If one thing is clear, it's that Bethlehem Township wants nothing to do with anything that houses prisoners. That's no surprise from a municipality that refused to contribute a dime towards homeless shelters.
If anything else is clear, it's that this dismissal was pre-ordained. Let me tell you how that happened.
Shortly before tonight's hearing, Bethlehem Township Commissioners authorized solicitor Tom Elliott to act as an objector. He sent the county a subpoena that essentially asked for the production of all documents since it was formed in 1752. Although the county responded with over 800 pages of documents, that wasn't good enough for Elliott. He also argued that, because there was no parking study or site plan attached to the application, it is void on its face.
Now the county intends to build a treatment center in Bethlehem Township, but does not own it. Who does? That would be Abe Atiyeh, dubbed the Rajah of Rezoning by Morning Call columnist Bill White. However loud-mouthed he may be on other occasions, he was strangely silent tonight. He sat quietly, munching on a bag of penny candy, while lawyers hurled terms like "equitable estoppel" and "ab initio" at each other.
Atiyeh's mouthpiece, Jim Preston, was actually pretty impressive. When Elliott complained about the inadequate response to his subpoena, Preston started ticking off some of the sixteen separate items requested. He also charged that deputy zoning officer Howard Kutzler had deliberately misled them and asked for a thirty-day continuance so he could supply the parking study and site plan.
This is when it became apparent that this result was arrived at in advance, not by the board, but its solicitor. Solicitor Larry Fox just happened to have a copy of an appellate decision concerning faulty zoning applications. That's just a little too much of a coincidence. "I'll be happy to supply a citation if you like," is what Fox told Preston.
While the board deliberated, you could see Fox was very hard at work, going from board member to board member, showing them the decision and making his points. Clearly, Fox had his marching orders.
I predicted the board would grant the continuance anyway. Northampton County Exec John Stoffa, who sat next to me in the cheap seats, said no. Stoffa was right.
Bethlehem Township won a round, but it's going to lose this war. The area proposed is zoned to permit precisely the kind of facility the county desires to build. It does have the power to regulate the types of prisoners allowed to occupy this treatment center, and should be focusing its efforts in that direction.