Written by Dan Miller
The matter of whether to allow a crematory as a permitted use at the Fager-Finkenbinder Funeral Home at 208 N. Union St. in downtown Middletown is heading for Dauphin County Court.
The Middletown Zoning Hearing Board on Tuesday July 26 voted 1-1 in deciding an appeal that crematory opponents had filed of the use permit that was granted to the funeral home in June 2015 by former borough zoning officer Jeff Miller.
A split vote means that the appeal is rejected and the permit stands as issued, said David Wion, solicitor for the zoning board. The board has three members, but Tom Germak recused himself after witnesses called by lawyers for the funeral home testified that Germak had made comments suggesting he was biased against the crematory.
The opponents will appeal the board's ruling to county court, Aanon Martin, lawyer for the opponents, said immediately following the announcement of the split decision.
"This vote shows the danger of proceeding with a board of only two rather than three," Martin said. "We believe we were 100 percent correct under the law, and the appellants will continue with this onto the court of common pleas and we will ask a judge to overturn this result."
Travis Finkenbinder, president/owner of the Fager-Finkenbinder funeral home in Middletown as well as four other funeral homes in the surrounding area, declined comment, saying he had been advised by his attorney not to speak.
Mark Daush, a lawyer for the funeral home, also declined comment on the board's action.
The zoning board did not deliberate during the meeting, as it had already done so in private on the morning of July 13.
Instead, following a brief recap of the case, board member Donald Graham introduced a motion to deny the opponents' appeal on grounds that it had not been filed in a timely fashion -- within 30 days of Miller issuing the permit in June 2015.
Chairman Jack Still called for a vote. Graham voted to deny the appeal, but Still voted against Graham's motion, resulting in the 1-1 tie.
A written version of the decision is to be issued on or before Aug. 16 to all parties involved, including the borough, Wion said.
About 35 residents attended the zoning board meeting, and council chambers was lined with signs against the crematory that have become familiar sights in many yards throughout the borough.
"You've destroyed our town so that this man can make a little money," said David Lenker, who lives in Middletown in the first block of Shirley Drive.
The crematory will be five feet from fruit trees and a garden that Jessica Hunt uses to grow food for her family, said Hunt, who lives in the 100 block of North Pine Street. A neighbor grows food in the garden for needy families, Hunt said.
"How much money are the poor people of Middletown going to have to spend to keep appealing this type of thing?" Hunt said, addressing Finkenbinder. "I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Why don't you put a crematory next to your house?"
Fager-Finkenbinder in October 2015 filed an application for an air quality permit to operate the crematory at the site from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. DEP is continuing to review the application.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 27 July 2016 12:38
Written by Dan Miller
Borough Council publicly interviewed four residents from Middletown’s First Ward who are interested in replacing Robert Louer Sr. on July 19.
Council is expected to pick one of the applicants to fill the vacant seat during council’s next meeting Aug. 3 — unless council moves forward with a proposal by Mayor James H. Curry III to reduce the size of council (see related article).
Six First Ward residents applied, and four were interviewed July 19: Richard Jefferies, Rachelle Reid, David Scully, and Cathy Winter. Tom Strohm and Sean Vaccarino were unable to attend.
Council also set the timetable for filling a second empty seat — the one representing the Third Ward vacated by the resignation of Ed Shull. Council accepted Shull’s resignation July 19.
Interested Third Ward residents have until Aug. 1 to apply to the borough to fill Shull's seat. Council plans to fill the seat during its Aug. 16 meeting.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 July 2016 15:15
Written by Eric Wise
The reconstruction of the bridge that carries Route 230 over Swatara Creek from Middletown into Londonderry Township will take longer than expected, PennDOT officials have said.
“The Route 230 bridge project over the Swatara Creek will not wrap up in October as originally scheduled,” said Greg Penny, PennDOT spokesman. “It is likely to run into at least late spring of next year.”
Construction crews began demolition for the first phase of the project late in 2015, closing the 75-year-old bridge’s eastbound and pedestrian lanes.
The crumbling decking and rusted girders were removed and replaced on the eastbound lanes. A 2015 inspection of the old bridge rated both the decking and substructure of the bridge as 4 of 10, or “poor,” indicating a structurally deficient bridge.
The project was first delayed by having the bridge beams fabricated and delivered, Penny said.
“It could be that there is so much bridge work going on, that the fabricators are having trouble keeping up with demand and making their deliveries on time,” he said.
Additional delays occurred in technical aspects of project, concerning “tolerance issues with the beams and issues with the proposed deck grades,” Penny said.
