By Cayla Garman
What is freedom? If you were to ask anybody, anywhere, you would get a lot of different answers depending on that person’s heritage, personal beliefs and personal experiences. To America, freedom may mean standing for the pledge, or going to a parade. To me, however, freedom is finding peace in being able to execute a basic human right without fear of consequences.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 15:39
Written by Eric Wise
Property owners will make their case to Lower Swatara Twp.’s Zoning Hearing Board on Thursday, June 9 to allow a business park along North Union Street in the township just south of the ramp to Route 283.
Six existing lots would be combined under an application that property owners made for a variance to allow commercial development in an area now zoned for residential suburban, said Bob Greene, the township’s planning and zoning coordinator.
Two restaurants, a hotel, an office building and one retail building would be eventually built on the site, which covers nearly 20 acres, according to the conceptual plans submitted with the zoning application. The zoning board will begin its hearing on the application at 7 p.m. on June 9.
One of the property owners involved, Lee Dickerson, filed applications last year to have his property rezoned to commercial highway to allow this type of development. The township’s planning commission discussed his application three times, but Dickerson withdrew the applications in both instances.
Dickerson’s representatives argued before the planning commission that highway noise makes the land unsuitable for housing, its current zoned use. Commercial development would also bring water and sewer to this part of the township, which Dickerson has said is needed.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 15:26
Written by Dan Miller
Work on the downtown streetscape at Emaus and Union streets will be done by the end of May or the first week of June, based on an update given recently by consulting engineers to Middletown officials.
Work will then move one block south to focus on the intersection of Brown and Emaus streets.
Contractors are hoping to finish the entire streetscape project in September. Some of the work related to planting trees and landscaping must wait until early fall because of the weather.
Changes to the project are continuing to be made by the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority, subject to approval by Middletown Borough Council.
This month, the authority and council approved a change to cover the grass strip between the curb and sidewalk on both sides of Union Street from Spring Street south to Emaus with concrete. The grass strip is now covered by black plastic. The concern was that the grass strip would not be properly maintained by all property owners along the block.
The $2.8 million contract that the authority awarded in 2015 to streetscape contractor Flyway Excavating of Lititz called for stone “pavers” to be installed in the grass strip section from Union to Spring Street. However, new authority members appointed by a new majority on council in 2016 decided against using the pavers, citing them as a maintenance headache for a borough public works staff that is already short on manpower.
The result of the change is that concrete buffers and sidewalks will run the whole way on both sides of Union south to Ann Street – except at the four corners of the intersection at Emaus and Union, where the stone pavers will be used. The change will cost the borough up to an additional $26,000, said Mayor James H. Curry III, who is also a member of the authority.
Curry believes that the borough will recoup that additional cost in the long run through less maintenance. In addition, the stone pavers that will not be used in the downtown streetscape improvement project can be used in a future project – most likely improvements to the square at Main and Union streets that are already under consideration.
The additional $26,000 will also cover the replacement of brick sidewalk running down the north side of East Emaus Street from North Union with concrete to match the other sidewalks. The property is part of the McNair House lot, which the authority owns.
Curry said that the $26,000 can be paid out of about $67,000 that the authority had received from the borough to maintain parks in Middletown. A former council majority had sought to transfer the parks from the borough to the authority, but that transfer never went through.
After covering the $26,000 for the change order, the rest of the money should be transferred back to the borough, the mayor said.
The former authority purchased the McNair House as part of a larger property on the northeast corner of North Union and East Emaus streets for $325,000 in 2014. The former authority then removed a building in front of the McNair House that used to house small businesses in anticipation of constructing a large trellis-pavilion type structure as part of the streetscape. Right now, all that is planned for the front of the McNair House is grass, although ideas continue to circulate about how the space could be devoted to some sort of public use, such as for gatherings and special events.
The authority subsequently endorsed a suggestion from Curry that the authority enter into discussions with prospective buyers of the McNair House property. Curry said he knows of two such buyers, both of whom have said they would preserve the house as it is now. The mayor did not name the prospective buyers.
The authority is also looking to entertain prospective buyers of the now-vacant space on the west side of the first block of South Union Street where the Klahr Building once stood. The borough bought the Klahr lot in 2013 and tore the building down, anticipating a future use related to the proposed streetscape improvements.
The empty lot was to serve as a pedestrian gateway connecting the downtown with the municipal parking lot. However, that idea has also since fallen out of favor with members of the current council and authority.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 15:24
Written by Dan Miller
A zoning board hearing on whether to allow a crematory at a North Union Street funeral home in downtown Middletown will resume for a third day of testimony at 6:45 p.m. on Thursday, May 26 in Borough Hall.
The Middletown Zoning Hearing Board is hearing the case to consider an appeal filed by five borough residents that challenges a determination reached in 2015 by former borough zoning officer Jeffrey Miller that the crematory would be allowed as “an accessory use” to the existing Fager-Finkenbinder Funeral Home at 208 N. Union St.
The residents are supported by a citizens’ group, known as the Middletown Citizens Awareness Network, that opposes locating the crematory at the site.
Many of those in the group live next or close to the site of the proposed crematory. The residents contend that the crematory will be a source of air and noise pollution and reduce surrounding property values.
Travis Finkenbinder, the funeral home’s owner and owner of three other funeral homes in nearby towns, thus far has made few public comments regarding the crematory.
Finkenbinder has said that the crematory is in response to rising demand from customers. Locating the crematory next to the funeral home is in response to the concerns of family members that their loved one’s remains stay within “the chain of custody” of the funeral home itself, Finkenbinder has said.
The equipment to be installed for the cremation system in Middletown is used in crematories throughout Pennsylvania, including several in Dauphin County, all of which have been approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Finkenbinder has said.
