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Middletown mayor calls for at-large elections and reducing council to seven members

Mayor James H. Curry III put forth a proposal that would scrap Middletown's three wards in favor of borough-wide at large elections and reduce the size of borough council from nine members to seven during council's meeting July 19.

Curry asked that someone on council move to draft and advertise an ordinance to make the change, but no one made such a motion.

The item was not on the agenda. Curry brought up the issue as council was about to interview six residents from the First Ward who have applied to fill the seat vacated by Robert Louer Sr., who resigned from council effective July 1.

Council during the July 19 meeting also accepted the resignation of Ed Shull, who was just appointed in January to fill the Third Ward seat vacated by Vicki Malone in September 2015.

Council could avoid having to fill either vacancy by acting now to get rid of the wards and to go from nine to seven councilors, Curry said.

But the issue is too important to be decided by council alone, said Rachelle Reid, a former First Ward councilor and one of the six applicants seeking to replace Louer. A referendum should be held asking borough voters to choice between keeping the ward system or changing to at-large elections, she said.

The ward system makes it harder for council to fill vacant seats, Curry said. He estimated that in a town of Middletown's size - about 8,900 residents - the number of people interested in being on council throughout the entire borough is less than 1 percent.

But this "talent" pool is not equally distributed among the three wards, in part due to reductions in population resulting from the flooding of 2011 that have "decimated" the First and Third wards, Curry said.

He further suggested that the ward system is outdated. In a time of cellphones, email and Facebook, residents no longer need someone in their own neighborhood to ensure adequate representation, Curry said. Moreover, everyone on the current council responds to the concerns of all residents — not just those who live in their ward.

He also said he believes that the nine-member council is too large and leads to inefficiency in borough government. Middletown's nine-member council is the exception to the rule when it comes to municipalities in this area that have as many or more residents than the borough but are served by far fewer elected officials, Curry said.

Among these examples Curry cited Lower Swatara Township with 8,200 residents served by a board of five commissioners, Derry Township, with nearly 25,000 residents served by a board of five, and Harrisburg, with nearly 50,000 residents being governed by a council of seven.

Former long-time mayor and now-First Ward Councilor Robert Reid objected, saying there is no need for change.

"I see no problem with it, none whatsoever," he said. He disagreed that all Middletown residents would feel adequately represented under an at-large system.

"People in this end of the town are not going to be happy with their representation because they have no representation," he said.

Curry bringing up the issue now is "an insult" to the six people who stepped forward to fill the First Ward seat, said Councilor Diana McGlone, who represents the Third Ward. She agreed with Rachelle Reid that voters should decide the issue in a referendum.

"If I had known that this s--- was going to occur right before these people who have volunteered their time to step up to serve this council that this was going to occur now, I would not have come and been the fifth person to make a quorum," McGlone said.

But First Ward Councilor Dawn Knull agreed with Curry's proposal. The First Ward has lost seven to eight blocks of houses totaling at least 60 people, she said. Moreover, she sees herself as representing all of Middletown.

"If I am working for everybody, why not allow them to vote for me?" she asked.

A compromise proposal that would keep the three wards but reduce council to seven members was offered by Council President Ben Kapenstein. The number of councilors from each ward would be shifted to more accurately represent the current population, he said.

Two wards would have two councilors a piece, while the ward with the most people would be represented by three councilors, he said.

Last Updated on Thursday, 21 July 2016 16:06

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Don’t forget: Meeting on future of Elks Theatre will be held Thursday

A special meeting for residents to give input on the future of the Elks Theatre will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 21, by Middletown Borough Council, in the MCSO Building next to the Municipal Building at 60 W. Emaus St.

The theater was closed for life-safety related renovations in April 2015 and has not reopened. Since August 2015, a proposal to reopen the theater has been before the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority, which owns it.

The proposal from Friends of the Elks Theatre, a nonprofit group, says about $500,000 is needed to reopen the theater not just for movies but as a performing arts venue for live theatre, concerts, comedy acts and such.

Mayor James H. Curry says he supports reopening the theater but that the price tag is likely much higher, due to dilapidated conditions. The Friends group has pledged to help with fundraising and getting grants.

Borough consultants say the authority will not have money for the theater until the end of 2016 when reimbursements related to the downtown streetscape come from Dauphin County.

Authority Chairman and Councilor Ian Reddinger proposed the authority sell the theater to the Friends group for $1. He opposes using public money, saying it makes more sense for a private investor to convert the space to a new use such as luxury condominiums or storefronts.

