Jun 24, 2008

AutoZone Political Victim

To any observer of Allentown Government, it was no surprise that the Zoning Board denied AutoZone's request for larger signs. With a room full of opponents, including the Mayor, the Board went through the motions of due process, but a witch in Salem had a better chance. I wasn't looking forward to an autoparts store replacing a charming dining spot, but I am concerned with property rights in Allentown. When zoning rights, or routinely normal variances are compromised to appease public opinion, the slippery slope is justified for more ominous abuses. Should the city building inspection system and permit system also be subject to a political agenda? Sometimes we must tolerate the unpopular and inappropriate, or we give the system a pass to violate everybody's rights.

22 comments:

priyanka said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
michael molovinsky said...

comment #1 was a spam ad by another blog hosting company

Anonymous said...

MM, you make a good point. Even though a majority of the public may not have wanted the Auto Zone there, did this business not deserve a fair chance like any other business ? If we can complain about the unfairness of the City when it goes against US how can we be glad when the same treatment is used against another entity ? Is this hypocritical or what ?

Alfonso

Anonymous said...

It is not hypocritical at all from where I stand. Auto Zone still has every legal right to go into this building provided they do so within the bounds of the current laws.

Dozens of other businesses manage to be successful in the 8-5 urban commercial zoning district under these current rules, why should AZ be granted any special treatment?

At 10 minute visit to any any other AZ in the city will clearly illustrate why the should NOT be granted special treatment. Violation of the law and out environment are constant at these places.

Anonymous said...

That is ... "B5 urban commercial"

michael molovinsky said...

anon B5, you think it's normal for a mayor to be at variance hearing concerning signage? do you think it's normal for a mayor trying to find another tenant for a private owner? i wouldn't be surprised that at the end of the day both the owner and tenant(autozone) think better of it and decide not to be victimized by the bureaucracy. don't say there's no prejudice against them, and at the same time say they violate the law and environment; your just justifying the treatment their getting, that's my point.

Sarina said...

I don't think Auto Zone was treated any harsher than anyone else. They simply did not demonstrate a hardship, which is a requirement for granting a variance. I'm actually surprised one of the zoning members voted FOR the variance. Tell me, where is the hardship in Auto Zone only being allowed to erect signs the same size as everyone elses? Or the same number of signs as everyone else? This is written into the zoning ordinance.

If the grand old Shanty wanted to reopen tomorrow even they would not deserve, nor should they be granted, a variance for an excessive amount of signs.

michael molovinsky said...

sarina, i do not believe signs are the real issue, the bone of contention is an auto parts store going in on a "up and coming" theater district. the area has always been very nice and has a certain ambience. i have attended many zoning hearings, and follow many others. variances on the signs are often given, with some restrictions. i expected in this case the interpretation to be very strict, didn't you?

Anonymous said...

There was huge community/citizen action uproar about Auto Zone. Lehigh Valley Somebody posted about it and that blog was full of angered residents upset with the mayor not doing anything about it. Now here we are criticizing the mayor for showing up at the meeting. I need to stop reading these blogs!

Sarina said...

No, the signs aren't the entire issue, however they were the only item the zoning board was there to review and issue a decision on.

I expect this issue to continue over the next several months.

Some zoning boards hand out variances like Halloween candy. It's ridiculous. The zoning law may be flawed in some ways (it does need an overhaul) but if we don't all play by the same rules we're headed for trouble.

michael molovinsky said...

sarina, i would prefer after i post to not comment, and let other people respond, however, i feel compelled to answer you. zoning is very subjective, an officer at the counter decides if and what variances must be applied for. believe it or not, but projects desired by a city ALWAYS need less variances than those not wanted, especially in allentown, where so much is classified non-conforming.

Anonymous said...

If this is such an up and comming neighborhood why can't they find another restauranteur to move into that location? I frequented the Shanty all the time and it was a favorite stop for Muhlenberg College families. I don't think it closed for lack of patronage, just that the owners were retiring.

Anonymous said...

I think the reality is that the much-touted "Theater District" is little more than a block long.

While residents there HOPE for the ambiance of the district to expand to nearby blocks, the reality is that their hope is misplaced. The "District" is feeling the result of six years (under Pawlowski) of rapid deterioriation in the city. Instead of the few remaining attractive areas in the city expanding, they are shrinking or disappearing.

