Zoning hearing continues

Some of the most interesting testimony to come out of the Bellevue zoning hearing last week may not impact the hearing board's decision on whether properties on Laurel Avenue and Gilliland Place are being used in violation of their occupancy permit, but could affect future zoning considerations in all communities that fall under the Tri-Boros Zoning Code.

An expert witness presented by the borough testified that the row houses are not single family dwellings as defined by the zoning code, but rather should be considered “garden apartments.”

The nearly six-hour session of the hearing, which followed a five-hour session last month, primarily focused on the borough's response to previous testimony challenging the issuance of violation notices to 10 of the 46 units that make up the Gilliland-Laurel Apartments (GLA). The action by the borough followed angry complaints from neighbors about the tenants that were being moved into the row houses, and a determination by the borough that the new housing program being implemented involved short-term leases to transient tenants.

GLA presented evidence during the first hearing that the housing was not transient in nature, but transitional. A sub-lease for all units has been issued to the Zero Six Eight program, which seeks to provide safe housing for people who might otherwise end up on the streets, homeless, because of disabilities, prior incarceration, poor or no credit history, or domestic abuse. Zero Six Eight accepts referrals from various social service agencies, including those for veterans, abused women and people with mental illness. Initially, tenants signed a 30-day lease that entitled
them to use of one private bedroom and the common areas of the house such as the kitchen, bathroom, living room, etc. Most units contain three bedrooms that were rented to unrelated individuals who did not necessarily know each other before moving in. Since the violation notices were issued by the borough, the program has moved to one-year joint leases signed by all tenants of a unit, and is encouraging tenants to enter into household agreements that work out issues such as kitchen use, smoking, quiet hours, etc.

Bellevue code enforcement and zoning officer Jim DelCroix testified that he became concerned about the use of the properties after seeing an on-line ad that offered single rooms for rent. He said that he consulted borough solicitor Matt Racunas and, after a large group of neighbors protested at a meeting of Bellevue Council, he and Racunas met with GLA representative Eric Kraemer, his attorney, J.J. Richardson, and Zero Six Eight founder Dan Bull. It was immediately following this meeting that violation notices were issued to GLA for 10 of the units.

DelCroix admitted that it was difficult to classify the property use under the joint zoning code Bellevue shares with Avalon and Ben Avon. He said that he was unaware of any other properties in Bellevue being used for transitional housing, and agreed that the zoning code does not define “transitional” housing. Under cross examination by Richardson, he testified that “single family” use is defined by the zoning code as a group of individuals, not necessarily related by blood, marriage or adoption, living together in a single housekeeping unit. There can be no more than five unrelated individuals in a single dwelling, according to the code.

The most recent occupancy permit for the properties was issued in 2005 during a change in ownership, and declares the 46 units to be single family dwellings. One single permit was issued to cover all of the units. Although Racunas previously questioned the rationale for issuing one, rather than 46 permits, the reasoning for that could be the fact pointed out by the borough's expert witness - the units are not located on individual lots, as is required for a dwelling to be classified as single family.

Caroline Yagle is a senior associate with Environmental Planning and Design (EPD), the firm that actually helped draft the Tri-Boros comprehensive plan and zoning code. She was brought in to testify solely on the alternative argument advanced by GLA, that the zoning code has no classification that covers transitional housing, therefore, by law, it must be permitted anywhere. She testified that the 46 units that make up GLA are located on only four individual lots. That eliminates them from being classified as single family swellings. Yagle said various factors also disqualify the properties from being classified as townhouses, boarding houses, and a number of other property uses.

However, Yagle said, the use proposed by GLA does fall into the category of “garden apartment,” so it is addressed by the zoning code.

It will probably be January before the zoning hearing board issues its determination, according to board solicitor Tom McDermott. Both sides have until Nov. 30 to submit written legal arguments, which will officially close the hearing, he said. The board then has 45 days to issue its ruling. A public meeting for that purpose will be scheduled.