Written by Eric Wise
Two neighbors who initially supported Lee Dickerson’s plans to build a restaurant, stores, an office building and a hotel along North Union Street now oppose the project.
A hearing before Lower Swatara Township’s three-member zoning board about whether to approve Dickerson’s application for two variances that would allow him to develop a small part of his family farm will continue Monday, Oct. 31. Testimony on Wednesday, Sept. 28, lasted for more than three hours, following sessions of similar length on July 14 and Sept. 8.
Dickerson has requested a variance that would allow the commercial development of the 15.5-acre site and a second variance that would permit coverage of a larger area with impervious surfaces, areas that do not absorb water, than allowed on the land in its current usage as residential suburban. That allows the construction of parking lots.
Dickerson has argued that the property he wants to develop is not suitable for residential use any longer, mainly because of the noise from the highway and the industrial use of land on the other side of Route 283 at the FedEx facility.
Testimony on Sept. 28 focused on traffic changes that the development might cause, standards for sight distances of vehicles entering and exiting a property, and industrial development and residential development coexist.
Several residents who joined as an affected party will make statements to the board Oct. 31.
Changing his mind
Joseph Hoover, who owns 13 acres that adjoin the Dickerson property, is one of the residents who named themselves as a party to the variance application and likely will speak out against it as the hearing continues.
“I am definitely opposed to it,” Hoover told the Press And Journal. “I don’t really want a hotel, two restaurants and an office building by my house.”
“The more I think about it, the less I think of it,” Hoover said. He called the Dickerson property a “buffer” area that blocks his home and his rentals from the worst of the noise and light problems associated with living near the highway and the industrial areas.
Hoover admits that he favored Dickerson’s plans last year, when he thought there was a chance he could join the development.
“We would like to move,” he said. “Last fall there was talk about including the rest of us.”
But Hoover said he cannot sell his house now, and he does not think he will ever be able to sell the property for commercial use.
The current situation of the houses near Dickerson and Hoover’s properties may lower property values and make it a less desirable place to live, Hoover said.
“I am tired of living within 1,000 feet of six abandoned homes,” he said. Complaints to the township about these properties have not solved the problems, Hoover said.
Dickerson said his plans would remove several blighted buildings, including four unoccupied homes that are owned by Thomas Steele, from the area. The application includes two properties owned by the Dickerson family, Steele’s property and the property of the Korb family.
Ann Korb testified on behalf of the variance during first night of testimony.
Dickerson applied for the variances after he withdrew his application for rezoning the properties.
The Lower Swatara Planning Commission recommended the change in zoning following a 3-1 vote during its Dec. 17, 2015, meeting.
After speaking in favor of Dickerson during the Dec. 17, Hoover wrote to the township in support of Dickerson’s commercial use of the property in January.
“I don’t feel this area south from Route 283 is a residentially functional, residential zone,” his letter states.
Hoover confirmed Dickerson’s statements that on-lot sewage management has polluted the area. Steele also said during the hearing that his four homes have septic-related problems that cannot be easily remedied due to their proximity and the limited lot size.
“If you tear them all down and built a new home, you have no place for a septic,” Lee Dickerson said of Steele’s property.
Dickerson testified again Sept. 28, repeating his assertions that the area desperately needs public sewer and water, which has not been provided with the township. He said he has done testing on his property to see about placing on-lot sewage disposal, and it fails.
“The soil is not good,” he said.
He said recently he has had an excavator dig on the property only to find inadequate topsoil, which would fail a probe test, negating the need for a percolation test.
“It’s not rocket science,” Dickerson said.
“My well water is polluted and has been checked and has traces of fecal matter and bacteria in it,” Hoover wrote. “I had to install a water filter and sophisticated water purification system.”
“He misled us”
Timothy and Sherry Santoro signed multiple letters in support of Dickerson’s quest for commercial use of his (and neighboring) properties.
“They dropped out right before the June hearing,” Dickerson said.
