|Att'y Blake Marles|
Town Hall may have been as crowded as Volksplatz before it flooded, but the headliner was missing. Developer Abe Atiyeh was absent, leaving engineer David Harte and Bethlehem Attorney Blake Marles to run the gauntlet between the slings and arrows of an emotional crowd and dubious planners.
Atiyeh's proposal is actually his third at this site, located a stone's throw from Bethlehem Catholic High School, North Central Little League and a playground.
Originally, he planned a 180-bed assisted-living facility called Bethlehem Manor. But he soon discovered the market is already saturated, and was unable to market the property. Last year, he proposed four three-story apartment buildings, but the Zoning Hearing Board refused a use variance in an area zoned for institutions.
At the time, Atiyeh testified, "This use is the only valid use on this site. We have a hardship here." Despite an appeal in which he continues to make that argument, Atiyeh has found another valid use for the property that requires no variance at all - an inpatient psychiatric hospital that specializes in treating people with drug and alcohol addictions.
Planner Steve Thode took engineer David Harte to task for this apparent contradiction. "Now you're saying there is a permitted use which is viable. Which is it?"
When Thode asked Harte whether the facility will house violent patients, the audience groaned when Harte answered, "I don't know what your definition of violent is." Although Attorney Marles denied it would be a holding facility, he told Thode that the state license, which can only be granted after a plan is approved, determines the type of patient that will be permitted.
Thode asked whether Marles would be willing to delay the plan's approval for two months to meet with the community and to provide details on similar facilities. He declined. "What you're asking for is a review of the use," he argued. "[Atiyeh] is entitled to do this as a matter of right."
Planning Chair Jim Fiorentino, noting the locked nature of at least a portion of the facility, likened it to a jail located next to a high school, playground and little league. And board member Andrew Twiggar expressed a "big reservation for the safety and welfare of the neighborhood."
In addition to the concerns raised by planners, a procession of sixteen speakers raised even more. Former Northampton County Council member Greg Zebrowski, who opposed Atiyeh's apartment complex as well, stated this was "like a replay of a bad movie." Calling Atiyeh a "scorned developer," he called the psychiatric hospital plan a "bait and switch" to get approval for the apartment complex. "Anybody with an ounce of common sense could see this is not an appropriate setting," he reasoned, as the public applauded.
Eventually, every speaker who opposed Atiyeh's plan received a round of applause. That brought City Council candidate Al Bernotas to his feet. After calling Atiyeh a "vindictive developer trying to stuff everything down the throats of the citizens of Bethlehem," he chided Chairman Jim Fiorentino for allowing this applause.
"No applause, please, for Al," Fiorentino wisecracked as Bernotas made his way back to his seat.
Although Atiyeh's plan had no defenders other than Harte and Marles, some members of the public supported the concept. Mike Grasso, Dean of Students at Becahi, noted that he must deal with students who suffer from depression and alcohol abuse. "There's not a person here who in their heart does not feel this is needed," he stated, but suggested it is needed somewhere away from a large population.
Detecting a sentiment against people who suffer from addictions, Planner Katie Lynch cautioned the crowd. "I take exception to people stating 'these people'."
After a unanimous vote rejecting the plan, Marles asked Planners to state a reason. "I haven't heard a basis for a denial. Not a single one."