Construction has proceeded to where the concrete for the bridge decking was poured July 20, Penny said. The concrete must cure and PennDOT must complete the moving of underground utility lines before construction moves to Phase 2. At that point, demolition will begin at the end of August or beginning of September of the westbound lanes on the remaining old section of the bridge.
“Swatara Creek Road will remain closed until the bridge is restored to two lanes next year,” Penny said.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 July 2016 15:12
Written by Dan Miller
Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III wants to act now to reduce the size of council from nine to seven as well as get rid of the wards in favor of at-large representation.
But he may not have the votes, based upon a poll of current councilors.
Curry said if the reduction is done now, then council would not have to fill two seats that are vacant. Councilor Robert Louer Sr. resigned effective July 1, creating a vacancy for the First Ward. Council on July 19 accepted the resignation of Ed Shull, meaning it has to fill a seat for the Third Ward.
To Curry, the two open seats mean it is the perfect time to reduce the size of council from nine to seven, as this would mean no current councilors would lose their seats. Curry said the council is too large for a town the size of Middletown, with 8,900 residents.
He said the system of requiring that three people on council be elected to represent each of the three wards is outdated. In a time when people have cellphones, email and Facebook, you no longer need to have someone living in your own neighborhood to represent you, the mayor contends. At-large councilors would serve the entire borough without restrictions on where they live.
Support is scattered
But the seven-member council is split on the issue. Council President Ben Kapenstein told the Press And Journal he agrees with Curry and is in favor of reducing the size of council and getting rid of the wards now — a change that council can make at any time by passing an ordinance.
The change is supported by Council Vice President Damon Suglia and by First Ward Councilor Dawn Knull.
However, three other councilors — Anne Einhorn, Diana McGlone and Ian Reddinger — oppose making the change now, although all three say the idea is worth further study.
Reddinger said he favors the idea, but wants more input to see how his residents from the Second Ward feel.
“If most of the Second Ward said no, I would vote on their behalf, even though I feel it is a smart move,” Reddinger said.
Einhorn and McGlone both favor putting the issue on the ballot as a referendums, although that could not be done until 2017.
The council can’t take a final vote on a change to its makeup at its next meeting, which is Aug. 3. A council member at the Aug. 3 meeting would have to make a motion to draft a proposal. The soonest a vote could take place would be its meeting after that.
Shouldn’t be a ‘whim’
Curry brought up the issue during council’s July 19 meeting and said that he had discussed reducing the size of council and getting rid of the wards with Solicitor Adam Santucci and with “every council member” at one time or another.
But McGlone afterward told the Press And Journal the first she had heard of it was when Curry brought it up at the meeting.
“We have no legal opinion. The solicitor wasn’t even there (during the July 19 meeting), there’s been no background done no research done,” McGlone said. “You cannot continue to demand motions or actions without any thought process behind it.”
“You need to chart a course of action and plan for these things and do the proper research and analysis, so when you do come out we have the facts, we have the statistics to back it up that council should do this,” McGlone said. “It’s a lengthy process, not something that can occur on a whim, because you don’t know all the ramifications that could follow.”
Council’s seventh member, longtime mayor and now First Ward Councilor Robert Reid, said during the July 19 meeting that the ward system has served residents well for generations and he sees no reason for change.
Reid also contended that getting rid of the wards would essentially disenfranchise residents of the First Ward.
“When you say we are going to select from at large, then you have everyone coming from one end of the town,” Reid said. “People in this end of the town are not going to be happy with their representation because they have no representation.”
‘We are far too big’
Curry did come to the July 19 meeting with statistics to support his contention that Middletown has too many elected officials for a town its size, compared to other area municipalities.
For example, Hummelstown has about 2,500 people and is served by a five-member council, Curry said. Londonderry Township has about 5,200 people and is governed by five elected officials, Lower Swatara Township has five board members for about 8,200 residents, Elizabethtown Borough has six elected officials for a town of about 11,000, and just seven elected officials govern Swatara Township, which has about 23,000 residents.
Derry Township, home of one of the biggest tourist attractions in the state if not the entire country, has just five supervisors to govern almost 25,000 residents, Curry said. Even the state capital of Harrisburg with nearly 50,000 people only needs seven councilors, the mayor added.
“We are far too big,” Curry said of the nine-member council. “I think it adds to the length of meetings. It’s difficult to have 10 people (nine councilors plus the mayor) giving their opinions. I think we could be much more efficient with less people.”
This wasn’t the first time in recent months that Curry has pushed for a smaller council. Earlier this year in arguing for getting rid of the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority, Curry said that with nine members council has enough people to handle economic development issues — if all nine councilors would pull their weight.
As for the wards, besides his contention that they are outdated, Curry said that the current system makes it harder to fill council vacancies, and to get people elected to the council in general.
