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Allentown officials reject charter school’s bid to open in industrial zone

Lehigh Valley STEAM Academy Charter School
Jason Addy
The Allentown City Council on June 21 unanimously voted down a proposed zoning amendment to allow schools to open in some industrial zones.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Officials hoping to launch a new charter school in Allentown will have to find a new location after Allentown City Council shot down their request to open in an industrial zone.

Council members on Wednesday unanimously rejected the Lehigh Valley STEAM Academy Charter School’s bid to amend the city’s zoning ordinances to allow schools to open in areas zoned for limited and general industrial uses.

  • Allentown City Council voted 7-0 against a proposal to allow schools in some industrial zones
  • The Lehigh Valley STEAM Academy Charter School was hoping to open an office building on South 12th Street
  • Allentown School District officials fought the proposal throughout the city's zoning-approval process

Several council members said they voted against the amendment because they don’t want to create any issues as the city works to overhaul its zoning ordinances.
Charter school executives presented their plans in April to the Allentown City Planning Commission, which forwarded the proposal to council without recommending its approval.

A council committee in May recommended the full council reject the proposal.

Allentown School District officials and lawyers have fought the proposed zoning amendment at every step of the approval process.

Lehigh Valley STEAM Academy Charter School parking lot
Jason Addy
Trucks fill the parking lot in May at 2268 S. 12th St. in Allentown, the property where officials hoped to open the Lehigh Valley STEAM Academy Charter School.

'Simply not good planning'

Council hosted a public hearing, where representatives for the school district and the charter school sparred, before voting against the charter school’s proposal.

Attorney Loren Szczesny detailed the Allentown School District’s concerns with the proposal, telling council members it’s “simply not good planning” to allow schools to operate in industrial zones.

Industrial zones have “inherent risks for spills, wastes, accidents,” traffic and pollution that children should not be around.
Thomas Smith, Allentown School District facilities director

Allentown zoning ordinances allow schools in 13 of the city’s 18 zones, and no studies have shown those areas are “inadequate for school uses,” Szczesny said.

Certified planner Thomas Comitta said the proposed zoning amendment could be seen as “spot-zoning” because it “seems to be targeted specifically” to support the charter school’s bid to open on the property.

Spot zoning is “a singling out of one lot or a small area for different treatment from that accorded to similar surrounding land indistinguishable from it in character, for the economic benefit [or detriment] of the owner,” according to the state Community and Economic Development Department.

State courts have ruled spot zoning is unconstitutional.

Thomas Smith, facilities director for the Allentown School District, read a statement to council, listing a series of businesses that can operate in industrial zones, such as chemical manufacturers, factories, and power plants.

Industrial zones have “inherent risks for spills, wastes, accidents,” traffic and pollution that children should not be around, Smith said.

Property could remain a parking lot

The Lehigh Valley STEAM Academy Charter School was seeking permission to open in a 43-year-old, four-story building at 2268 S. 12th St.

Charter school officials view the office building as "absolutely the right building" to convert into a school because of its layout, according to Dave Rank, a consultant with the project.

Large banners on the building advertise the Lehigh Valley STEAM Academy Charter School is enrolling students for the upcoming school year.

But the school’s timeline will be pushed back by at least a year due to delays caused by various application denials, including the failed zoning amendment.

The academy filed an application last year to open in Allentown School District, but the school board unanimously denied that application in February. Charter school officials are appealing that denial.

Attorney John VanLuvanee said the school district has a history of opposing charter schools and a “vested interest” in convincing council members to reject the proposal.

Charlie Schmehl, a consultant with Urban Research & Development Corporation in Bethlehem, worked with Allentown zoning employees to draft the proposed amendment, VanLuvanee said, urging council members to “have confidence in your staff.”

He refuted the school district’s spot-zoning allegations and said a school would be “more than appropriate” for the proposed property.

The building where the charter school hoped to open is currently vacant, but nearby residents have complained its parking lot is being used as a “hazardous trucking terminal” for tractor-trailers.

A resident implored council members to enforce a cease-and-desist order against the property’s owner after saying a truck rolled more than 100 feet across 12th Street before stopping on his property.

Ahead of council’s vote, VanLuvanee warned it could continue to serve as a parking lot if the proposal was denied Wednesday.