Thursday, April 3, 2014

City's Commercial Vision Trumps Church's Wish to Worship in Shopfront, Planning Commission Says

By Christina Georgiou

Applicant Imelisse Ocasio, center, accompanied by Walter Delarosa, right,
and Julia Foares, listen as Easton Planning Commission members discuss
their application to establish a house of worship in a vacant shopfront
on the corner of North Fourth and Spring Garden streets in
Downtown Easton.
A proposal from a small congregation that is seeking to establish a house of worship in a  Downtown Easton shop front failed to gain the approval of the city's planning commission Wednesday night.

The 14-member congregation hopes to start a new church that would seat up to 40 people on the corner of North Fourth and Spring Garden streets, in a shopfront that formerly housed a hair salon, but needs a variance to do so, as zoning rules call for a commercial use in buildings at the street level.

The church would hold services on some weekday mornings between 7 and 9 a.m., and on Sundays from about 1 to 3 p.m., said Walter Delarosa, speaking for the group and translating for applicant Imelisse Ocasio. Services are currently held in congregants' homes, he added.

Because the city's Comprehensive Plan discourages the establishment of nonconforming uses on sites which are suitable for permitted uses and the site is zoned for commercial use, the city's planning staff recommended the application be denied despite the fact the house of worship proposed to occupy a currently vacant space, which the city usually encourages.

Planning commission members voiced various concerns with the proposal.

Commissioner Bonnie Winfield questioned whether parking would be a problem.

"It just seems like it would take up a lot of parking," she said.

The building does not have off-street parking, but dedicated parking is not a requirement even if the use exception were granted according to city ordinances, city Planning Director Carl Manges noted.

Planning commission member Ron Shipman worried that adding another house of worship in the neighborhood, particularly in a shopfront space, was inconsistent with the city's intention to support more commercial ventures and church activity could hinder business traffic.

"The city is trying to encourage commercial uses in commercial spaces. This doesn't qualify. Do you understand that?" he said. "Some of the times you're proposing are during commercial hours."

Commissioner Dennis Lieb worried the church services might be loud and singing might disturb residents above the shopfront and at neighboring properties, and that the site wouldn't afford the congregation adequate space to grow.

"What we're trying to defeat is a public nuisance issue. Church services can be disruptive to a neighborhood," he said.

Planning commission vice chair Robert Sun said he was concerned allowing the space to be used as a house of worship would deprive the city of tax revenue, both by possibly making the property eligible for a tax-exemption and because if the space were dedicated to a non-commercial use, it wouldn't be generating any business tax revenue.

Chairman Charles Elliott noted that most if not all alternative uses the city lists as examples acceptable for a use variance in a commercial district involve a business function of some sort.

Neighboring property owner Pat Martinez also said he supported the space being used for a more commercial function over becoming a house of worship.

"I have nothing against the services personally," he said. "I would like to see something more commercial and think churches by nature are not used heavily. They're a partial use."

Sun agreed, adding that he's not opposed to recommending a variance be granted for the space in the future, but that it should be for something closer to the intended use.

"I don't think it has to be strictly retail. It could be a service business," he said. "I do think we have to take a long term view. A church would help the congregation thrive, bit I don't think it will help Downtown thrive."

The planning commission voted 4-1 to deny recommending to the city's zoning hearing board that a variance should be granted for the house of worship. Lieb cast the dissenting vote, and planning commissioners William Heilman and Mia Hatzis were not present.

While the planning commission did not approve the church's application, the group may still  receive a variance and an okay to occupy 101-103 Spring Garden St., Elliott noted.

"Our vote was simply a recommendation to the zoning hearing board that your application be denied, but we're not the final stop," he said.

The group's application for the variance is set to be heard before the city's zoning hearing board on Monday, April 21, Manges said.

With much less discussion, the planning commission approved an application for a tobacco and smoke shop in the city's South Side neighborhood.

The shop, to be located at 700-D Philadelphia Road in a small shopping center along with existing stores including a CVS pharmacy, Dunkin' Donuts, Subway, and Chinese restaurant Ichban Express, will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, said applicant Caroline Krouse.

She added she hopes the shop will be successful enough to offer employment shortly after becoming established, and said she thinks the location has a lot of potential.

"I think South Side is an area of opportunity in transition," Krouse said.

The "South Side Smoke Shop" will occupy one of two vacant stores in the shopping center, and the 1,100 square foot shop will carry a variety of tobacco and smoking products, including cigarettes, cigars, and electronic cigarettes, Krouse's application says.

Lieb said he really hates the shopping center's strip mall layout and added that it clashes with the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood surrounding it. But, he added, his objection to the shop was its merchandise, not its location.

"Cigarettes kill people," he said.

Elliott said he realizes the planning commission can't dictate the business plans of applicants, but also noted that cigarettes are dangerous to people's health and encouraged Krouse to consider adding other products and to gradually become a general merchandise shop.

"From a legal standpoint, I don't think you can vote against this. It's a legal product," said planning commission solicitor Joel Scheer. "I do think it's kind of ironic that CVS stops selling cigarettes, and the void is immediately filled a few feet away."

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