The Bethlehem Planning Commission voted tonight to approve the controversial land development plan to expand the Elias Farmers Market, in Northeast Bethlehem, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the project is any closer to getting done.
An appeal by neighbors who oppose the plan still awaits action in Northampton County Court and could take until May before it is heard, said Joseph Piperato, the attorney who represents the store, who spoke to the commission during its monthly meeting.
Piperato was there specifically to ask the commission to take the plan off the table and vote on it, saying his clients had reconsidered their decision in February to grant a 90-day extension on the board’s legal deadline to make a decision.
He said the store owners felt “pressured” to agree to the extension at the previous meeting. Piperato further argued that if the neighbors want to appeal the decision, there is a legal means to do it, but arguing the case in front of the Planning Commission is not proper.
Finally, he argued that the board has no legal reason to deny the appeal and needs to make a decision. “We feel that the Elias Market has been treated somewhat unfairly by the process,” Piperato said.
Commissioner James Fiorentino had advocated delaying a decision on the project until after the court appeal had been decided because if the court overturns the Zoning Hearing Board’s most recent decision, the planners would have to review an entirely different project.
Commission Chairman Lawrence Krauter said he hoped setting the decision aside would provide further encouragement for both sides to reach some compromise they both would find acceptable. At the February meeting, Krauter had the last ballot to cast – with the vote deadlocked at 2-2 to reject the plan – to encourage Elias to consider allowing another extension.
“It’s not going to be resolved amicably the way it appears now,” said Piperato, who told the board that he has received from neighbors a list of seven conditions they want to drop the appeal. “The delay has emboldened people to the point where the list of conditions has gotten longer.”
“If you’re going to deny it – and I’m not trying to be a wise guy here – you should deny it and cite the specific reason in the law,” he said. “Then we’ll proceed with an appeal.”
Neighbors, some of whom were on hand, argued that the planners do have a legal leg to stand on in denying the application on the basis of the safety, health and welfare of the neighbors, who allege that truck fumes and noise have been disruptive and that an expansion from one loading dock to three would only make it worse.
Guishu Fang, the closest neighbor to the store, reiterated that the new loading bays would be 25 feet from her house if they are approved. “It’s outrageous,” she said.
Under the city’s zoning law, the market is considered a nonconforming use because it is located in a rural residential zone at the corner of Linden Street and Johnston Drive. The city's zoning law prohibits buildings with grandfathered nonconforming uses from expanding by more than 50 percent over the life of their use
But with the proposed expansion, the store’s size would increase to 19,279 square feet, nearly four times the size it was originally when it operated as a roadside stand to sell fruits and vegetables from an adjoining 18-acre orchard, which has long since been plowed under to make way for residential development.
Neighbor opponents have argued that in the intervening years, the store has somehow managed to more than double in size, though the city shows no record of any zoning or building permits to do so.
The Planning Commission’s vote was 3-1 in favor of plan approval, with Krauter, casting the lone dissenting vote. Fiorentino had to leave the meeting before the vote was cast. Voting for the plan was Katie Lynch, Stephen Thode and Andrew Twiggar.