After obtaining Miller’s approval for the use in June, Fager-Finkenbinder in October applied to DEP for an air quality permit required to operate the crematory. DEP is continuing its review of the permit.
Opponents contend that state oversight of crematories in Pennsylvania is insufficient to protect the public. Crematories are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In January, opponents of the crematory went to Middletown Borough Council with their concerns. Councilors appeared sympathetic to those concerns, and on Feb. 2 voted to hire their own legal counsel and pursue a court injunction to block the crematory. However, to date no injunction has been filed.
Eight hours of testimony
In March, the zoning board agreed to hear the appeal of Miller’s ruling to permit the crematory as an “accessory use.” To date, the board has heard nearly eight hours of testimony over two nights of hearings – first on April 27 and then on May 10.
Here are the highlights so far:
• One of the board’s three members, Tom Germak, recused himself from the case after it was revealed that Germak had attended an informational public meeting on the crematory held by the citizens’ group on March 24. Germak made comments suggesting he was opposed to the crematory, according to testimony offered during the hearing.
Germak’s exit left the case to be decided by the board’s two remaining members, Chairman Jack Still and Don Graham, since council had never appointed an alternate to the board.
• Two of the five appellants, Charles Brenneman and Connie Lauffer, testified that they did not know of the crematory proposal until January, while a third, Michelle Allen, who is acting as power of attorney for her mother, Marjorie W. Rhen, testified that she didn’t know about the proposal until February.
All three expressed concern over air emissions from the crematory. Brenneman and Lauffler testified that they feared the crematory would reduce the value of their property and Allen said she feared the facility would make it more difficult to attract renters to her mother’s property, which sits about a block away from Fager-Finkenbinder.
• Ron Salvatore, a sales representative for Matthews International, the Pittsburgh-based company providing the crematory equipment, testified that the system to be installed in Middletown is the “smallest” that the company makes for human cremation.
The equipment typically supports “small volume operations” of from 100 to 300 cremations a year, or two to three a week on average, Salvatore testified.
He contended that DEP’s oversight of crematories is among the most stringent in the nation, along with New York.
• Miller, the former Middletown zoning and codes officer, testified that, contrary to news media accounts, he did not approve the zoning permit application from Fager-Finkenbinder within 24 hours of receiving it.
Miller said he met with Finkenbinder about a week before June 23, 2015, when Finkenbinder submitted his written application. Between meeting with Finkenbinder and receiving the written application, Miller testified that he completed about 12 hours of research that led him to conclude that the crematory would be an allowed accessory use to the funeral home.
Miller said much of his research involved going on the Web site of Pennsylvania’s court system to find cases pertaining to crematories. Miller testified that he did the research on his own without the help of any legal counsel.
By the time Miller received the written application from Fager-Finkenbinder, he had already concluded that the crematory would be a permitted use and was preparing a draft letter to that effect to accompany the approved permit application going to Finkenbinder.
However, Miller acknowledged under questioning that he did not consider whether the crematory would accept remains not just from the Middletown funeral home but from the three other funeral homes that Fager-Finkenbinder owns in Palmyra, Elizabethtown and Marietta.
“The definition of accessory use identifies that accessory use has to be pertinent to the principal use on that property, not other properties,” Miller testified.
Miller also testified that the approval he granted in June was the first of two that Finkenbinder would need from the borough. Finkenbinder would also need to submit building plans to be reviewed by the borough to make sure they comply with building code requirements, Miller testified.
Miller acknowledged that to a large degree he was operating in an information vacuum regarding the funeral home and the crematory.
The borough zoning ordinance has no references to a crematory. The funeral home itself is “identified” as allowed in the R-2 residential district by special exception, but Miller could find no documentation regarding when the funeral home had ever been established as a permitted use in the borough.
“What I didn’t find was an original application or any sort of documentation that identified how the funeral home use came about” at 208 N. Union St., Miller testified.
Jerry Walls, a professional planner called to testify for the appellants, acknowledged under questioning by an attorney for Fager-Finkenbinder that where the literal language in a zoning ordinance is not clear, the interpretation should favor the property owner.
However, Walls also suggested it is “advisable” for a zoning officer to consult with a solicitor in situations where the ordinance and case law are “unclear.”
Aaron Martin, an attorney for the appellants, said he may have one more witness to call when the hearing resumes on May 26. Finkenbinder himself has not yet been asked to testify by either side.
In the event of a tie vote by the board – since only two members now are hearing the case – the result would be to deny the application filed by the appellants who are appealing Miller’s ruling, according to Lyndsay Kensinger, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
In other words, the approval granted by Miller to the crematory would be allowed to stand.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 May 2016 15:46
Written by Dan Miller
A contract to begin preparing the site of the new Middletown passenger train station will be awarded this month or in early June by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, a department spokeswoman said.
PennDOT has advertised for bids for the first phase of the Amtrak station project, including the demolition of a metal frame storage building on the site along West Main Street, as well as fencing, drainage work and other site preparation, said PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt.
The first phase does not include any rail or track work. PennDOT hopes that rail and track work can begin later this year, depending upon the availability of workers from Norfolk Southern and Amtrak, Waters-Trasatt said.
The long-planned train station will be located just west of the Westporte Centre shopping center and will replace the existing Amtrak station on Mill Street.
The project also includes building a pedestrian bridge across West Main Street (Route 230) from the Penn State Harrisburg campus side to the new train station and extending West Emaus Street to West Main Street to provide a more direct route to downtown Middletown.
PennDOT officials hope to begin construction of the new station sometime in 2016. The project will take about two years to complete.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 May 2016 15:40