Board finds zoning violations

Bellevue zoning hearing board solicitor Tom McDermott, left, chair Chris Driscoll and vice-chair Jane Braunlich during the Jan. 31 meeting held by the board to announce that it had decided the borough was correct in issuing violation notices to the owner of property being used for transitional housing.

Bellevue’s zoning hearing board delivered the news last week that a transitional housing program will not be able to operate as originally planned, and is currently in violation of the borough’s zoning laws.

The long road to the decision began last spring when residents of the neighborhood around Laurel Avenue and Gilliland Place said they began having trouble with and concerns about new tenants that had moved into the Gilliland Laurel Apartments (GLA), which is made up of two distinct areas of townhouses located on the two streets. In all, there are 46 townhouses included in the GLA properties.

Their concerns escalated when they discovered that GLA had entered into a master lease with the Zero Six Eight (068) corporation, which was formed to provide job and economic opportunities for people who had been convicted of crimes. The housing program was a new venture for 068, developed to meet the needs of people who were likely to end up homeless or the victims of slumlords because life decisions had made them undesirable tenants to most commercial landlords. The potential tenants included not only former convicts, but those with mental or physical disabilities, veterans and abused women. The founder of 068, Dan Bull, said that the program was intended to provide vulnerable people with a safe place to live while they worked to get their lives back on track.

Originally the program involved renting individual bedrooms in each of the townhouses to as many as three or four strangers who would share the common areas of the home, such as the bathroom, kitchen, living room, etc. All of the leases in the beginning were on a month-to-month basis.

Last spring, after a meeting that included GLA and 068 representatives as well as borough officials, Bellevue code enforcement officer Jim DelCroix issued notices covering only 10 of the 46 total units, informing GLA that the properties were being used in violation of the zoning code’s permissible uses for a single family dwelling. It was revealed that the borough had issued occupancy permits in 2005 listing numerous townhouses under one single family permit. A zoning expert testified during the legal proceedings that followed that the townhouses were not, in fact, single family dwellings, but rather should be considered “garden apartments” under the zoning code.

GLA appealed the violation notices, and further rental of the townhouses as part of the transitional housing program was stopped. A hearing was held in two parts, one in August and the other in October, before Bellevue’s zoning hearing board. During the hearing, GLA witnesses testified that the program had been changed, and that tenants were now required to sign one-year leases and negotiate a residency agreement with the other tenants living in the house. With that, GLA hoped to establish that the transitional housing program met the criteria for acceptable use of a single family dwelling, something courts have repeatedly ruled does not require that the occupants be related through blood or marriage. Testimony also established, however, that tenants could break their leases early without incurring a penalty, and that the remaining tenants would not be held liable for paying the entire rent.

The zoning hearing board concluded that these efforts and admissions established that the homes were not being used in anything approximating the “single family” setting required by the courts, and were, in fact, much too transient in nature.

GLA now has 30 days to appeal the ruling to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas should the company wish to proceed further. The attorney representing GLA did not respond to several phone calls seeking comment. The attorney and a representative of GLA met in a closed door session with Bellevue Council about a week before the zoning hearing board issued its decision.

As for 068, a representative of the company was unaware of the board decision and said that the company is still working to rent the townhouses.

The board’s decision relates only to the 10 properties cited by the borough.