Lawsuit Likely In Sterling Lot Dispute
WILKES-BARRE — An attorney for the city parking authority said the board will sue the owner of the former Hotel Sterling lot after the owner’s representatives on Wednesday withdrew a zoning application seeking to allow the continued temporary operation of a parking lot on the site.
Engineer George Albert and real estate broker Steve Barrouk testified on behalf of H&N Investments LLC, the property owner, at a zoning hearing, hoping to persuade the hearing board to grant a variance that would waive the requirements of a city ordinance regarding parking lots for the 2-acre lot on West Market Street between North River and North Franklin streets.
H&N principle Sam Syla announced plans in March for a $35 million mixed-use project at the site to include a hotel, condominiums and retail space. City officials had been seeking a developer for the lot since demolishing the condemned hotel in 2013 and had been leasing parking spaces to downtown employees and businesses in the meantime.
H&N closed on the property in June, buying it from the city for $600,000, and Albert said the company wanted to continue the city’s practice of leasing parking spaces there until ground is broken for the condo and hotel project.
Albert said the “primary purpose here is to accommodate contiguous property owners who use the parking lot,” including Sartorio
barber shop, a carpet and flooring shop, GUARD Insurance, the Vault restaurant and King’s College, among others. And there has been parking on parts of the lot since at least 1999, he said.
He also noted that at least three other commercial parking lots operate in C3 (Commercial, Central) zones in the city. Most of the Sterling lot is in a C3 zone; the remainder is in an S1 (Special Purpose) zone.
“In our case, ours is a temporary use,” Albert said.
He said he wasn’t sure how long it would take H&N to break ground, but the zoning application requested a “temporary use variance not to exceed 24 months, to establish an unimproved general parking lot” for up to 200 vehicles.
Looking at photos of the lot, zoning board solicitor Charles McCormick noted that it’s a large parking area with construction material being stored on it, “cars that are very close to the sidewalk,” no lines to designate parking spaces and numerous potholes and described it as “haphazard” with “multiple uses going on in the parking area.”
McCormick said the application lacks any information on maintenance such as snow removal, and there are no setbacks noted.
Albert said potholes on the lot would be filled in. In response to other concerns, Albert noted that the city operated the parking lot in the same manner it’s being operated currently.
“I don’t care what they did in the city,” McCormick said. “You’re the ones who have to take control of the property. You bought it.”
Attorney John Zelinka questioned Albert on several points, including whether he agreed that setback and other parking lot requirements that H&N seeks to have waived are in the city parking ordinance “for public safety and public welfare.”
Albert agreed they are.
Zelinka asked whether any of the three parking lots in C3 zones were unimproved.
Albert said none of the other three lots were unpaved, as most of the Sterling lot is.
Parking authority Executive Director Tom Torbik had said at an authority meeting on Tuesday that H&N was cutting in to the city’s and parking authority’s revenue by “illegally” operating the lot. He had said H&N could collect as much as $353,000 in parking revenue if allowed to continue operating for two more years — revenue the city and authority could use to repair and maintain municipal parking garages.
Given the concerns expressed by McCormick and others, Albert withdrew the application for the variance.
Taking it to court
After the hearing, Zelinka said the city zoning ordinance allows objectors to any perceived violation of a zoning ordinance to file a complaint in county court if “somebody does not bring a proper application to (the zoning hearing board) to seek a variance, which they did not. They’ve been (operating a parking lot) without it.”
Zelinka says the ordinance also stipulates that an objector must serve city council with the complaint 30 days before filing it with the court.
“We sent it out on Aug. 21, so we did serve city council. So our 30 days is going to be Sept. 21. Being that they withdrew an application and they’re not before the zoning hearing board seeking a variance, we’re going to go ahead and … file a complaint with the Court of Common Pleas, which will be probably Monday,” Zelinka said.
Torbik noted that Councilwoman Beth Gilbert emailed him Wednesday morning after reading newspaper reports about discussion of the zoning issue at Tuesday’s parking authority meeting. Gilbert said she never received notice of the legal objection.
In an email to Torbik, Gilbert said she spoke with city clerk Jim Ryan and city Attorney and Deputy Administrator Tim Henry about the issue. Gilbert said Ryan normally forwards any legal notices to Henry, and it’s up to Henry “to determine how to disseminate them. Even though it was explicitly addressed to council, the administration did not see it necessary to distribute to council.”
Gilbert said in the email that she shared the authority board’s concerns about lost revenue.
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