Expect more Auto Zones and similar stores in the future. I am not knocking these stores, they are merely providing a service to the clientel that exists. Simply naming the area a "Theater District" does not make it so.

City Hall cannot expect to focus on a few new buildings or businesses and ignore the reality that our neighboods are quickly being lost. What happens in our neighborhoods will determine what happens to our city.

Jeff Pooley said...

Mike: Your no-love-for-Autozone-but-wider-principle-at-stake argument here would make sense if, in fact, Autozone's property rights had been violated. But the company was asking for a variance--an exception--to the code. How is denying Autozone (or any other applicant) the right to put out signs bigger than other businesses that adhere to the code a violation of property rights? Sure, variances are granted often enough. Still--and to merely state the obvious--a variance denial is not a threat to owners' rights. By that logic, the zoning code may as well not exist. And of course the public's views should be taken into account when considering a variance--that's why they're public hearings. Keep up the blogging; even when I disagree (which is often) I appreciate the opinion. Disclosure: my wife works at the Redevelopment Authority.

michael molovinsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
michael molovinsky said...

mr. pooley, a number of years ago an elderly woman cried to me about salvadors pizza oven fans being directed into her garden. the neighbors were not notified about the zoning hearing for his new restaurant, if there was even one! traffic had to be changed to one way on st. george street to protect the children from speeding pizza delivery men. neighborhood parking was adversely affected. please do not assert politics does not come into play either for, or against certain projects. as i stated earlier the first inequity starts at the zoning counter, where it is decided which, if any, variances are required. the whole process is very discretionary. certain lawyers specialize in zoning, as much for their influence, as their expertise.

I deleted my previous response to mr. pooley, it contained an unnecessary tangent which would require much more elaboration, in fairness to mr. pooley and myself

Jeff Pooley said...

Mike: Of course zoning is drenched in politics--both the good kind (public involvement) and the bad kind (backroom maneuvering and the like). I would never deny that. My point is that it's wrong to cry property rights violation, or to state that a dangerous precedent is getting set. All that's happened here is that a request for special permission to suspend the rules was turned down. Were opponents motivated by not wanting a larger-than-allowed sign in their neighborhood? Yes, of course. Was that their only motivation? Of course not. Most of those folks don't want the Autozone there under any circumstances. Is it legitimate for them to oppose the sign variance request, when their motivation has more than one facet? Of course. That's the good politics.

And you're right about discretion in terms of the decision about what needs a variance. It's true and it's an issue. But not in this case: There was nothing ambiguous (or discretionary) about whether the Autozone sigs would violate the zoning code--without a variance.

michael molovinsky said...

jeff, if you re-read my post, you will see that we are closer together than you thought. i just state the outcome was no surprise, under the circumstances, which was the political pressure. that pressure is something which we should always be wary of, because victims do occur. occasionally such victims find relief in higher courts, but most often, they don't have the means for recourse.

Anonymous said...

Mike,

Because of the people involved,zoning is a mess in this city.

Scott Armstrong

Sarina said...

The zoning officer at the counter decides which variances must be applied for based on the Zoning Ordinance - it's not entirely arbitrary. I would expect that as long as we are actually playing by the rules, Auto Zone or any other business with the exact same sign requests in the exact same zoning district should have to apply for the same variances. It is then up to the zoning board to grant or deny the variances based on testimony and - most of all - proof of a hardship.

Bernie O'Hare said...

The zoning officer at the counter decides which variances must be applied for based on the Zoning Ordinance - it's not entirely arbitrary.

Really? It's one of the most arbitrary areas of local law, varying from municipality to municipality and sometimes varying within the municipality itself.

Anonymous said...

Of course zoning varies from municipality to municipality. Each township/borough/city has its own zoning ordinance. Different rules apply in each and every zoning district of each town. They're not hidden or arbitrary, they're written in the zoning law for everyone to see. Copies are available at city hall.

I don't see a problem with the concept of zoning (I don't think any of us want to live next to a garbage dump or a porn shop, thank zoning for excluding that from our neighborhoods). It seems to me that where some of the commenters on this blog are upset is that they feel the person carrying out the zoning laws can't be trusted. I do not have any personal experience with Allentown's zoning people to know if this is the case.

But, in the Auto Zone matter, no breach of ethics has occurred. 19th St. is zoned to allow this kind of store, whether we like it or not. However, AZ does not deserve to have large signs just because they asked for them. So justice has prevailed for now, at least as far as it is written in the code.