New Hope passes on fire lane dispute

The Borough Council unanimously approved the demolition of part of the building that once housed Zadar’s, but refused to get involved over a shared fire lane dispute between the builders of a new museum and the Bucks County Playhouse.

By: Linda Seida
   NEW HOPE — Council members agreed Tuesday to allow the demolition of a portion of the old River’s Edge Restaurant to make way for a new art museum, but they wanted no part of the dispute among neighboring businesses over a fire lane.
   Council members refused to be drawn into a developing clash between the group building the museum, New Hope Art Corporation and Museum Properties LLC, and the owner of the Bucks County Playhouse. The two share the parking lot where the fire lane is located.
   Attorney William Schaefer told the council the "vast majority" of the fire lane is owned by his client, Ralph Miller, owner of the Playhouse. Mr. Schaefer asked the council to delay its approval of the demolition until an agreement for an easement could be hammered out with the museum backers.
   The council unanimously approved the demolition.
   Martin King, the attorney who represents the museum, contended a Bucks County Court case from 1992, presided over by Judge Isaac Garb, declared the fire lane should be accessible to owners of properties on both sides of the parking lot.
   Mr. Schaefer, however, contended the easement ended when the property changed hands.
   "An agreement needs to be in place for the new applicant to use the fire lane," he said.
   Who is right?
   That decision will be left to the courts. The council wanted no part of the developing debate and cut it off quickly.
   "If you guys can’t resolve what that fire lane should be, most likely it will end up in court, most likely a court of equity," Borough Solicitor Colin Jenei told the battling attorneys. "We are not going to be the tryers of this issue."
   A contention by the museum’s lawyer further inflamed the argument. The Playhouse routinely blocks the fire lane when it needs additional parking space, Mr. King said.
   Mr. Miller, the playhouse’s owner, quickly left his seat in the audience to address that claim. Standing at the microphone, where attorneys and residents alike are asked to address council, he declared, "That’s bullshit."
   "At no time does the Bucks County Playhouse block the fire lane," the theater owner said.
   Councilman Randy Flager, who also is an attorney, characterized the issue as "a private dispute between property owners."
   Council President Richard Hirschfield advised, "It’s something you guys have got to work out. We just want a fire lane there. Period."
   Complicating the issue is the fact the fire lane cannot be placed elsewhere. Doing so would jeopardize the lives of firefighters, according to Fred Williamson, the borough’s fire marshal.
   To make way for the new museum, demolition will begin within three weeks, according to Mr. King.
   "It’ll certainly be done very fast," he said.
   The project, intended to house impressionist art at 50 S. Main St., already had received approval from the borough’s Planning Commission and its Historic Architectural Review Board.
   The part of the structure that will remain after demolition formerly housed Zader’s nightclub. Plans call for an elevated, 5,600-square-foot museum space, leaving room for 20 parking spaces beneath it. Eighteen more parking spaces will be available on site.
   Lambertville gallery owner Jim Alterman belongs to the consortium that is building the museum. The group numbers more than a dozen, yet so far no one, other than Mr. Alterman, has publicly declared involvement, instead choosing to remain anonymous. Mr. Alterman is the proprietor of Jim’s Antiques Fine Art Gallery on Lambert Lane.