Front St. development: yea or nay?
With as much drama as a daytime soap opera, Catasauqua Borough Council has scheduled a vote on Weston Solutions' development proposal for the Front Street property now owned by FL Smidth.
The Dec. 17 meeting is a regularly scheduled year-end meeting, normally reserved for a vote on the annual budget approval.
Council President Brian Bartholomew had refused to put the Weston proposal vote on the Dec. 3 meeting agenda because the agreement was not received from Weston in time for a detailed review. For the Dec. 17 meeting, Councilman Vincent Smith invoked a procedure that allows an item to be added to a meeting agenda if three members of council approve. Smith was joined in his motion by Councilman Brian McKittrick and Councilwoman Jessica Kroope.
Residents who attended the Dec. 3 council meeting had outnumbered the chairs available and spoke largely in favor of the Weston proposal which would allow the borough to rehab an industrial building for municipal offices, public works facilities and police and fire services, with the remainder of the property to be residential development. The proponents' points have been made many times and are not significantly changed.
An alternative plan for new borough and fire facilities presented by Bartholomew has given council members a last-minute option to review after three years of refining the Weston proposal.
The Weston project's advocates were dealt a blow to their efforts when Councilman Eugene Schlegel came out against the proposal.
In a showy gesture, Schlegel gave borough Treasurer Susan Hein $160.
"If that is all I need to spend to get the property developed, I made my contribution," he said. "Barb [Mayor Barbara Schlegel] and I will write a check for $1,600 and pay our portion for 10 years."
Schlegel went on to say that he would not support the project for a variety of reasons, most of which have been presented before by the contingent opposed it.
Residents opposed to the Weston proposal have expressed concern about the estimated $7 million cost of the project and the impact it would have on their property taxes. According to borough Manager Eugene Goldfeder, the increased tax burden estimate is $160 on a house assessed at $142,000.
Although resident Robyn Shannon, after the meeting, accused Schlegel of breaking a campaign promise to support the development, Schlegel had only campaigned that he supported developing the FL Smidth property but had not specified that he favored Weston Solutions as the developer.
At the council's Nov 26 workshop session, Bartholomew hinted he had an alternate plan. He revealed limited details of the plan at the Dec. 3 meeting.
Under his plan, the borough would purchase the vacant bank building on Bridge Street Bartholomew said is owned by developer Abraham Atiyeh and convert the bank building into borough offices and a police station.
"There are two vaults in the basement that can be modified and used as cells," he said.
To solve the fire station problem, Bartholomew reported he had met with Catasauqua Area School District Superintendent Robert Spengler who said he would not object to the construction of a fire station on 14th Street, across from Sheckler Elementarty School were the school district owns 14 acres. Should the borough wish to build there, the school district would have to put the property on the market and the borough would have to submit the highest bid. Bartholomew proposes erecting a preengineered steel building to serve as the new fire station.
"I think we could get everything done for three million," he said. While Bartholomew and Councilman Alfred Regits have repeatedly criticized Weston Solutions for not presenting accurate cost estimates, Bartholomew, who told The Press after the meeting he has been investigating his alternate plan for months, has not brought in any experts to back up his cost estimates.
An engineering study commissioned by the borough earlier had estimated the cost of a stand-alone fire station at $3 million and, according to Bartholomew, the developer estimated a cost of $1 million to reconfigure the bank building to meet the borough's needs. Add in land and building acquisition costs and the total would seem to approach $5 million.
As Bartholomew told The Press after the meeting, even a savings of $1 million would be significant.
"That money could be used to buy new fire equipment," he said.
Eela Thakar, who operates the Lukoil station on Front Street with her husband, questioned Bartholomew's plan. "We will spend the money under your plan, but we will still have the abandoned property on Front Street," she said.
One of the reasons for Bartholomew's opposition to the Weston plan is the lack of contact with the developers.
"The last meeting we had with them was in March," he said. He noted that Weston's partner, Woodmont, has never been to a meeting or signed any document that they are committed to developing the property. Weston has not attended any of the meetings leading up to the vote. Instead the company has presented their case through Smith who has clearly presented the developer's position.
Smith has marshaled Lehigh County support, but has faced withering criticism from the opposition.
"In my own business I can take risks," said Bartholomew. "If I make a mistake, it's on me. But we need commitment from the developers because we are spending the borough's taxpayer money."
Bartholomew did say he received a call from Woodmont's president saying they were ready to build the promised 192 units.
"They said we were going to vote on the measure today, so somebody is getting information that I don't have," he said.
Council's deciding vote will be Mitzi Smith who did not attend the Dec. 3 meeting.
Whether Schlegel can exercise a veto on the Weston proposal depends on how the agreement is worded.
If the vote to support Weston's development is defeated, FL Smidth might throw in the towel and sell the property to Atiyeh, the next developer waiting in line.
The drama continues at 7 p.m. Monday.