The number of people truly interested in serving on council from throughout the entire town is probably no more than about 50, Curry said.
“You are limiting your talent pool when you say we have two vacancies and we have to take them from the First or Third Ward,” both of which have been “decimated” by a loss of residents since the 2011 flooding, Curry said during the July 19 meeting. “What if the most talented people are in the Second Ward? You are really limiting what choices you have because you are forcing a choice in a ward simply because you have to.”
Knull lent support to Curry’s contention regarding a loss of population in the First Ward.
“We have lost seven to eight blocks if not more” not just from the flooding but from properties acquired by Harrisburg International Airport through HIA’s noise abatement program, Knull said. That’s “at least 60 people we’ve lost.”
Moreover, Knull said that she responds to the concerns of all borough residents, regardless of whether they live in the First Ward.
“If I am going to work for the entire community, then why not let the entire community make a vote for me?” Knull asked.
Suglia, in comments after the meeting, told the Press And Journal that the ward system creates artificial boundaries that “further divide the town.”
“We are all equal in this town,” he said. “Not one person is better than another due to income level or social status. We are all one and we are all here to achieve a common goal of moving forward. The way to do that is to make us one town, not three separate wards. We were elected by the people to make these types of changes.”
Suglia also found it ironic that Reid said there is no problem with the ward system — noting that the former mayor felt it necessary to wage a write-in campaign to give First Ward voters a choice beyond the two candidates who were on the ballot.
“He’s a perfect example of why there shouldn’t be any wards,” Suglia said.
‘Like a slap in the face’
McGlone lashed out at Curry during the meeting for bringing up the issue on a night when four people from the First Ward had shown up to be interviewed to fill Louer’s seat. Six First Ward residents applied in all, but two were unable to make the meeting.
“If I had known that this s--- was going to occur right before these people who have volunteered their time to step up to serve this council that this was going to occur now, I would not have come and been the fifth person to make a quorum,” McGlone said. “If you want to do something like this that’s fine (but) this is not the time to do it.”
One of the six applicants seeking Louer’s seat — David Scully — called Curry’s comments “elitist.”
“I took real offense to the comment that maybe some wards have more talent than others. It seemed to be a swipe at the First Ward,” Scully said. “Maybe you (Curry) want people you and your friends from your neighborhood to run the town.”
“It’s like a slap in my face,” said Rachelle Reid, another First Ward applicant seeking to replace Louer.
She said many residents in the First Ward don’t use computers or cellphones or social media but still prefer “to walk right up to my front door and knock on it” if they have a concern.
“You’re going to have to let the residents make that choice” and let voters decide in a ballot referendum whether they want to keep the wards or go with an at-large system.
Curry’s comments also touched a nerve with Kay Wealand, a lifelong resident of the First Ward.
“We have always been considered the trash of Middletown because we live below the tracks,” she said. “I resent that. I resent that from the bottom of my heart and if I hear anybody say it I will tell them publicly, because I pay taxes to this town, I keep my property up to speed, and I don’t think that the First Ward would get the proper representation if you eliminated the wards.”
Curry then tried to say he didn’t mean to suggest that the First Ward doesn’t have as much to offer as the rest of the town — but that the ward system in general makes it harder to attract the best candidates for council, regardless of where they live.
“You limit your talent is what I said. Maybe all the talented people are in the First Ward,” the mayor said.
Kapenstein during the meeting offered a third option — keep the three wards but reduce council to seven members. Two councilors would come from each of two wards, but the ward with the largest population would have three councilors, Kapenstein said.
As the numbers stand, that would mean three councilors from the Second Ward — which Kapenstein represents — as the Second Ward is the largest of the three wards with 41 percent of the borough’s population, as of U.S. Census data that was used by the state to set House and Senate districts throughout Pennsylvania in 2012.
The First Ward has about 31 percent of the borough population; the Third Ward is now the smallest with about 28 percent of residents.
However, Kapenstein in speaking to the Press And Journal after the July 19 meeting said he would favor passing an ordinance now to get rid of the wards and to reduce the size of council.
He said that most residents he has heard from since the issue surfaced are in favor of making the change.
“The more people on council, the harder it is to get things done,” he said. He believes waiting for a referendum will take too long, in that even if voters opt for a change in 2017 it will be 2019 before it goes into effect.
“Right now is the perfect time because nobody would get taken off,” he added.
Einhorn said while she is open to the idea that change may be needed, she pointed to the six people from the First Ward applying for Louer’s seat.
“When you’ve got six people who are willing to serve on council then I don’t see where we have a complaint about not being able to fill seats,” she said.
She also doesn’t think that reducing council by two members will make things more efficient, because in Einhorn’s view the longer meetings don’t have to do with the size of council.
