Written by Dan Miller
A zoning board hearing on whether to allow a crematory at a North Union Street funeral home in downtown Middletown will resume for a third day of testimony at 6:45 p.m. on Thursday, May 26 in Borough Hall.
The Middletown Zoning Hearing Board is hearing the case to consider an appeal filed by five borough residents that challenges a determination reached in 2015 by former borough zoning officer Jeffrey Miller that the crematory would be allowed as “an accessory use” to the existing Fager-Finkenbinder Funeral Home at 208 N. Union St.
The residents are supported by a citizens’ group, known as the Middletown Citizens Awareness Network, that opposes locating the crematory at the site.
Many of those in the group live next or close to the site of the proposed crematory. The residents contend that the crematory will be a source of air and noise pollution and reduce surrounding property values.
Travis Finkenbinder, the funeral home’s owner and owner of three other funeral homes in nearby towns, thus far has made few public comments regarding the crematory.
Finkenbinder has said that the crematory is in response to rising demand from customers. Locating the crematory next to the funeral home is in response to the concerns of family members that their loved one’s remains stay within “the chain of custody” of the funeral home itself, Finkenbinder has said.
The equipment to be installed for the cremation system in Middletown is used in crematories throughout Pennsylvania, including several in Dauphin County, all of which have been approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Finkenbinder has said.
After obtaining Miller’s approval for the use in June, Fager-Finkenbinder in October applied to DEP for an air quality permit required to operate the crematory. DEP is continuing its review of the permit.
Opponents contend that state oversight of crematories in Pennsylvania is insufficient to protect the public. Crematories are not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In January, opponents of the crematory went to Middletown Borough Council with their concerns. Councilors appeared sympathetic to those concerns, and on Feb. 2 voted to hire their own legal counsel and pursue a court injunction to block the crematory. However, to date no injunction has been filed.
Eight hours of testimony
In March, the zoning board agreed to hear the appeal of Miller’s ruling to permit the crematory as an “accessory use.” To date, the board has heard nearly eight hours of testimony over two nights of hearings – first on April 27 and then on May 10.
Here are the highlights so far:
• One of the board’s three members, Tom Germak, recused himself from the case after it was revealed that Germak had attended an informational public meeting on the crematory held by the citizens’ group on March 24. Germak made comments suggesting he was opposed to the crematory, according to testimony offered during the hearing.
Germak’s exit left the case to be decided by the board’s two remaining members, Chairman Jack Still and Don Graham, since council had never appointed an alternate to the board.
• Two of the five appellants, Charles Brenneman and Connie Lauffer, testified that they did not know of the crematory proposal until January, while a third, Michelle Allen, who is acting as power of attorney for her mother, Marjorie W. Rhen, testified that she didn’t know about the proposal until February.
All three expressed concern over air emissions from the crematory. Brenneman and Lauffler testified that they feared the crematory would reduce the value of their property and Allen said she feared the facility would make it more difficult to attract renters to her mother’s property, which sits about a block away from Fager-Finkenbinder.
• Ron Salvatore, a sales representative for Matthews International, the Pittsburgh-based company providing the crematory equipment, testified that the system to be installed in Middletown is the “smallest” that the company makes for human cremation.
The equipment typically supports “small volume operations” of from 100 to 300 cremations a year, or two to three a week on average, Salvatore testified.
He contended that DEP’s oversight of crematories is among the most stringent in the nation, along with New York.
• Miller, the former Middletown zoning and codes officer, testified that, contrary to news media accounts, he did not approve the zoning permit application from Fager-Finkenbinder within 24 hours of receiving it.
Miller said he met with Finkenbinder about a week before June 23, 2015, when Finkenbinder submitted his written application. Between meeting with Finkenbinder and receiving the written application, Miller testified that he completed about 12 hours of research that led him to conclude that the crematory would be an allowed accessory use to the funeral home.
Miller said much of his research involved going on the Web site of Pennsylvania’s court system to find cases pertaining to crematories. Miller testified that he did the research on his own without the help of any legal counsel.
By the time Miller received the written application from Fager-Finkenbinder, he had already concluded that the crematory would be a permitted use and was preparing a draft letter to that effect to accompany the approved permit application going to Finkenbinder.
However, Miller acknowledged under questioning that he did not consider whether the crematory would accept remains not just from the Middletown funeral home but from the three other funeral homes that Fager-Finkenbinder owns in Palmyra, Elizabethtown and Marietta.
“The definition of accessory use identifies that accessory use has to be pertinent to the principal use on that property, not other properties,” Miller testified.
