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'We just need more parking': Hearing draws diverse viewpoints on Middletown housing limits

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 5/10/18

It was clear from the debate before Middletown’s zoning hearing board May 8 that the borough’s ban against more than two unrelated people living in a house touches a nerve with a lot of …

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'We just need more parking': Hearing draws diverse viewpoints on Middletown housing limits

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It was clear from the debate before Middletown’s zoning hearing board May 8 that the borough’s ban against more than two unrelated people living in a house touches a nerve with a lot of people — for a lot of reasons.

After a hearing lasting more than two hours, the board ended the session by announcing that the hearing will resume June 28 — at which point the board will decide whether to allow four unrelated Penn State Harrisburg students to resume renting a house in the 200 block of West Water Street.

The landlord of the 239 W. Water St. property is Diana McGlone, who resigned from borough council in March after fellow Councilor Jenny Miller filed a complaint against her with the borough contending that McGlone was violating the zoning ordinance regarding how many unrelated persons can live in a single-family dwelling. That complaint led to the May 8 hearing.

Miller, who also lives in the 200 block of West Water Street, said she filed the complaint on behalf of another resident who lives in the block.

Besides the board and lawyers for the parties, 16 people spoke during the hearing, not all of whom live in the 200 block of West Water Street.

The speakers included Mayor James H. Curry III; former borough councilor Rachelle Reid, and Miller, who among her comments noted that “as far as married or unmarried, everybody can get along. We just need more parking.”

The perspectives of those speaking generally broke down into four groups:

The students

For students such as Megan Anderson and William Trowbridge, the ban limits their housing options in the borough and is perceived as a sign that Penn State Harrisburg students aren’t welcome in Middletown.

Neither Anderson nor Trowbridge live in the West Water Street dwelling.

Anderson told the board she has lived in Middletown two and a half years and looks forward to becoming a teacher in Middletown Area School District, where she is student teaching now.

“There are job opportunities for me. However, being treated and kicked out as a nuisance as a student makes me not want to participate and be in the community anymore,” Anderson said.

Borough residents

But for longtime borough residents and homeowners, the prohibition is a check against the trend of owner-occupied homes being converted into rental units, which these residents contend alters the character of their neighborhood and contributes to a lack of on-street parking.

“It’s funny. When school is in, there is no parking. During the summer, there is plenty of parking,” said Robert Horst. “You guys are coming into this community, that’s fine, that’s great. But give some respect to your elders. Do we not deserve respect? We’re here as long as you have been, if not longer.”

Landlords

For landlords such as Barb Nusz, complying with the borough ordinance is a blatant violation of federal law.

“We’re not allowed to ask” about someone’s marital or familial status, she told the board. “We’re not allowed to discriminate…the borough would be taking on serious issues to go against the federal government.”

“What you are doing is forcing landlords to become police,” said Dennis McGlone, McGlone’s father and  partner in Sweet Arrow Properties.

He added that the borough has benefitted economically from the partnership buying and renovating three vacant properties in the 200 block of West Water Street, including the one that is the subject of the complaint.

As for the parking, “we did not create the parking problem. It existed before we even got there, so to use the parking to file a complaint against us is extremely untenable.”

‘Civil libertarian’

For others like Christine Madsen, a self-described “civil libertarian,” a borough official knocking on someone’s door to ask if the people inside are related or not violates the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Perhaps worse, the ban evokes memories of an earlier and uglier form of discrimination for Madsen, who is African-American.

“I grew up in a college town. They coded everything. Guess what? The black section of town was student friendly, the trailer parks were student friendly, the one-family brick house nice area — no. Those are the same rules you are talking about here. And guess what color most of the people who lived there were, and their socio-economic status? It’s nothing new. This is old. It has to change,” said Madsen, whose comments drew applause.

The legal questions

Other than the testimony from Madsen and the other residents, the hearing boiled down to the legal arguments offered before the board by David Lanza, the lawyer representing Sweet Arrow Properties — the partnership of McGlone and her father Dennis McGlone that owns the house on West Water Street and is appealing the borough’s notice of violation regarding four unrelated students living in the dwelling — and borough Solicitor Jim Diamond.

Lanza called for dismissing the complaint because the borough failed to meet a zoning ordinance requirement to hold a hearing within 30 days of Sweet Arrow Properties filing its appeal on March 22.

Alternatively, Lanza said the ban violates federal housing law that says a person cannot refuse to sell or rent a property to an applicant based on their race, color, religion, sex, familial status or national origin.

“It doesn’t make exceptions for situations where there is a borough ordinance that may prohibit or limit housing based on familial status,” Lanza said.

Diamond responded the federal law doesn’t apply because “there is no protected class of students.” Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court and appellate courts in Pennsylvania have upheld municipalities restricting the number of unrelated people living in a residence as a way of regulating density and controlling parking and traffic.

“If a lawsuit was filed in federal court” against the borough over the provision “we would be looking for sanctions because it is that frivolous,” Diamond said.

Lanza countered that Diamond’s argument holds water only if the borough considers the physical characteristics of the property in determining how many unrelated people can live there.

He cited the testimony of borough Zoning and Codes Officer Al Geosits, who told the board that his notice of violation was based solely upon a resident of the house answering Geosits’ question regarding how many people were living there, and whether they were related.

Geosits, according to his own testimony, did not go inside the house, or inquire regarding such things as the number of bedrooms or bathrooms, or the amount of common area within the residence, Lanza pointed out.

“He does not know anything about the interior of the building or how the unit affects density or parking” in the surrounding neighborhood, Lanza said, “There is no case here.”

Board Solicitor David Wion set a June 7 deadline for the lawyers to submit briefs making their respective arguments.

Armed with those briefs and a transcript of the May 8 hearing, the board will deliberate behind closed doors June 13 and render its decision in public June 28.

Either party — the borough or Sweet Arrow Properties — can appeal the board’s decision to Dauphin County Court.

However the board decides, it is unlikely to settle the question of whether the borough should limit how many unrelated people can live in a house in Middletown, and if so what that limit should be.

As board Chairman Jack Still noted in a prepared statement read at the beginning of the hearing, the board does not “make” the borough zoning ordinance.

“The zoning ordinance and revisions to it are prepared by the Middletown Planning Commission, formerly the Middletown Planning Committee, and adopted by the Middletown Borough Council,” Still read in the statement.

As for the West Water Street house, it’s vacant for now because Penn State’s spring classes are completed.