ms. Bastidas to operate a daycare,” said Preston. “This is relevant because it (the property) is in an RR district, ‘To provide for low density neighborhoods, single family dwellings.’ A daycare is not permitted under RR. I don’t believe the ordinance allows it. Concerning a use variance, when you consider what to follow, what is relevant is the ordinance.”

“The problem we have here is there is no definition of an environmental education center, said attorney Berger. “The accessory use is a daycare. She [Bastidas] has gone through the city every step of the way. We are asking you to define what an Environmental Education Center is.”

Following nearly 40 minutes of discussion, Board Chair William Fitzpatrick announced that deliberations were terminated for the evening and would resume Sept. 25. Both sides’ attorneys were asked to submit supporting case law for composite use, when no definition was present in ordinance, by 4 p.m. Sept. 11. A final decision would be issued 30 days after Sept 25.