Instead, it has to do with residents being given more of a voice than they had over the past four years under the council led by former President Chris McNamara, Einhorn said.
Moreover, the new council is “probably more concerned with details” than the former council was, also adding to the length of meetings, Einhorn said.
“We want to know everything about an issue before we vote on it. If that’s what it takes to deal with the issues we inherited that are pretty complicated, then that’s what it takes,” she said.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 July 2016 14:32
Written by Dan Miller
Tattered Flag - the partnership converting the Elks Building in downtown Middletown into a combined brewery/distillery/brew pub - now also wants to partner with the nonprofit group Friends of the Elks Theatre to reopen the theater, which has been closed since April 2015.
That announcement came from Mike Dalton with the Friends group during a meeting held by Middletown Borough Council in the MCSO Building on Thursday July 21 to get input from residents on what they want done with the theater.
Coming through loud and clear is that residents want the Elks Theatre re-opened, not just as a theater but as a multi-functioning venue that would also host concerts, comedians, plays and the like.
About 40 residents attended the meeting, which started with a brief tour of the theater which is just down the block from the MCSO on West Emaus Street.
Several speakers noted that the Elks Theatre is the second oldest continuously operating movie theater in the United States, and for that reason alone should be preserved as a theater.
So with the question of what people want to see done with the theater apparently settled, the issue remains how to make that happen.
Estimates of how much money will be needed to reopen the theater now range from the $370,000 proposal submitted to the borough by the Friends of the Elks group, to new estimates running close to $1.3 million that were presented to council during tonight's meeting.
The Friends of the Elks proposal is actually more like $500,000, when the cost of redoing bathrooms is added in. Friends of the Elks has proposed operating the theater and leasing it from the borough for 10 years. The group says the borough should continue to own the theater.
The Friends group is looking to the borough to invest the money to reopen the theater, although the group has pledged to assist with fundraising and seeking grants.
Tattered Flag partnering with the Friends group was one of several new possibilities for reopening the Elks Theatre that emerged during the meeting - although no one stepped forward with any oversized checks or with a definitive plan for how to come up the money.
Tattered Flag has received a $1.5 million loan from the borough toward the brewery/distillery/brew pub, including $400,000 to purchase all of the Elks Building from the borough except for the Elks Theatre. The remaining $1.1 million is going toward converting the Elks Building space into the combined brewery/distillery/brew pub.
The offer from Tattered Flag for entering into a partnership came "out of the blue" within the past 24 hours, said Dalton.
Members of the Tattered Flag partnership could not attend the meeting, and details of the proposed arrangement were not presented.
But Dalton said Tattered Flag is interested in "teaming up" with Friends of the Elks to "co-operate" the theater. Tattered Flag is looking to the theater as a venue for live concerts and entertainment that could be done in conjunction with the brewery/distillery operation next door, Dalton said.
He read a statement from Tattered Flag partner Ben Ramsey saying that A.P. Williams, a construction company, could go through the theater and provide "the true costs" of what it will take to reopen the theater as a multi-functioning entertainment venue. A.P. Williams is the company doing the renovations in the rest of the Elks Building for the Tattered Flag project.
Council also heard a presentation from Jonathan Crist, an attorney living in Conewago Twp. who operated the Elks Theatre from February 1986 to October 2005.
Crist offered to lease the theater from the borough and operate it, if the theater can be properly restored. He estimated the job at $1.26 million, with construction costs totaling $840,000 and the rest for engineering and equipment. He did not offer to help pay for the project.
Phil Bennett, a singer and entertainer who lives on Ann Street, said that entertainers from all over the country would flock to the Elks Theatre to do shows, if the facility was properly showcased and marketed.
Bennett said he will give a free concert as a first step toward raising the money needed to reopen the theater. He said he planned to reach out to Tattered Flag and to The Event Place on South Union Street on Friday to start making the arrangements.
Several other speakers said there should be plenty of grants available that the borough can go after from federal and state governments and from corporations to help fund whatever amount of money is needed.
"Obviously we have some passion in this room. Passion is what it takes," said Chris Davis, who lives in the first block of North Union Street diagonally across from the Elks. "The borough and the community need to work together. Wouldn't this be a great story if we could pull this off?"
"To me it's obvious now. Everybody seems to be on the same page. They want the Elks Theatre," Council President Ben Kapenstein said after the meeting. "Council seems to want it, the public seems to want it, now it's about how we deliver it….we need to find a way to protect the taxpayers as much as possible, and to make sure that every dollar that is spent is spent in a good way and that we are not over-spending and spending beyond our means."
Last Updated on Thursday, 21 July 2016 21:59