The Bethlehem Planning Commission rejected controversial plans for a psychiatric hospital by Bethlehem Catholic High School because they were incomplete, but the developer vowed to appeal.
The 4-1 vote came Thursday evening after a lengthy — and at times heated –meeting where developer Abe Atiyeh unsuccessfully pushed for a third project extension and then asked the board for conditional approval.
Tom Barker was the only commission member to vote in favor of granting conditional approval to the proposed psychiatric hospital at 1838 Center St.
The remainder of the commission was wary of Atiyeh’s long history with the property and his radio silence for the last six months. They declined to give him more time to address, what the chairman called, “monumental deficiencies.”
“We’re going to appeal it,” Atiyeh said following the vote.
Back in 2013, the planning commission approved Atiyeh’s plans for an 80-bed, one-story hospital at the corner of Center and Dewberry Avenue with the caveat it could not be a treatment center.
He’s moving forward with those plans and he believes a psychiatric hospital is allowed. But the resubmission would give him more options and another five years to deliver on those plans, he said.
In 2016, Acadia Healthcare abruptly pulled its plans for an 80-bed psychiatric hospital on the land by Bethlehem Catholic High School ahead of a planning commission meeting.
Then in May of 2017, Atiyeh submitted a proposal almost identical to his 2013 approved plans where the hospital was now called a psychiatric hospital.
The submission came just hours before city council took its first vote to restrict where such hospitals can be built. But Thursday’s discussion did not focus on the type of hospital.
City officials say the May submission was missing key portions of a land development plan, like the landscaping, erosion control and stormwater management portions.
The city notified Atiyeh of these problems in a July letter, which the developer still had not responded to Thursday.
“It’s nearly six months,” said Darlene Heller, city planning director. “We’ve not received any correspondence at all.”
But Atiyeh’s team maintained the plans were identical to the 2013 approved plans and the city had a complete new set of plans.
Assistant City Solicitor Ed Healy said Bethlehem Manor submitted deficient plans in hopes of gaining approval to avoid the pending ordinance.
Commission member Louis Stellato said he was very concerned that no one from Bethlehem Manor LLC had replied to the July letter, yet Atiyeh had asked for and been granted both a 60-day and 90-day extension. The extensions expire at the end of the month.
On Thursday, attorney James Kratz asked the commission to give Atiyeh an extension until April 30 because his two regular attorneys were unavailable for Thursday’s meeting.
“It’s a scheduling issues,” Kratz, who said he was not well versed in the project, said. “I don’t see a pressing issue on this.”
Steven Goudsouzian, an attorney representing homeowners who opposed the project, urged the board to reject the extension request.
“The neighborhood deserves some closure on this,” he said.
The city argued Bethlehem Manor said in December it did not need another extension, so it was put on the agenda to meet the deadline.
Healy said the planning commission did not need to accept limitless extension requests.
“There was plenty of time given,” he said after the meeting.
The extension led to a very heated exchange between the commission, city officials and develpers.
Atiyeh pressed all of the commission members to say whether any council or city officials had contacted them about his project ahead of the meeting.
“Hopefully, you’d be truthful,” Atiyeh said.
“Mr. Atiyeh, by no means are we are on trial here,” Chariman Rob Melosky said. “… Absolutely not have I been contacted by anyone concerning this.”
Eventually, Melosky asked the board if anyone wanted to make a motion to grant the extension, but no one acted.
Atiyeh then said he was prepared to have the application fully reviewed.
“We understand you are not going to grant the extension,” Atiyeh said. “We will accept every condition on that list.”
Atiyeh claimed he was delayed in responding to the city’s July letter because he was dealing with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation issues related to the 2013 plans. City officials dismissed the PennDOT permiting as irrelevant to the new sumission.
David Harte said he submitted the full plans for the project on Atiyeh’s behalf. Perhaps one got misplaced, but they can easily be provided, he said.
Melosky then made a motion to give Atiyeh one month to respond to all of the plan’s deficincies. It failed with only Barker and Melosky supporting it.
Finally, member Matthew Malozi made a motion to deny the preliminary land development plan, which was supported by Malozi, Stellato, Melosky and member Joy Cohen.
But the vote is far from the final word on the controversial plans for the site.
Atiyeh got the plans in just hours before city council announced it planned to change city zoning to tighten where psychiatric hospitals can be located.
Council eventually voted to change city zoning so that behavioral health facilities and psychiatric hospitals are categorized as treatment centers, meaning they would require special approvals by the zoning hearing board and only be allowed in certain areas.
Atiyeh believes the submission rejected Thursday is grandfathered under the old law. If he were to resubmit his plans, they would be subject to the new restrictions.
The developer also says his 2013 approvals clear the way for him to open a psychiatric hospital on the property. But Healy said that determination would be made when the zoning officer issues a certificate of occupancy for the property.