At that point, Dickerson had to have new plans for the project drawn.
Sherry Santoro has spoken out against Dickerson’s project, saying she plans to continue enjoying her home in its current setting. She disputed the notion that problems with on-lot sewage disposal and dilapidated buildings have reduced neighborhood property values.
“He misled us,” Santoro said, referring to Dickerson’s plan for a hotel and office building at the site. “We were not shown any papers except the cover page (of the zoning application).”
During the current process, Dickerson must prove the need for a variance by showing a hardship for its use in its current zoning. The Santoros did not proceed to the zoning hearing with Steele, who testified that he has four houses with two failing septic systems on a one-acre lot that he cannot use or sell.
“There is no hardship for us,” Santoro said. “That’s why we couldn’t go on with this.”
Opponents up next
Zoning chairman Randall C. Breon said affected parties will make their statements Oct. 31. Both sides then will make closing statements and the hearing and its record will be closed, Breon said.
The board will then entertain a public comment period.
The board is then permitted to deliberate in private, and it will return to vote in public during a separate meeting.
Dickerson acknowledged that some people have attended the zoning hearing to condemn his plans, a group that fought against warehouses and other development in Lower Swatara.
“The group is designed to fight warehouses and now they are fighting everything,” Dickerson said.
Commercial development will bring additional revenue to the school district and township while also bringing public water and sewer to the area, Dickerson said.
In an estimation presented in 2015, the property could yield $300,000 in school taxes and $58,000 in township real estate taxes, an increase over the present $13,764 in school taxes and $2,660 in township taxes.
Dickerson said he would like to get the process moving to get some answers.
“I am the guy who pays for the mistakes and unfairness,” he said. “I did Twelve Oaks for less headaches than this.”
Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 October 2016 11:19
Written by Dan Miller
Should the borough add more police officers and if so, how many?
Does Middletown need more public works employees? If so how many?
What about code enforcement staffing, and filling the full-time codes and zoning position that has been vacant for nearly a year now?
Middletown Borough Council soon will start deliberating the 2017 budget, and there are plenty of unanswered questions and issues to be resolved. However, one thing that residents — and council — should expect is a budget process much more open and informative than that of the past few years.
The council will hold two public meetings devoted to discussing the 2017 budget, on Thursday, Nov. 3, and Monday, Nov. 7. Both will start at 6:30 p.m. in the municipal building.
Another question is whether taxes will increase. Council raised the electric rate for residents and businesses by one cent to help budget the 2016 budget.
Council President Ben Kapenstein — one of four councilors who voted against that hike — told the Press And Journal that the borough shouldn’t need an increase in the property tax or electric rate to get through 2017.
“I won’t be for it,” he said.
The borough hopes that council can adopt a tentative budget for public advertisement by Nov. 15, with final adoption by Dec. 6.
That’s an “aggressive” timetable, but an early target builds in more time at the end of the year if necessary, said Bruce Hamer, a former Middletown borough manager who in September was hired as the new finance director.
Information for council, public
Besides more information for council, Hamer and Kapenstein both want the public to have more information during this year’s budget process.
Kapenstein envisions using pie charts and graphs to better illustrate the numbers and put them in context.
Hamer wants to develop brief “narratives” to define and explain in plain language all the different funds that go into the borough budget.
He said hopes to be able to put these narratives online on the borough website, to go along with the budget when it is given tentative adoption by council.
“The goal is to be transparent,” Kapenstein said. “I want to make sure people understand where their money is being spent.”
Budget being done in house
In 2012 under the previous council led by then-President Chris McNamara, the borough was accepted into the state Early Intervention Program to fix chronic budget issues that had saddled Middletown with a deficit of $2 million to $3 million.
The borough received state grants to hire consultants, including Susquehanna Group Advisors, a firm that took over running the borough’s financial affairs and its budgeting.
