Tensions Continue to Boil at Zoning Hearing Board
Quasi judicial body rebuffs city council candidate's request to be an "interested party."
Tensions from a continuing dispute between a neighborhood activist and the Bethlehem Zoning Hearing Board continued to heat at a slow boil Wednesday night at Town Hall.
Al Bernotas, best known around City Hall for his ongoing battle with the city’s zoning office over the proposed expansion of the Elias Farmers Market in his northeast Bethlehem neighborhood, was at the Zoning meeting, not to object to any plan on the table, but to be registered as an “interested party” for every case before the board.
Bernotas told the board that he intends to be notified of every Zoning Hearing Board decision when it is issued. But the board refused to recognize Bernotas as an interested party on the grounds that it would create an undue bureaucratic burden on the board’s solicitor, Mickey Thompson.
A recognized “interested party” is entitled to receive a notification letter when Thompson issues the board’s official written opinion.
Right after the discussion, when the board briefly exited the room to privately deliberate the first case, board member Ken Kraft could be heard whispering to himself: “Asshole.”
Earlier, while the board discussed whether Bernotas should be recognized, Kraft accused Bernotas of “grandstanding.” Bernotas countered by accusing Kraft of the same.
“I think this is getting out of hand,” said board Chairman Gus Loupos. “I have polled the board and they do not want to allow you to be an interested party.”
Kraft, chairman of the Northampton County Election Commission, is a Democratic candidate to be Bethlehem’s representative on Northampton County Council. Bernotas is a Republican running for Bethlehem City Council.
Bernotas is also executive director of the Bethlehem Homeowners Association, a group of Northeast Bethlehem neighbors who came together to fight the proposed expansion of a grocery store at the corner of Linden Street and Johnston Drive.
That group’s second appeal of the Zoning Hearing Board’s most recent ruling to allow the expansion currently awaits a decision in Northampton County Court. Bernotas has meanwhile been a persistent and sometimes strident critic of the board.
Thompson made the case to stop Bernotas’s request, citing the extra time for himself and the extra expense to the city issuing the extra notice. But the solicitor acknowledged that there is nothing in the city’s zoning law that defines who can be registered as an “interested party” at a board hearing.
However, board members noted that the case being considered is not in Bernotas’s neighborhood
“Interested parties” do not get copies of the opinion, but they do receive a letter from the solicitor informing them that the decision has been rendered and that a copy of that opinion is available for public review in the city’s zoning office.
“It’s an unfortunate circumstance that a 44-cent stamp is too much of an administrative burden,” Bernotas observed.
Loupos, meanwhile, tried to make clear to the media in the room that the point was not to prevent Bernotas to speak on any issue before the board.
“We do not stifle anyone from speaking,” Loupos said. “We let people speak and speak and speak and speak. I hope this is not interpreted as not allowing Mr. Bernotas to speak.”
Editor's Note: In the earlier version of the story, Ken Kraft's name was misspelled.