The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 16, 2013

Judge hears arguments in Richland zoning case

David Hurst

JOHNSTOWN — Richland Township board decisions made in 1986 took center stage in court Tuesday between sides debating whether zoning is proper on a tract eyed for income-eligible townhouses.

And following a day of appeal testimony in county court, Cambria’s president judge indicated he hopes to make a decision soon in the matter.

Judge Timothy Creany gave attorneys until Feb. 22 to submit final briefs backing their arguments. That came after both sides, an Ohio developer and attorneys representing the township and a neighbors’ group, called on experts offering different takes on whether an office commercial or multifamily residential zone was more compatible with its surroundings.

The debate is more than a year in the making.

The Miller-Valentine Group wants to put two multistory townhouses, a community building and recreation facility on a 9-acre site that was owned for years by Ashbridge Oil, a neighboring business whose presence predates the township’s zoning.

They’ve dubbed the project Laurel Pointe. And for it to happen, the triangular tract – originally zoned residential and now “C-3” commercial – must be given a multifamily, or R-4 designation.

Its a switch a group of about 90 nearby homeowners have staunchly fought since plans were first announced.

Residents have aired worries the income-eligible townhouses will devalue their properties. Through their attorney, Timothy Leventry, they maintain the current zoning is fine.

“There’s justification for this zoning designation,” Leventry said, pointing to a Walters Avenue armory and driver’s license center to the north of the property and Ashbridge’s office to the south.

The property’s longtime owner, Frank Ashbridge, requested the zoning change in 1986, Leventry argued – something Miller-Valentine attorney Donald Graham disputes.

He pointed to the fact that Richland leaders redid zoning township-wide at the time. Graham also said the only indication was a township agenda mentioning Ashbridge Oil on the zoning change.

During cross-examination, Dave Mills, a zoning officer and onetime zoning board member, said the township’s planning commission did not support plans to change the Walters-Nees intersection land to commercial in 1986 – but noted the township had the authority to proceed anyway.

Graham called on a land planner, Steven Victor, who testified the commercial designation seemed “unusual” in that location.

He said the township comprehensive plan identified no future development potential for the site.  And many C-3 uses such as a hotel, late-night restaurant or hospital were improper for a residential community.

Graham also had Leventry’s expert, longtime real estate appraiser David Murphy, cite the township’s own guidelines for C-3 zones, which stated that they were meant to provide space for development not compatible with residential zones.

Murphy said afterward he believed both zones could be compatible with the neighboring residential community.

Leventry, meanwhile, noted that a hospital – a busy location often described as a poor fit for the neighborhood – could also be developed on the property under R-4 zoning.

As it is, the property has existed as a commercial zone for decades without issue, he added.

Graham argued that is the case because it has sat vacant – and in an area where its current zoning and relatively small space don’t provide many options for it.

Murphy said Ashbridge’s original asking price for the land – $900,000 – was likely the reason for that.

The land was sold for $550,000 in the fall to a Miller-Valentine Group partnership under the project’s name.

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