Each year the borough budget was put together by Mark Morgan, a consultant with Susquehanna Group. Kapenstein, elected in 2014, chaired council’s finance committee but said he never knew what went into the budget numbers handed down by Morgan, or how they were developed.
“I always had trouble getting information,” Kapenstein said.
In 2015, McNamara and councilors aligned with him were voted out of office. The management staff put in place under McNamara left in late December, as new council leadership was about to take over.
The new council under Kapenstein has spent much of 2016 assembling a new management team, including Hamer.
Hiring Hamer was part of bringing borough financial affairs back in-house from the outside consultants, Kapenstein said.
Susquehanna Group Advisors still works for the borough, but Morgan has played no direct role in this year’s budget process, Hamer said.
Instead, the budget is “staff-driven” and developed based on input from Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter and the major department heads, Public Works Director Greg Wilsbach and Police Chief John Bey.
The borough also met with or solicited input from commissions and outside organizations that depend in part or wholly on money they get each year from the borough budget; like the Middletown Fire Department, and the Olmsted Regional Recreation Board.
“We reached out to all the agencies. I don’t think we did that before,” Kapenstein said. “To me this is the normal way a government runs a budget process.”
Big ticket items, challenges
Hamer said the borough is working toward having a draft budget ready for the first meeting on Nov. 3.
The spending plan is to be a “zero-based budget,” Kapenstein said. That means starting from scratch, instead of accepting everything in the 2016 budget as gospel and just adding money on top to cover inflation.
Every budget line item must be justified in writing by the department heads, Hamer said.
Hamer hopes the Nov. 3 and Nov. 7 meetings aren’t just number-crunching sessions but an opportunity for open discussion with council on “big ticket” issues like staffing, and any major projects councilors want to see go forward in 2017.
As of Thursday, Oct. 20, Hamer said he had not seen the budget requests from Wilsbach and Bey, so he didn’t know whether either or both are requesting more positions in the 2017 budget.
Fund balance, insurance
One item to be discussed will be deciding how much of a fund balance the borough should have. A fund balance is like a household savings account — a pot of money to fall back on in case of unexpected emergencies — as in the borough’s case the 2011 flood.
The fund balance can be a fixed flat amount or, more typically Kapenstein said, a percentage of general fund revenue.
Middletown’s current fund balance is larger than recommended, Kapenstein said. That’s a good problem, as excess money from the fund balance could go toward a one-time project like repaving Ann Street, he said.
On the negative side, the borough’s health insurance premium is going up by 51 percent in 2017 — an increase roughly equal to $300,000.
Think of what could be done with $300,000, but “that is money that is just gone” and it’s too late to do anything about it for 2017, Kapenstein said.
Otherwise, while council will continue exploring the idea of Middletown becoming part of a regional police force, the 2017 budget does not anticipate any savings from this in the year to come.
It’s “not realistic,” Kapenstein said. “Any merger that happens is going to take longer than a year. We are being conservative with this so we’re not estimating any savings from police regionalization.”
Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 October 2016 15:49
Written by Dan Miller
Go all over Middletown and you can see video surveillance cameras mounted on poles at places like Hoffer and Oak Hill parks.
You can also see big signs mounted on the park pavilions that say “Visual Monitoring in Progress.”
There’s just one problem. None of the cameras work, and they haven’t for almost three years.
The non-functioning cameras — 10 in all — are still attached to poles at Hoffer Park, Oak Hill Park, the Spruce Street electric substation, the Mill Street electric substation, and at the Municipal Building on West Emaus Street. Some of the locations have more than one camera.
According to borough Public Works Director Greg Wilsbach, the cameras were shut down in 2014 by borough staff acting under then-Council President Chris McNamara.
Wilsbach said the cameras were “powered down” about six months before July 2014, when Wilsbach resigned from his position as supervisor of the borough’s electric department.
Wilsbach subsequently ran for borough council in 2015 — defeating McNamara in the primary — but resigned his seat early in 2016 to assume his current job as borough public works director.
