|Dave Harte, Blake Marles|
During a five-hour hearing on October 19, Atiyeh attorney Blake Marles was only able to call four witnesses as a result of numerous concerns raised by residents.
Three City Council members - Dave DiGiacinto, Eric Evans and J Willie Reynolds - attended that October 19 hearing. And after it was over, they persuaded Council members Bob Donchez and Jean Belinski to notify the Zoning Hearing Board of their opposition in an October 28 letter. On October 31, Mayor John Callahan expressed his written displeasure, too, stating that "[d]rugs and schools don't mix."
In addition to the Complaints from five City Council members and the Mayor, Attorney Jay Leeson entered his appearance on behalf of Bethlehem Catholic.
Finally, a group of six Bethlehem residents calling themselves the North Bethlehem Action Committee fired off a letter to Mayor Callahan and City Council, asking the City to intervene. That group includes Judge William Moran, who helped write Northampton County's Home Rule Charter and recently recently stepped down from the bench. In addition to having a distinguished jurist as one of its members, North Bethlehem Action Committee retained Easton attorney Steven N. Goudsouzian.
So when zoners met for their second night of testimony, a barristers' row of four prominent attorneys were girded for battle. The combined weight of the Catholic Church, a City Council majority, the Mayor and a citizens' collective was up against Abe Atiyeh, who sat in Town Hall with his usual bag of hard candy, waiting for his lawyer.
When Atiyeh Attorney Blake Marles arrived, he quickly went to work. He called City Council member Dave DiGiacinto to establish that City Council itself had not formally intervened. Marles suggested that a letter from a majority of City Council, who had yet to meet publicly, might constitute a Sunshine Act violation. More pointedly, he complained about the "ex parte communications" from the Mayor and five City Council members, the very people who appoint and confirm members of the Zoning Hearing Board.
Zoners decided that, for now, those letters will not be admitted. They also assured Marles that they had received no ex parte communications from anyone, trying to influence their decision.
Marles then called Bethlehem Catholic High School principal John P. Petruzzelli, who admitted to sending emails and an automated phone calls to parents, urging opposition to the rehab center. As Jay Leeson repeatedly objected that "the Catholic Church is not on trial here," Marles just as repeatedly questioned Petruzzelli about the risk to students posed by the facility, which will be operated by The Malvern Institute.
Petruzzelli stated that his problem with the proposed rehab is a "perception" of an unsafe neighborhood. "It will affect enrollment and our standing in the community," the principal testified. He admitted he had done no research to determine whether it would actually pose a danger.
David Harte, a professional engineer employed by Atiyeh, described the facility in detail. He indicated that there would be no changes to the exterior of Calvary baptist Church, although security cameras would be installed. He added there would be a 6' high fence surrounding the property, as well as landscaping. Entrances will be gated. Only employees and invited guests will be admitted and there will be 24 hour security, although Harte was unable to state how many guard would be employed.
When Harte testified that the reason for the fence was really to keep outsiders off the property, the audience began to laugh.
Although patients will be able to leave of their own free will, Harte told zoners they would be unable to leave from the courtyard inside the complex, and that only employees are provided with the access codes to open and close the gates. "They don't just let somebody walk out and wonder down the street," he testified, adding that it is impossible for patients to even see the athletic fields from the building. He also testified that the church is located 300' away from the baseball diamond.
Harte added there is a need for this kind of facility in the Lehigh Valley, which would include 29 employees per shift. He pointed out that the building is currently vacant, although it is rented out to another church on Sundays. He added that this adaptive reuse of a church is a "greener use," noting that Bethlehem has several vacant churches.
Harte also stated that this new use would be "in harmony with the neighborhood," but that was challenged during intense cross-examination by Attorney Goudsouzian. Tony Marascio, who lives only two doors away, asked whether an addict walking around the neighborhood at 3 AM might affect the harmony of the neighborhood.
But Attorney Marles objected to that question. "I could reach across the table and strangle [ZHB Solicitor Eric Schock], but that doesn't mean it's likely," he argued.
Kristine Borges, a Becahi mom, asked about four Health Department citations filed against Malvern this year alone, including citations for a bed bug infestation. "I'm sorry, but there were so many [citations], I couldn't fit them all on one page.
"Does a bed bug infestation pose a harm to the community?" she pointedly asked.
At one point during the testimony, a relaxed Judge Moran suddenly stood up, and the entire room froze. "Excuse me, may I have a glass of water for my wife?" he asked.
After that, everyone else relaxed, too.
Marles wrapped up his case in two hours, making Zoning Hearing Board Chair Gus Loupos very happy. He was also pleased by everyone's courtesy. "You done good tonight," he told everyone. "You still have time to go trick-or-treating."
Testimony will continue in Town Hall on Tuesday, November 29, at 6 PM. Marles estimated he'd have tow more witnesses from The Malverne Institute, but dismissed Jay Leeson's request for more detailed information. "I don't want to try my case before being required to try my case," he noted.