Miller also testified that the approval he granted in June was the first of two that Finkenbinder would need from the borough. Finkenbinder would also need to submit building plans to be reviewed by the borough to make sure they comply with building code requirements, Miller testified.
Miller acknowledged that to a large degree he was operating in an information vacuum regarding the funeral home and the crematory.
The borough zoning ordinance has no references to a crematory. The funeral home itself is “identified” as allowed in the R-2 residential district by special exception, but Miller could find no documentation regarding when the funeral home had ever been established as a permitted use in the borough.
“What I didn’t find was an original application or any sort of documentation that identified how the funeral home use came about” at 208 N. Union St., Miller testified.
Jerry Walls, a professional planner called to testify for the appellants, acknowledged under questioning by an attorney for Fager-Finkenbinder that where the literal language in a zoning ordinance is not clear, the interpretation should favor the property owner.
However, Walls also suggested it is “advisable” for a zoning officer to consult with a solicitor in situations where the ordinance and case law are “unclear.”
Aaron Martin, an attorney for the appellants, said he may have one more witness to call when the hearing resumes on May 26. Finkenbinder himself has not yet been asked to testify by either side.
In the event of a tie vote by the board – since only two members now are hearing the case – the result would be to deny the application filed by the appellants who are appealing Miller’s ruling, according to Lyndsay Kensinger, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
In other words, the approval granted by Miller to the crematory would be allowed to stand.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 May 2016 15:46
Written by Dan Miller
A contract to begin preparing the site of the new Middletown passenger train station will be awarded this month or in early June by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, a department spokeswoman said.
PennDOT has advertised for bids for the first phase of the Amtrak station project, including the demolition of a metal frame storage building on the site along West Main Street, as well as fencing, drainage work and other site preparation, said PennDOT spokeswoman Erin Waters-Trasatt.
The first phase does not include any rail or track work. PennDOT hopes that rail and track work can begin later this year, depending upon the availability of workers from Norfolk Southern and Amtrak, Waters-Trasatt said.
The long-planned train station will be located just west of the Westporte Centre shopping center and will replace the existing Amtrak station on Mill Street.
The project also includes building a pedestrian bridge across West Main Street (Route 230) from the Penn State Harrisburg campus side to the new train station and extending West Emaus Street to West Main Street to provide a more direct route to downtown Middletown.
PennDOT officials hope to begin construction of the new station sometime in 2016. The project will take about two years to complete.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 May 2016 15:40
Written by Eric Wise
The future of Exelon’s Three Mile Island nuclear generation facility does not hang in the balance of an upcoming auction of future electricity, despite the company’s threat to close sister plants in Illinois, Exelon officials said.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 May 2016 15:38
Eastbound off-ramp closed Sunday from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. Monday
Motorists traveling on US 322 in Derry Twp. have been alerted by PennDOT of work to begin Sunday, May 15.
Hempt Brothers, contractor for the project will eastbound U.S. 322 off-ramp for Hummelstown/Middletown from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. the following morning. Milling and resurfacing work will be undertaken, weather permitting.
The work is part of an ongoing $13 million construction project that began May 8 to repair and resurface a seven mile section of US 322 between the Eisenhower Interchange in Swatara Twp. and the Hershey interchange with Route 39 and US 422 in Derry Twp.
The contract includes roadway base repair, milling and resurfacing the existing roadway and shoulders with new asphalt. On the concrete portions of the project, the contractor will make concrete repairs and apply a thin friction course on the pavement. The project also includes guiderail replacement, minor drainage improvements, and curb ramp improvements associated with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Work under this construction contract is scheduled to be completed next summer.
PennDOT advises travelers that they may continue to encounter shifting traffic patterns and/or single-lane traffic restrictions through the work zone on weeknights from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Some sections of US 322 average more than 21,000 vehicles traveled daily.
Last Updated on Friday, 13 May 2016 14:03
Middletown police are still looking for a man who stole two cartons of cigarettes and donations meant for victims of muscular dystrophy from the Karns Quality Foods store on South Union Street shortly after 1 a.m. on Wednesday, April 27.
Police said the man entered the store by smashing two back door windows. Besides the cigarettes, the man stole two containers from the check-out counters that held donations to support the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
There was money in both containers, but the total amount is not known, Chief John Bey told the Press And Journal.
Police are looking for help in catching the suspect, who they describe as a black male 20 to 30 years of age, 6 feet tall and wearing a black hoodie, glasses, camouflage-style shorts, black socks and white mid-high sneakers. Police are analyzing video surveillance and forensic evidence collected from the scene.
Anyone with information is asked to call Middletown police at 717-902-0627 or the non-emergency number for Dauphin County 911 at 717-558-6900.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 May 2016 15:47