Judge reverses zoning decision

Borough watchdog group challenged proposed Gaysport apartment building

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A visiting judge in Blair County Court recently reversed a decision by the Hollidaysburg Zoning Board that would have allowed construction of an apartment building in Gaysport in violation of borough zoning rules.

The structure was proposed for 431 Bedford St., the site of the former 160-year-old apartment building destroyed by a Feb. 1, 2017, fire. It is now a vacant lot.

As designed, building plans called for an eight-unit apartment structure with 1,750 square feet per unit. But under current zoning rules, each unit must have 2,500 square feet.

Based on current rules, the proposed building would only have five apartments.

So to move toward construction, the ownership group of Csikasz Realty Limited Partnership sought a variance to construct an eight-unit building, maintaining it met requirements because of the fire that destroyed the previous structure.

While the Hollidaysburg Zoning Board agreed last year and ap­proved the request, the Hollidays­burg Community Watchdog citizens group disagreed and challenged the ruling in county court.

Senior Judge Stewart Kurtz of Huntingdon County, who heard arguments in January, found fault with the zoning board’s actions in his recent written ruling available for review in the prothonotary’s office.

To qualify for a zoning variance based on hardship, the Hunting­don County judge wrote, an applicant must show that the physical characteristics of a property either prohibit its use for a permitted purpose or make it unusable for a permitted purpose.

“What the evidence (in the Hollidaysburg case) established was that the applicant could construct a five-unit apartment building that was compliant with the zoning ordinance,” Kurtz said.

And because of that possible use, the judge said the applicant isn’t entitled to a hardship variance.

The Watchdog citizens group welcomed Kurtz’s conclusion affecting the Gaysport property.

“The ZHB ruling was the latest in a series of attacks on the integrity of Holli­daysburg’s oldest residential community,” Watchdog President Richard Latker said in a written statement distributed after the ruling was issued. “It was yet another case of officials delivering favors to special interests at the expense of the residents they represent.”

Zoning Board Solicitor Robert P. Rea didn’t re­spond to the Mirror’s re­quest for a comment on Kurtz’s ruling. In the Jan­uary court hearing before Kurtz, Rea described the zoning board’s decision to grant a variance as reasonable in light of the proposed project and its minimal change to the neighborhood.

“The use is identical to the prior use and is specifically permitted,” Rea said during that court hearing.

He also pointed out that the footprint of the replacement building will be almost identical to the structure that burned. The former structure pre-dated zoning rules, so it had 14 apartments with an average of about 988 square feet. Con­struction of the new building with eight units will almost double that amount to 1,729 feet, Rea said.

Kurtz, during the court hearing, questioned the relevance of that information and directed focus toward the existence of a hardship as reflected in zoning law. Rea responded that he couldn’t think of a hardship “clearer than having one’s building being burned down.”

But Latker, at that hearing, pointed out that the definition of a qualifying hardship has been spelled out in legal precedents.

“It has to be an unreasonable economic burden,” Latker said. “And it has to be associated with the property itself, and there has to be substantive evidence demonstrating that.”

Kurtz’s recent ruling indicated “meager” evidence of a hardship was offered for his consideration. He also noted that principals of the ownership group provided no testimony.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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