However, the Friends group does not want to own the theater, but instead is requesting to lease it from the borough for 10 years.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 July 2016 15:15

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Streetscape project keeps moving south; Brown to Ann streets next step after Union repaving wraps up

street shot for jasonWEBPress And Journal Photo by Jason Maddux — Crews continue streetscape work at the southeast corner of South Union and Brown streets on Friday, July 15.


Middletown’s downtown streetscape project is to be completed by mid-October, and once this week’s repaving of Union Street from Spring to Brown streets is done, all the remaining work will be focused on the stretch from Brown Street to Ann Street.

Union Street from Spring to Brown is closed to traffic all this week until 6 p.m. Friday, July 22, so that the road can be repaved as part of the streetscape.

A ban on parking on both sides of Union from Spring to Brown remains in effect until this stretch of Union Street is reopened to traffic on July 22. Signs have been put up directing motorists to the free parking that is available behind the Municipal Building at 60 W. Emaus St.

A large sign has also been put up at the square at Main and Union streets, telling people that downtown businesses remain open throughout the streetscape. These signs will remain in place until the streetscape is done in mid-October, Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter told the Press And Journal.

Once this repaving of Union Street is completed, there should be no more need to close any part of Union from Spring to Brown, as the streetscape for this section of the downtown will be finished, Klinepeter said.

New street trees will be planted, but this will be one of the last things to be done as part of the streetscape, Klinepeter said.

Otherwise, the remaining streetscape work is now focused on Union and Brown streets, which is still closed as crews with streetscape contractor Flyway Excavating continue installing bumpouts on all four corners of the intersection.

Once this work is done, Flyway will reopen Brown and Union and move south to Mill and Union streets. The intersection will be closed so Flyway can install bumpouts on all four corners and do sidewalk work, Klinepeter said. Then, in the last phase of the streetscape, work will move further south to South Union and Ann streets, which is where the project ends.

The intersection of Union and Ann will be closed so Flyway can install bumpouts and do associated sidewalk improvements on both corners on the north side. A bumpout will also be installed on the southwest corner.

Plans show no bumpout on the southeast corner, but sidewalk and curb there will be made handicapped-accessible. Also, the concrete island now in the middle of the intersection of Union and Ann will be taken out, Klinepeter said.

The borough gets weekly updates on the streetscape from Flyway and from project consulting engineers HRG.

Flyway was to finish the streetscape by mid-September, but the contractor will be seeking a change order from the borough that moves the anticipated completion back a month, to mid-October, Klinepeter said.

Flyway is citing as reason for the delay changes to the project that have been ordered in recent months by the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority, Klinepeter said.

Flyway’s contract for the streetscape is with the authority and the authority continues to manage the project and be responsible for paying the bills to the contractor. The original contract was $2.7 million, but change orders likely have bumped up the total to closer to $3 million.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 July 2016 15:11

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Crematory vote to be held July 26

The next key step in the controversy over whether a crematory should be allowed in the borough of Middletown will take place Tuesday, July 26.

The Middletown Zoning Hearing Board will vote on whether former borough zoning officer Jeff Miller acted properly when in June 2015 he granted a permit approving the crematory as an allowed accessory use to the main Fager-Finkenbinder Funeral Home at 208 N. Union St.

Opponents contend that the crematory should not be allowed in a densely populated residential area, and that the crematory will result in noise, light and air pollution and will lower the value of surrounding properties. Signs dot the streets of Middletown with slogans such as “Middletown toddlers and Finkenbinder toxins don’t mix” and “No human incineration in Middletown.”

In February, five opponents of the crematory filed an appeal of Miller’s permit with the zoning board. The board met four times on the case and heard more than 10 hours of public testimony before the hearing concluded on May 26.

Tuesday’s meeting, to be held at 6:30 p.m. in council chambers at the Municipal Building, 60 W. Emaus St., will not include public deliberation by the board. Chairman Jack Still and board member Don Graham met in an unadvertised closed-door session on the morning of July 13 to discuss the issue and complete deliberations. Tom Germak is the third board member, but he recused himself from participating in the vote. 

As a result, the July 26 meeting is likely to be brief — in contrast to earlier proceedings — as all the board is expected to do is vote in public and announce the decision. A written version of the decision will come in the days to follow, Still told the Press And Journal.

Zoning boards as a quasi-judicial body are allowed to deliberate behind closed doors for any reason but are not required to do so. Asked why the board chose to deliberate in private, Still emailed the following statement to the Press And Journal:

“A zoning hearing board in Pennsylvania is a quasi-judicial body. Some matters before a zoning hearing board may be charged with emotion that courts recognized deliberations of a zoning hearing board in executive session is desirable.”

Attorneys for Fager-Finkenbinder say that the board should reject the appeal as untimely, because it was filed seven and a half months after Miller’s permit was issued in June 2015.

