|Atiyeh, with relief pitcher Dickie Noles|
Speaking for the Court, Senior Judge Rochelle Friedman rules that the Township's exclusion of prisons from its zoning ordinance makes it unconstitutional. Pouring salt into the wound, she also awards Atiyeh site-specific relief, enabling him to build a prison at 4255 Fritch Drive, located in an industrial park near Route 191.
That's where Atiyeh had originally intended to build a 300-bed work release and treatment center for Northampton County but Bethlehem Township zoners repeatedly blocked him. Atiyeh and Executive John Stoffa eventually decided on a smaller facility in West Easton.
"We won the case, but lost the customer," Atiyeh complained, condemning the stall tactics he faces from many municipalities, even when zoning relief should be obvious. "They find a way to stall you and block you until the customer goes away," Atiyeh lamented, noting that he has spent over $300,000 in legal and engineering fees for the Bethlehem Township site.
"It's about time that somebody stands up to those municipalities and slaps them with a lawsuit to teach them a lesson, and I just might be guy to do it," Atiyeh declared.
But Paul Weiss, President of the Township's Board of Commissioners, said the Township never rally had any control over Atiyeh's proposed work release facility. "That's a function of the Zoning Hearing Board," he said. "Our hands were tied."
Weiss added that, although Atiyeh did seek a zoning change to allow for prisons, he never saw an actual plan. "We told him, 'Submit a plan and we'll look at it.'"
Atiyeh stated he will now market the site to county, state and federal governments for a private prison.
The Commonwealth Court's decision reverses both the Township's Board of Commissioners as well as a 2011 decision of Senior Judge Michael Franciosa. Weiss indicated it's unlikely Commissioners will ask the Supreme Court for review.
Updated 1:42 PM, 4/7/11, to correct a factual error. The Zoning Hearing Board had no involvement in the curative amendment.