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Chinese restaurant owner claims harassment by Middletown borough, mayor; parking lot cited

By Dan Miller

Posted 8/8/19

The owner of a Chinese restaurant on North Union Street in Middletown says he might be forced to close it and move elsewhere if the borough continues what he alleges to be a pattern of harassment …

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Chinese restaurant owner claims harassment by Middletown borough, mayor; parking lot cited

Howard Dong stands in front of his He Group restaurant at East High and North Union streets in Middletown on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019.
Howard Dong stands in front of his He Group restaurant at East High and North Union streets in Middletown on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019.

The owner of a Chinese restaurant on North Union Street in Middletown says he might be forced to close it and move elsewhere if the borough continues what he alleges to be a pattern of harassment against his business.

“It’s a pattern. If this pattern continues, if the hardship continues, we have no choice,” Howard Dong, owner of the He Group restaurant, said Aug. 7 while standing outside of the restaurant at the southeast corner of High and North Union streets.

“No business can afford this kind of trouble,” he added. “We have to put our energy into making our food better, into serving our customers better and into making the economy better here, not to deal with the borough,” he said.

Dong made the comments following a hearing before District Judge David Judy to consider five citations that the borough’s codes and zoning officer filed against the restaurant from May 21 through June 11.

Dong during his testimony claimed that Middletown Mayor James H. Curry III — who lives across the street from the restaurant — had opposed him opening his Chinese restaurant at the site from the beginning.

According to Dong, Curry tried to get neighbors who also live near the property at 460 N. Union St. to “work against” the restaurant opening by raising concerns over the lack of on-street parking in the area.

The citations all had to do with construction of a parking lot on the property. According to Middletown Zoning & Codes Officer Al Geosits, the borough approved a plan for the lot that had been submitted by Dong’s engineer.

Dong before the hearing had pleaded not guilty to all five citations.

Judy, after hearing testimony from Geosits and Dong, chose not to impose any fines against Dong, but to give Dong and the borough another 30 days to resolve the issue.

“We’re not here to fine anybody,” Judy said. “I’m going to give you some time to work with him (Geosits). If you resolve it, I dismiss all five citations. I want to see some progress.”

That means completing construction of the parking lot according to the plan for stormwater that the borough had approved.

Judy during the hearing said he does not believe that the borough is trying to drive Dong and his restaurant out of town.

He told Dong that he has found Geosits to be “a very fair man.”

“I’m glad you are here. You and your wife have invested money in Middletown,” Judy said. “We do have rules and legal requirements that have to be followed, or you can alter your plan. If you feel you are being harassed, you can file a complaint. You have to follow the rules.”

Lashes out at mayor

Dong contended during testimony that Curry had sent police to ticket customers at the restaurant, as a form of harassment.

Contacted for a response by the Press & Journal, Curry denied that he has ever opposed Dong opening his restaurant at the property, but that Dong is upset over having to follow the same laws and regulations that any other business is expected to follow in Middletown.

“Howard is extremely confused concerning the facts of law,” Curry said. “I was one of the first to welcome him and receive a menu from him. I welcomed him with another neighbor and took a tour of the building.”

Curry said that when Dong told him of a bench being stolen from his property, the mayor advised Dong to install video surveillance, which Dong has done.

Regarding the allegation about police targeting the restaurant, Curry said he does not “control” the issuing of tickets by police.

Curry did say that he has reported to police complaints that have been passed onto him by neighbors in the area, about people parking illegally or in a manner that creates an unsafe condition at the intersection of High and Union.

“I am not aware of tickets” being written by police as a result, Curry said, adding that it is his understanding that when a violation has been reported to police, the officer goes into the restaurant and asks that the vehicle be moved instead of a ticket being issued.

“It’s at their discretion” as to whether a ticket is written, Curry said, referring to the police. However, “your customers don’t get a pass because you are a new business.”

Curry, who lives at 463 N. Union St., said he hasn’t singled out the restaurant. If residents tell him of parking violations anywhere in the borough, he reports them to police.

For example, Curry said he has reported to police customers parking on the sidewalk at the property of a garage on West Main Street.

Curry also said that as mayor he doesn’t control code enforcement.

“He has to abide by the laws. Howard is just bitter that his feet are being held to the fire. I have absolutely nothing to do with it,” Curry said. “It’s insulting to insinuate that someone is trying to sabotage his business. We are trying to ensure the safety of residents.”

Working within the plan?

Dong in a lengthy presentation to Judy during the hearing described what he alleged has been a pattern of harassment by the borough dating back to when he and his wife purchased the property, a former bed-and-breakfast, in December 2016.

However, Geosits during the hearing said: “I am not persecuting Mr. Dong. This is about parking, not about any issues in the past.”

The borough stopped work on the lot because, according to Geosits, He Group’s contractor is not constructing the lot according to the standards that the borough approved in the plan.

These standards chiefly concern regulations for controlling stormwater runoff from the He Group property onto other properties in the area, Geosits said during the hearing.

Geosits said He Group has also not met requirements in the plan that call for providing space in the lot for handicapped parking, and for making the restaurant itself handicapped-accessible.

“We’re reacting to what he is doing, and making sure he is doing it in accordance with borough and state regulations,” Geosits told Judy.

Geosits noted during the hearing that, according to borough zoning, Dong is not required to provide off-street parking, but that Dong had chosen to construct the lot, voluntarily.

Dong said that he only chose to build the off-street lot after Geosits came to him with complaints from neighbors living around the restaurant about a lack of on-street parking.

Geosits during the hearing denied ever bringing such complaints to Dong. “I only came about the parking on the stone,” he said.

The first three citations that the borough issued in May concerned the work at the lot not being done in compliance with the plan that the borough had approved.

The last two citations, both issued by the borough in June, were violations over He Group allowing vehicles to be parked upon the lot. He Group is no longer allowing vehicles to be parked in the lot, Geosits said during the hearing.

Geosits said during the hearing that the borough had been working with Dong to try and revise the plan in a way that would reduce the cost, and was willing to continue doing so.

Or, as Judy pointed out, Dong can tear out the stone and the parking lot and restore the yard to its previous state. That would mean that all parking for the restaurant and its staff would have to be on the street.

Dong after the hearing said he will have to spend more money in either case, but that it makes more sense to try and complete construction of the off-street parking lot.

“If you spend $20,000 for putting the stone down and then remove it, you get nothing. Or you spend (another) $20,000 (for a total of $40,000) and get parking. There is no choice,” Dong said.

However, he contended that the borough is applying “a luxury standard” to his off-street parking lot that the borough has not applied to any other business in town.

“This makes it harder for small businesses coming in,” he said. “You increase the price for parking from $20,000 to $60,000. That is a lot for any small business. We don’t see any incentive for the town trying to attract more businesses to be here.”

Discrimination alleged

Dong during the hearing had also referred to acts of alleged discrimination against his business in Middletown. He said that anti-Chinese graffiti had been written upon the sign at the entrance to the restaurant.

He also told of an incident where someone driving slowly by the restaurant had shouted, “Get out of this town, f****** Chinese.”

Besides the citations the borough has filed against him regarding the parking, Dong said the borough has told him he must replace all of his brick sidewalk because of a loose brick that was found.

He Group has already opened a second restaurant location in Harrisburg and is looking to open a third in the area, although that location has not been identified.

Dong said that if the pattern of harassment continues, he may look to close the Middletown restaurant and move it to Hershey.

“We don’t know what kind of problems they will find after the parking or after the brick. If this continues, if they keep giving us some unfair hardship, we have no choice,” he said.