|Gus Elias amidst the chrysanthemums|
"It just needs to stop," noted Elias' next door neighbor, Kathy Capuano.In an email before last week's hearing, Bethlehem Homeowners claimed that Elias intends to purchase her property so he "can spread this malignancy further." This was news to Capuano. She denied that her property is for sale or that she has been approached.
Her grandfather, John Jamon, originally purchased what is now known as Elias Market in 1929. It was part of an 18 acre orchard that sold apples, cherries, peaches, plums, and pears that were locally grown. His market, called Jamon Orchards, was sold to the Pichel family after his death in 1978, and Kathy Capuano worked there. In 2006, the Elias family took title, minus the orchard. Many of the homes surrounding the market were originally part of that orchard.
Capuano was one of a large group of neighbors who now support Elias Market. "We go outside and enjoy our yard," she said in an interview after the hearing. "There's no extra noise. I can't believe selling flowers on macadam bothers anyone." Anna Stofko, a Northampton County retiree, spoke after the hearing of Elias' generosity to her church. "He is always giving us fruit and vegetables," she said.
At his business on the Friday after the hearing, Gus Elias was pushing a wheelbarrow full of chrysanthemums while simultaneously haggling with a Chinese restaurant owner over the price of a box full of cucumbers. Elias wanted $22, but the restauranteuer only wanted to pay $13. "Look at these!", Elias said as he opened the box. "These are the Ferraris of cucumbers!" They both swore that each was putting the other out of business, but then shook hands at a price of $18.
Elias, who started his business in Bethlehem with just two people, now has 35 employees. In a world of chain markets, this is a rare family business that flourishes by offering quality produce at low prices. "This business is going to my children," he explained. "I want my neighbors to be happy, too."
Years ago, while the zoning case was winding its way through the courts, Elias had an open house for neighbors who were upset over his expansion, which essentially consisted of improvements to what was then an unsafe loading dock. He had hoagies and drinks for everyone, and wanted to hear their concerns. But few people came. Undaunted, Elias has continued to do what he can to appease neighbors. He is spending $100,000, above and beyond what is required by the Zoning Hearing Board, for improvements to make everyone happy. "I don't like to have enemies," he said.
One of the improvements he is making is a $55,000 trash compactor to prevent garbage from flying out of a dumpster. "I'm trying to do the right thing for everyone."
Elias was cited by Zoning Officer Suzanne Borzak for selling flowers on the paved area of the business next to Linden Street.
"Selling flowers on the paved area?" scoffed Capuano, who noted that her own grandfather sold pumpkins there as long ago as 1979.
"I'm so sick of this situation," she added, complaining about the way "grown adults treated the board members and zoning officer."
"They shut us down," complained Bernotas. Solicitor Terry Faul had ruled that they lacked standing in an enforcement matter, which Bernotas called "muzzling." He stated that the City put on a weak case that would have been much stronger had opponents been allowed to participate. Bernotas had offered to share his evidence with Assistant City Solicitor Matt Deschler, but after several canceled meetings, Bernotas was told there would be no meeting. According to Bernotas, Deschler was directed not to meet with him.
"Enforcement is so lax in this town you can put a battleship through it," complained Bernotas. He went on to explain that Elias is just his "whipping boy," and that his real venom is directed at The Zoning Hearing Board. In emails to Mayor Bob Donchez and City Council, he has referred to the Board as a "newly formed Gestapo unit" intent on muzzling City residents. He slammed board members, who are paid $25 a month for a night of hearings that can easily go on for five hours, for their occupations.
"Somebody's getting money under the table to be as stupid as they're being," he charges, with no corroborating evidence.
Unlike a city council or the planning commission, a zoning hearing board is a quasi judicial body with a court reporter in which sworn testimony is taken in support of or against a zoning appeal. Those who desire to speak must demonstrate standing, which generally applies to the property owner and those within a certain radius of the property. In a zoning enforcement decision brought by the City, it is unclear whether anyone beyond the City itself and the property owner have standing, a point that Bernotas concedes.
While claiming that his ire is directed mainly at the Zoning Hearing Board, Benotas continued his complaints about the Elias expansion. To prove his contention that the business is involved in wholesale distribution,, he followed an Elias truck from Bethlehem to Allentown in April, stopping where the truck stopped and taking pictures. A spooked driver called Elias, and a private criminal complaint charging three counts of harassment against Bernotas is scheduled for November. He disputes allegations that he directed profanities at the driver, and vowed he will continue following the trucks because "my name is Al Bernotas."
Will Bethlehem appeal the dismissal of the latest zoning enforcement notice? "We're having a meeting to discuss the Zoning Hearing Board decision," announced Darlene Heller. who heads the City's Planning and Zoning Departments.