Delays for plans to save historic house

Allentown planning/zoning board tables discussion on proposal for Armenante property.

By: Mark Moffa
   ALLENTOWN — The borough’s planning/zoning board this week decided not to hear Frank and Margaret Armenante’s plans for 12 N. Main St. until next month.
   After an hourlong discussion with an attorney representing the Armenantes, the board opted to continue the hearing on a minor subdivision and site plan proposal on June 3, after the Armenantes have shown their new plans to the Historic Preservation Review Commission.
   The commission rejected the couple’s previous plans on March 19 in a heated meeting. At that time, Ms. Armenante, a Borough Council member, and Mr. Armenante, an attorney, wanted to tear down the Malsbury & Armenante law firm, which is housed at 12 N. Main St. in a building dating to the mid-1800s.
   The couple wanted to build a house where the office currently sits and construct a new office behind the new house. The commission balked at the plan, however, as all but one member rejected it, stating the structure was too important to the borough’s historic district to be torn down.
   Although the commission’s recommendation for the borough to reject the plan was merely a recommendation — the commission’s decisions have no legal standing — the Armenantes changed their plans so the historic building could remain.
   The new plan calls for a minor subdivision of the existing Business District lot.
   The entire property to the north of borough hall is about 1 acre in size. Approximately 130 feet of the lot fronts on North Main Street. Ms. Armenante wants to shrink the frontage for the law building to 70 feet, making it a commercial lot. She said zoning ordinances allow a minimum of 40 feet.
   The remaining 50 feet will be used for a residential property that will wrap around the commercial law office lot. A new house — similar to the one originally proposed to replace the office building — would be built about 195 feet from the street.
   When it came time during Monday’s meeting for the board to consider the Armenante plan, planning/zoning board Chairman Jeffrey McLaughlin noted that the Historic Preservation Review Commission had not looked at this plan.
   "I think that in order to keep the process going in the right way, this needs to be heard by the Historic Preservation Review Commission," he said.
   Attorney Michael Balint was at the meeting representing Mr. and Ms. Armenante. Mr. Balint serves as the lawyer for Washington Township’s Planning Board and housing board.
   Mr. Balint agreed the commission should look at the plans for the new house first, and thus was OK with the board not hearing the site plan application. But the subdivision application was complete, he said, and merely involved redrawing lot lines — something over which the commission has no jurisdiction.
   "I do believe we have every right to proceed on the minor subdivision," he told planning/zoning board attorney Dan Green.
   "I don’t know of any legal basis by which you could argue this board doesn’t have the right to delay this" to seek the opinion of the commission, Mr. Green responded. "It’s just been the policy of the board to rely on the decisions of the Historic Preservation Commission."
   The legal battle continued for an hour, with Mr. Green debating Mr. Balint. Mr. Armenante, who twice conferred with Mr. Balint, appeared frustrated at the proceedings.
   "I’m pissed off! This is ridiculous! This is a subdivision, not a site plan," Mr. Armenante blurted at one point, despite Mr. Balint’s advice to him to keep quiet.
   At one point, Mr. Balint convinced Mr. Green the Armenantes had a legal right to be heard on the subdivision part of the plan because — according to Mr. Balint — it was a simple minor subdivision that required no variances.
   "By law, they are entitled to their subdivision," Mr. Green said. "I don’t know how you don’t vote on it tonight."
   But when Mr. Balint began interviewing his client as to the details of the subdivision it became evident that a variance may be required.
   In what Mr. Balint called "a prior nonconforming encroachment," the one-and-a-half story building behind the office in which the Armenantes are currently living would be located mostly on the new residential lot. However, 4.6 feet of the structure would be over the proposed new property line and into the commercial lot for the office building.
   This structure, which used to be a garage for the office building, has been converted into a three-bedroom cottage by the Armenantes. According to historians, it used to be part of the original building.
   Ms. Armenante previously said she wouldn’t mind if the structure could remain — as preservationists may prefer — but she admitted it may need to come down to comply with the zoning code.
   Mr. Green halted Mr. Armenante’s testimony when the topic of the encroachment was broached. He warned Mr. Balint that in light of this information the board no longer was obligated to hear the subdivision plan.
   "But the subdivision does not in any way increase the nonconformity of the building," Mr. Balint argued in vain.
   "It’s a nonconforming location," Mr. Green said. "You need a bulk variance."
   Mr. Armenante at this point said he would take the garage down so a variance would not be required.
   At this, Mr. Green said the Historic Preservation Review Commission’s opinion definitely would be needed because demolition of the garage now was included in the subdivision application.
   The Historic Preservation Review Commission will review the plan at its May 22 meeting. Mr. Balint said he hopes the commission will consider how far the Armenantes have come with their plan.
   Mr. Balint said the revised plan is "a reaction from things we have heard in the community," although Ms. Armenante recently said the new proposal was not a response to public outcry against the original plan to raze the law office.
   Betsy Poinsett, who chairs the historic commission, also sits on the planning/zoning board. She assured Mr. Balint that the commission will be appreciative of the Armenantes’ decision to save the historic office building.
   Mr. Balint told the planning/zoning board that he was aware some members had signed a petition against the demolition of the office building before the plans were revised.
   "Anyone who advocates actively against an applicant should recuse themselves," he said. No board members gave any indication as to whether they intend to abstain from voting on the proposal when it comes before the board again next month.
   Mr. Balint asked that the board definitely vote on the plan next month, as the Armenantes will be affected financially by the delay in their plans.
   "This whole delay is costing me a lot, a lot of money," Mr. Armenante said loudly toward the end of the meeting.
   Ms. Armenante did not speak during the meeting.