An appeal must be filed within 30 days of a permit being issued, unless the appellants can prove they were not aware of the permit having been issued, according to the state Municipalities Planning Code, the lawyers for Fager-Finkenbinder say.


Not an end to controversy?

Regardless of how the zoning board decides on July 26, it is unlikely to end the controversy over the crematory that has been raging throughout Middletown for nearly a year now.

Either side — Fager-Finkenbinder or the crematory opponents — could appeal to Dauphin County Court.

Yet another possibility is that the zoning board could deadlock in a 1-1 tie because only two of the board’s three members are hearing the case. Borough council had not appointed an alternate to the board.

In the event of a tie, the result would be to deny the application filed by the appellants, according to Lyndsay Kensinger, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

And even if neither party appeals the board’s decision to county court, Fager-Finkenbinder still has to get approval for an air quality permit to develop and operate the crematory from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

DEP is continuing to review Fager-Finkenbinder’s air quality permit application, which the funeral home filed with the state agency in October 2015.

If DEP approves the air quality permit, Fager-Finkenbinder would still need to submit building plans to Middletown in order to obtain a building permit from the borough to construct the crematory.


Who knew what when?

In September 2015, owner Travis Finkenbinder held an open house at the funeral home during which he told neighbors about the proposed crematory, lawyers for Fager-Finkenbinder say. 

Starting in October 2015, several articles about the crematory and the zoning permit began to appear in the Patriot-News and PennLive, lawyers for the funeral home said. The Patriot-News was the same newspaper that the borough used to publish its legal ads. 

However, lawyers for the appellants point out that two members of borough council — Dawn Knull and Diana McGlone — testified before the zoning board that they knew nothing about the crematory until mid- to late January.

This undermines the argument of the lawyers for Fager-Finkenbinder that the opponents should have known of Miller’s permit being issued from the articles that were published in the newspaper and online, lawyers for the opponents say. 

Moreover, Pennsylvania courts have allowed someone to challenge a zoning permit nearly a year after it was issued, if the neighboring landowner can show that he or she did not have notice of a change of use, lawyers for the appellants say.

Even if the appeal is timely, lawyers for Fager-Finkenbinder say that the board should uphold Miller’s permit because the crematory is “a proper accessory use to an existing permitted funeral home.”

Lawyers for the appellants counter that a funeral home is only allowed in a residential district in Middletown by special exception, and that the zoning ordinance does not permit adding an accessory use like a crematory to any use that is only allowed by special exception.

The converted garage that Fager-Finkenbinder wants to use as the crematory behind the funeral home is a non-conforming use that cannot be converted into another non-conforming use, lawyers for the opponents say.


Health and property values

Lawyers for the funeral home say the opponents’ arguments that the crematory will lead to adverse health impacts and lower property values are unfounded. 

Emissions from the crematory will be no greater than those of a typical home furnace or hot water heater, and the noise outside when the crematory is operating will be “a little louder” than an air conditioner, they said.

The crematory will “exceed” Pennsylvania regulatory requirements for crematories that are “more stringent” than any other state in the nation, the funeral home lawyers said.

The system to be installed at the funeral home typically supports two to four cremations a week, each one taking about two hours to complete. Most cremations will be done during normal business hours, unless an exception is necessary to accommodate the unique needs of a specific family.

The crematory would receive bodies from the four other funeral homes in the area that are owned by Finkenbinder and his wife, lawyers for Finkenbinder said. The crematory would not accept bodies from funeral homes not affiliated with the chain, Finkenbinder said.

Receiving bodies from the four other funeral homes supports the opponents’ argument that the crematory will not be an accessory use but “a second principal business” on the property, lawyers for the opponents say. The ordinance prohibits more than one principal use per lot in the R-2 residential district, they say.

Allowing the crematory in a residential district also contradicts a “general prohibition” against incineration that applies to all zoning districts in the borough, lawyers for the opponents say. 

These lawyers go on to say that a more appropriate location for the Fager-Finkenbinder crematory would be in the borough’s commercial C-2 district, where “mortuary and undertaking establishments” are allowed by right, and where multiple principal uses are allowed side by side on the same parcel.

However, Travis Finkenbinder has said repeatedly — in statements to the media and in testifying before the board — that the crematory needs to be at the funeral home in order to satisfy the wishes of grieving families that the funeral home have “total control” over a deceased body at all times.

Lawyers for Finkenbinder add that most of the cremation systems sold by Matthews International Environmental Solutions, the company to provide the equipment for the Fager-Finkenbinder crematory, are installed “in funeral homes, not in separate stand-alone crematory businesses.”


Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 July 2016 15:04

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