Ruling halts controversial plan for student housing
The Indiana County Court of Common Pleas has granted an appeal to a developer’s plans to build a controversial high-density student housing complex along Oakland Avenue in Indiana.
In his ruling, Judge Thomas Bianco said the Indiana Borough Planning Commission erred when it granted final approval to a proposed project that he said failed to comply with all the requirements of Indiana’s zoning ordinance.
Attorneys for B&L now have 30 days to appeal Bianco’s decision to Commonwealth Court.
B&L Properties, of Pennsburg, proposed tearing down the bed and breakfast at 931 Oakland Ave. and replacing it with a two-building complex to house 64 Indiana University of Pennsylvania students.
B&L once planned to have the new complex ready for occupancy this fall.
B&L submitted its preliminary land use plan for the student housing project in the spring of 2012 and then during several borough planning commission meetings modified the plan.
Early in 2013, neighboring property owners began attending planning commission and council meetings, arguing that the proposed student housing project deviated substantially from allowable design standards and contending that the two connected, four-story B&L buildings would not be appropriate for the Oakland Avenue site. The opponents also contended the dozens of tenants living there would cause traffic and parking congestion for nearby residents and in other ways would be detrimental to the safety and welfare of the neighborhood.
The Indiana Borough Planning Commission granted final approval for the plan on May 15, 2013.
Two months later, neighboring property owners Deborah Ames, George and Joanne Stewart, David Moore and Carl Bish filed an appeal and asked the court to reverse the planning commission’s approval of the project. In their appeal the neighboring property owners contended that borough council never granted to the planning commission the jurisdiction to interpret, apply, disregard or modify the provisions of the borough’s zoning ordinance or authority to grant zoning variances.
Among their objections, the appellants argued the proposed B&L buildings would not meet the requirements for fronting toward public streets; would not meet some required setback distances; and would provide no entrances for the disabled.
As the controversy continued last summer, there were indications some council members, too, had reservations about the Oakland Avenue housing project specifically and generally about the ordinance the project was designed under, the traditional neighborhood development overlay zone.
The TND overlay was enacted in 2006 with incentives for developers to build high-density housing projects close to the IUP campus. The idea was to attract students back to the area immediately around the university and away from off-campus rental units scattered throughout residential neighborhoods in the borough.
Some council members expressed the opinion the TND plan was flawed because it allowed high-density structures to be built in some R-2 residential zones near the campus, and that triggered conflicts between the students living in the new structures and their neighbors, many of whom wanted a traditional residential setting of single-family dwellings.
Council in April 2013 placed a moratorium on future high-density student housing projects under the TND while the overlay zone ordinance was evaluated, and on July 2 council repealed the TND ordinance.
Council further signaled its disagreement with the planning commission’s ruling on the Oakland Avenue project when a majority of council in July approved the hiring of Neva Stanger, of Cranberry Township, to represent the borough as a special land use attorney during the appeal. Stanger is now the borough’s solicitor.
In his ruling, Judge Bianco said he reached two conclusions: The final plan submitted by B&L contains elements that do not comply with the requirement of the TND overlay portion of the zoning ordinance; and secondly, neither B&L nor the borough planning commission followed the mandated procedure to request, consider and grant reasonable modifications.
Specifically, Bianco said the TND overlay guidelines within the zoning ordinance provide that buildings like the ones proposed by B&L shall front toward and relate to public streets. But one of the two buildings proposed for 931 Oakland Ave. “does not front toward the public street functionally or visually,” Bianco wrote.
The TND chapter of the zoning ordinance also states that no front yard area of such buildings shall exceed 12 feet from an existing street right-of-way or the edge of a sidewalk, and one of the proposed apartment buildings, under the plan, would be 32 feet from the existing right-of-way or sidewalk edge.
“The failure of the Planning Commission to follow the mandated modification procedure, and to give final approval to a project that fails to comply with all the requirements of the Zoning Ordinance, constitutes an abuse of discretion as well as an error of law,” Bianco wrote in his ruling.
Attorneys for B&L previously noted the neighboring property owners who filed the appeal are landlords in the student rental business, too. The B&L attorneys contended the appeal was filed “to curtail competition.”
B&L and its legal counsel did not return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment on Judge Bianco’s ruling.
Jeff Grim, the planning commission’s chairman last spring, said previously the commission was “operating under the rules that existed” when it approved the plans for the Oakland Avenue housing project. And, he added, the commission members were challenged in reaching a decision because of the very limited staff assistance from the borough.
Grim said it’s his opinion Indiana needs a professional planning staff because of the borough’s complicated zoning ordinance and the large size of development projects being undertaken in the borough.