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W-B Parking Authority Goes To Court Over Former Hotel Sterling Lot

September 27, 2018

WILKES-BARRE — The city parking authority has taken its dispute with the owner of the former Hotel Sterling lot to court.

The authority on Wednesday filed a complaint in Luzerne County Court seeking an injunction that would prohibit H&N Investments LLC from operating a general parking lot on the 2-acre parcel along East Market Street, between North River and North Franklin streets.

Without approval from the zoning hearing board, the zoning ordinance doesn’t permit operating a parking lot in the zoning districts in which the parcels lie.

The authority also filed a request for a preliminary injunction to immediately stop parking operations on the lot, claiming that the H&N is causing the authority “immediate and irreparable harm” and does not comply with zoning requirements designed “to ensure the safety of the public.”

Some requirements in the zoning ordinance address screening, lighting, access driveways, setback requirements, dimensions of parking areas, grading, pavement and drainage, etc.

Because H&N’s lot is competing with the four facilities the authority operates, H&N has an unfair advantage over the authority and other parking lot operators because H&N is not meeting zoning requirements.

Authority Executive Director Tom Torbik has said the authority and cash-strapped city could be collecting thousands of dollars in monthly parking revenue from commuters who work downtown if it weren’t for H&N leasing them space at $60 per month in the unimproved lot.

“Further, if nothing is done to enjoin the illegal activity, it would encourage others to break the law without consequence,” the injunction request states.

Owner sought

to comply

In the filing, the authority notes that H&N in July or August filed an application with the city zoning office seeking a variance to create an “unimproved on-grade limited parking area” and to waive all requirements of the section of the zoning ordinance related to off-street parking. After some questioning at an Aug. 22 hearing, H&N representatives asked for a continuance.

At a Sept. 22 zoning hearing, H&N modified the application to instead seek “a temporary use variance not to exceed 24 months” for an unimproved parking lot, and still sought a waiver of all zoning requirements. After testimony was presented, H&N representatives withdrew the application.

A third application has not been filed and, because the city is not enforcing the zoning ordinance despite the authority filed a complaint with city council on Aug. 21, the authority brought the matter to county court, the filing states.

City Administrator Ted Wampole said Mayor Tony George’s administration disagrees with the authority’s stance, noting that the lot would only be temporary, until a $35 million development project to construct a hotel, condos and retail space begins on the site.

Sam Syla, a principal in the development project, was in Europe and unavailable for comment, according to Steve Barrouk, Syla’s realtor.

Barrouk said H&N representatives plan to go to the zoning hearing board a third time “with improvements (planned) for the site” that members of the board “will be pleased with.” He said company officials have no objection to making sure that the lot is “safe and usable.”

Differing viewpoints

The original complaint, filed with council in August, also alleges that H&N has not been complying with a city parking fee ordinance that requires the quarterly payment of 8 percent of parking revenues to the city, obtaining an annual parking lot operator license, securing $1,000 in bonds for every 10 spaces and erecting signs with specific information at the parking lot entrances.

Barrouk said H&N has since obtained a temporary license from the city and has been paying the required 8 percent fee.

However, no signs with required information about the property owner, rates and license number had been erected as of Wednesday.

The complaint also notes that a parking study released this year shows that the authority’s parking facilities will need more than $11 million in maintenance and repairs. Torbik says the authority needs the approximately $12,000 per month H&N has been grossing.

Barrouk said Torbik has been overestimating revenue from the lot and the authority board is not considering the consumers who use the lot. “It would really be unfortunate if the people parking there had to move suddenly to other locations that are not as convenient,” he said.

Many of those who park in the lot are employees of Guard insurance, with offices located nearby. Guard is moving its headquarters to the City Centre building on Public Square and is negotiating with the city for reduced parking rates for its hundreds of employees.

The city and authority have garages within one or two blocks of the H&N lot.

Contact the writer:

smocarsky@citizensvoice.com, 570-821-2110, @MocarskyCV

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