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Upper Nazareth Officials Divided On Heritage Village Project

Township supervisors will vote next month on whether to appeal zoning officer's position; appeal would be highly unusual move.

planning commission has a longstanding dispute with the township zoning officer over building plans by , and now it wants the township supervisors to get involved.

At issue is Moravian Hall Square's proposal for a 143-unit independent living community for seniors called Harvest Village. The planners and zoning officer John Soloe disagree on housing density -- how many units can be built. 

Soloe has sent a letter to Moravian Hall Square officials that seemed to support their plans, although one question raised at Wednesday's supervisors meeting concerned whether the developers misinterpreted Soloe's position.

The planners on Wednesday asked the supervisors to appeal Soloe's position to the township zoning hearing board. After an hour of lively debate, supervisors tabled the request, saying they needed more time to study the matter. They plan to vote on the issue at their next meeting on Nov. 2, chairman Mike Rinker said.

The longstanding difference in opinion between Soloe and the planners came to a head at last week's planners meeting after they learned that Soloe had sent the letter to Moravian Hall Square.

The crux of the dispute is housing density.

The planned Heritage Village spreads across two residential zoning districts -- one an R-2, the other an R-3 -- that have different limits for housing density. Soloe views the proposed senior village as a planned residential development, or PRD, and bases his calculation for allowable housing density on an average of the two zoning districts after the districts are “merged” for mathematical purposes.

The planners feel that viewpoint could set a bad precedent, chairwoman Pam Berlew said. The planners support treating each zoning district strictly according to township zoning regulations, which would require the developers to change their plans.

The planners last week resolved to ask township supervisors to appeal Soloe's interpretation to the township zoning hearing board -- a quasi-judicial body appointed by the supervisors that rules on zoning appeals.

“We'd like a ruling from the zoning hearing board,” Berlew told supervisors. “We don't think the density can be combined. It's not in our [zoning] ordinance to combine two districts.”

Theodore Lewis, attorney for the developers, said Soloe's position has been well-known for almost a year, since supervisors voted on a related issue regarding how to determine open space guidelines for the project.

"I am dismayed we are here tonight," Lewis said. "We are dismayed there is any dispute about this."

Supervisors also seemed dismayed the issue came before them.

“We keep kicking this can around,” Supervisor Jim Fahr said.

Fahr and Rinker said they just received a packet of information from Soloe and needed time to review it.

Township Solicitor Gary Asteak noted there is little case law involving issues similar to those in the Heritage Village dispute. He also clarified a few points regarding the pecking order and checks and balances of municipal government.

Supervisors approve a township's zoning ordinance and appoint a zoning officer to enforce it -- but supervisors cannot overrule a zoning officer's decision on a zoning matter, Asteak said.

Supervisors may appeal a zoning officer's decision to the township zoning hearing board, though that rarely happens.

If supervisors file such an appeal, the zoning board's decision may be appealed to Northampton County Court.

Editor's Note: This story has been changed to reflect the correct name of "Heritage Village." In an earlier version, the independent living community was incorrectly called "Harvest Village."

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