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2 Antietam school residents file appeals against zoning relief for district’s post-flood plans

A pair of Antietam School District residents have filed appeals against Mount Penn officials’ granting of zoning relief for the district’s plans to rehouse students after a July flood left the middle senior high school uninhabitable.

The appeals leave the fate of the district’s building plans to Berks County Court.

The court will review the Mount Penn Zoning Hearing Board’s decision in March to grant special exceptions for the district’s proposed uses of the Mount Penn Primary Center and Mount Penn Elementary Center.

The district’s plan is to convert the Mount Penn Primary Center into a high school housing grades nine through 12.

Antietam School District officials say they remain committed to plans to renovate the Mount Penn Primary Center to house grades nine through 12 in time for the start of next school year. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Zoning relief granted to the Antietam School District’s plan to convert the Mount Penn Primary Center into a high school housing grades nine through 12 has been challenged by a resident. (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

Modular classrooms for kindergarten through third grade are slated to be installed at the former middle senior high school, with the damaged building being partially demolished and the undamaged parts incorporated into a new elementary school.

All other grades will be housed at the Mount Penn Elementary Center, where classes will take place in two separate wings for older and younger students.

At the zoning hearings, school officials argued that the district has no choice but to repurpose its real estate because no other sufficient properties exist in the district, and neighboring school districts are unable to provide adequate alternatives and unwilling to merge with Antietam.

The 3-0 decision in favor of granting the relief was made by a newly turned over zoning hearing board.

The board was repopulated in March after the resignations of Tera Waters and Calvin Hess by Ryan Kehl, a regular voting member, and two alternates, Tianna Schaeffer and Clark Bussey.

The appellants

The special exception for the primary center is being appealed by George Saltzman, and the elementary center’s zoning relief is  being appealed by Jennifer Lopez.

Saltzman and Lopez take issue with how the district’s building plan has impacted parking in the area, claiming a lack of adequate spaces is creating congestion and safety hazards.

At a March hearing, Saltzman said the problems surrounding the primary center include double parking, illegal parking, blocking of driveways and the use of private alleyways by the public.

Lopez said she lives near the elementary center and has been dealing with parking issues all year due to increased traffic around the building.

“It has fallen on deaf ears to both the superintendent and borough council,” Lopez said in an email to the Reading Eagle. “They (school personnel) refuse to use the parking lot that the taxpayers lease.”

Dr. Heidi Rochlin, superintendent, did not respond to a request for comment.

Borough weighs in

Borough manager Hunter Ahrens said Mount Penn is watching with interest as to how the appeals play out.

Mount Penn Borough Manager Hunter Ahrens explains the technical details behind the zoning process during a special borough council meeting Monday night to inform the public about progress made with zoning and traffic study issues related to the reconfiguration of Antietam School District buildings due to major flooding last summer. (BILL UHRICH - READING EAGLE)
Mount Penn Borough Manager Hunter Ahrens (BILL UHRICH – READING EAGLE)

He noted borough council previously passed letters of support for the district’s building plans.

The zoning hearing board referenced those letters in both buildings’ approval rulings.

In a March press release following the approval of the zoning relief, borough officials said they were pleased the community was moving forward.

“The borough will be responsible for awarding building permits and conducting inspections of work that are required for any renovations, and we will do so collaboratively with the school district,” borough officials said in the release.

Ahrens noted the borough’s position is that the district’s plans for the properties would only be impeded if a judge were to directly order a permit or construction work to stop.

“From the borough’s perspective, in terms of the permits, nothing has changed until we’re ordered by a court to do it or not,” Ahrens said.

That an appeal of the case may delay construction and force classes online has been a concern for students and parents alike — a concern parents and administrators echoed during the zoning hearings.

Central to administrators’ case was the assertion the July flood caused undue hardship warranting the districts’ proposed plans.

The appeals

That argument, and dozens of others, were contested in the appeals, which claim the zoning board was influenced by the district’s desire to quickly enact its plans.

The appeals also claim the zoning board:

• Failed to consider testimony from residents about traffic, parking and safety concerns surrounding the buildings.

• Improperly determined the zoning relief doesn’t change the character of the neighborhood.

• Let the district improperly double count parking spaces, applying one space to the total parking count of both buildings, and relied on verbal agreements for parking with local institutions to make its case.

• Failed to hold the primary center to the standards of a 2004 ruling in county court that limits how the property can be used.

• Failed to delay a decision until the completion of traffic studies required by the zoning hearing board as a condition for the buildings’ use.

Both appeals were authored by attorney Alexander J. Elliker of Kutztown, representing Saltzman and Lopez.

The case against the elementary center plan has been assigned to Judge James E. Gavin, while the primary center case has been assigned to Judge J. Benjamin Nevius, according to county records.

On May 9, Antietam filed a notice of intervention in both cases, meaning the district intends to participate as a party of record.

Source: Berkshire mont

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