ZONING HEARING BOARD
With the rejection of an appeal by neighbors concerning a veterinary clinic along West Emmaus Avenue, the owner of the clinic hopes to move forward with work to ready the facility for an opening in 2019.
“We’ll start the work,” Dr. Samantha Ottinger, owner of Dr. Sam’s Veterinary House Calls, PC, 3115 W. Emmaus Ave., Salisbury Township, told a reporter for The Press after the June 25 Salisbury Township Zoning Hearing Board meeting.
“And I hope the neighbors will begin to see me as an asset and not a burden. I will continue to work with them in the future,” Ottinger said.
The clinic must apply for an occupancy permit after work is completed, Salisbury Township Assistant Township Manager-Code Enforcement Director Sandy Nicolo told a reporter for The Press after the hearing.
The work includes installation of an Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramp.
Work, in addition to the ramp, could take until the end of the year, according to Ottinger.
By a vote of 5-0, members of the township zoning hearing board voted to deny the appeal of Scott and Pamela Horvath challenging the decision of Salisbury Township Director of Planning and Zoning Cynthis Sopka that allowed the use at 3115 W. Emmaus Ave., “a mobile veterinary office as a use permitted by right.”
Zoner Atty. Kent Herman made the motion, seconded by zoner Ronald Evans, to bring the vote on the appeal to a vote.
The applicants challenged Sopka’s determination, alleging that “the use of property in the C-2 Neighborhood Commercial District does not allow for this type of use.
“Applicants raised issues that there are a number of dimensional areas where the use proposed is deficient, including lot area and number of parking spaces.
“Applicants are appealing the issuance of Permit Numbers 17-10624 and 18-11388 due to errors of the zoning officer’s interpretation of the zoning ordinance and the zoning officer finding such uses did not require relief.”
The township zoners’ decision didn’t directly address the applicants (the Horvaths’) appeal concerns because the decision hinged on a technicality. The zoners’ vote of denial was based on their determination that the Horvaths did not file their appeal 30 days after they knew about the work at the clinic.
Following a Feb. 6 township meeting, Ottinger was told by township officials she could proceed with work necessary to open the clinic.
Ottinger suspended work at the facility after the Horvaths filed their appeal.
According to Atty. Victor F. Cavacini, partner, Gross McGinley, LLP, Attorneys At Law, township zoning hearing board solicitor, the Horvaths’ appeal was denied “for the reason that the appeal was not timely-filed.”
The zoning hearing board has 48 days from the time of the June 25 meeting decision to issue its ruling, after which the Horvaths have 30 days to appeal the ruling.
The June 25 hearing, which began 7 p.m. and concluded 9:45 p.m., was a continuation of the June 4 hearing, which began 7:30 p.m., following another zoning case, and concluded 11:15 p.m. About six hours of testimony was heard at the two zoning hearings.
Several residents spoke at the June 25 hearing, with some favoring and some opposing the clinic.
Monica Hodges, one of Ottinger’s clients, said, “I have been with Dr. Sam for 10 years. She’s hard-working. She has a good heart. She’s compassionate. She’s not out to ruin the neighborhood. I would love to have her as a neighbor.”
George Frick, owner of A&H Sporting Goods, 3103 W. Emmaus Avenue, a nearby business at West Emmaus Avenue and 31st Street, said, “She’s a small business owner trying to make a living. I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal. I just wish we could all get together.”
Regarding concerns about vehicles traveling too fast on an alley at the back of the clinic property, Tom Pappas, who lives next door to the clinic building, said, “You could put speed bumps in. Some people are trying to avoid the train and they go pretty darn fast.” The Norfolk Southern freight line intersection at 31st Street requires a gate to be lowered, stopping traffic on 31st Street, when a train traverses the railroad crossing. “I live the closest to Miss Ottinger and I have no objection,” Pappas added.
Kristopher Strain said, “Up until a few years ago, you couldn’t even drive on the alley. The Lehigh County Authority paved it.”
Ottinger said she is negotiating to secure parking for clinic employees on the parking lot of a nearby business to allay concerns about parking.
Under questioning, Ottinger, who said she started her business in 2010 and has been a veterinarian since 2004, said that she would be treating cats and dogs on a limited basis at the clinic, approximately two hours per day, 3-5 p.m. Monday through Friday. There would be no overnight stays. The clinic will be closed weekends.
“We want to focus on low-stress handling. We want to schedule 30-minute appointments,” Ottinger said. “If the animals are not stressed out, the owners are not stressed out.”
Prior to the vote, Herman noted, “As early as February and no later than March there was notice that it [the former house] was to be converted to a vet clinic.”
The notices were posted in windows of the house on the West Emmaus Avenue side. One permit was posted Nov. 2, 2018. Permits for plumbing and electrical work were issued Feb. 22. Another permit was posted March 27, 2019.
Horvath attended April 11 and 25 township commissioner meetings and raised his concerns about the clinic at both meetings.
Under questioning, Pamela Horvath, who said she has worked in the Lehigh County Assessment Office for 21 years, said her husband filed a right-to-know request regarding the permits.
According to testimony, the Horvaths were not aware until April 10 that the building was to be converted into a vet clinic. The Horvaths’ appeal was filed May 10. Atty. Christopher M. McLean, of Fitzpatrick, Lentz Bubba, Attorneys At Law, representing the Horvaths, said that they met the 30-day filing requirement.
At the June 4 township zoning hearing, Cavacini read from the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code that an appeal cannot be made later than 30 days to reverse or change a zoning decision.
Before the zoners’ vote, Atty. William J. Fries, of Fries Law Office, representing Ottinger, said, “We’re not talking about a vet hospital. We’re talking about a small office.”
Fries also noted of Ottinger, “She even went so far, even though she had no obligation, to request a meeting with the township.” The meeting was Feb. 6 in the township municipal building, attended by, in addition to Ottinger and an engineer for her project, Township Manager Cathy Bonaskiewich, Salisbury Township Consulting Engineer David J. Tettemer, of Keystone Consulting Engineers, Inc., Sopka and Nicolo.
Under questioning, Fries asked Nicolo, “What was the result of the township meeting Feb. 6?”
“Dr. Ottinger was told all issues had been satisfied and she could go ahead and renovate the building,” Nicolo said.
Under questioning, Nicolo confirmed that Ottinger was told at the Feb. 6 meeting that parking spaces at the clinic were reduced from six to three spaces.
Not all of those at the hearing agreed with the zoners’ decision.
Atty. Marc S. Fisher, of Worth, McGee & Fisher, PC., Law Offices, representing Janet Borrelli and her husband, neighbors who live in the vicinity of the veterinary clinic, said, “In my opinion, you still have a zoning issue.”
A veterinary clinic in the C-2 Neighborhood Commercial District must be on a parcel of 20,000-square-feet. The clinic parcel is 8,400-square-feet.
At the June 4 zoning hearing, Cavacini referred to the township’s C-2 zoning district wording that states a veterinary office is permitted as of right.