In minutes from an April 21, 2014, council meeting, borough resident Dawn Knull asked that the cameras in Hoffer Park be turned back on, referring to a rash of burglaries and theft that had occurred in the park. McNamara and Mayor James H. Curry III both said they were unaware of the cameras ever being turned off, according to the minutes.
The Press And Journal reached out to McNamara for further comment, but he declined.
Now, Knull is on council — having been elected in 2015. She is leading an effort to get the cameras working again.
“I have brought this up on several occasions and no one moved on it, so I took it upon myself to move on it,” Knull said in an emailed comment to the Press And Journal on Oct. 20.
Knull arranged for 2K Networking, the company that handles the borough’s information technology needs, to give a presentation to council on Oct. 18 on how the borough can get the video surveillance cameras operational again.
There’s a relatively easy fix, Josh Hinkle of 2K Networking told council. The borough will have to buy new cameras, but the system to run them is already in place at the Middletown Police Department station on East Emaus Street.
The MPD has its own system and software to run video surveillance cameras that are in use in and around the police station, Hinkle said.
The cameras that the borough had been using throughout town until 2014 will all need to be replaced, Hinkle told council. There is no longer software and hardware available on the market to support the cameras, he said.
Ten new cameras — to replace each of the ones that the borough now has, not counting those at the police station — and the associated cost to tie the new cameras into the MPD system would total about $11,750, Hinkle said.
However, this estimate appeared to depend upon much of the work to extend fiber optic cabling being done in-house by Wilsbach’s public works crew. But Wilsbach indicated that due to cuts that occurred under McNamara, the department no longer has the assets and manpower to do extensive fiber optic cabling work.
The replacement cameras suggested by Hinkle would have night-vision capability and be motion-activated, he said.
The borough isn’t restricted to just replacing the cameras at the current locations, Hinkle said.
The borough needs more than 10 video surveillance cameras and at more locations, Curry said.
“I think there are other areas of town that could use some attention,” he said.
Council needs to hear from Police Chief John Bey regarding how many cameras there should be in the borough, and where, said Councilor Ian Reddinger.
The time to get that input is now, so that all the cameras can be put in place at one time, instead of doing it piecemeal, which adds to the cost, Reddinger added.
“I would like to see the borough spend the money once, have one system and then be done with it,” he said.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 October 2016 15:46
Last Updated on Tuesday, 25 October 2016 15:44
Written by Dan Miller
Middletown's downtown streetscape project finally might be coming to a close, with a target date of Oct. 25 set to reopen the intersection of South Union and Ann streets (Route 441).
The intersection has been closed to traffic since Oct. 3 for workers to wrap up the last phase of the streetscape project, which includes aesthetic improvements in the downtown from Spring and North Union south to Union and Ann.
Inspectors from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation are to do a walk- through inspection of the Union and Ann street intersection on Oct. 25, including a new traffic light that is being installed, said Greg Wilsbach, Middletown director of public works.
The traffic light at Union and Ann will be on flash starting Oct. 25 until Friday, Oct. 28, when the signal is to be fully operational, Wilsbach said.
In the meantime, motorists using the detour now in place for Ann and Union are reminded to stop at all stop signs and be aware of school bus stops that are in the area.
Otherwise, South Union Street from Brown to Ann is to be closed to all vehicular traffic throughout this entire week — Oct. 17-21 — so that the street can be re-paved as part of the downtown streetscape, borough officials say.
The closure was to go into effect Monday afternoon and remain until sometime Friday, Wilsbach told the Press And Journal.
Parking is not to be allowed on this stretch of South Union during the closure, but people can park for free in the lot behind the Municipal Building on West Emaus Street.
With the repaving of South Union and reopening of the intersection with Ann, about all that is left of the downtown streetscape is planting new trees.
The tree replanting was expected to start sometime this week.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 18 October 2016 16:08