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256-unit College Hill apartment complex meets pushback at Easton planners meeting

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Olivia Richardson
Easton City Planners

EASTON, Pa. — A proposed 256-unit apartment complex in Easton's College Hill neighborhood got a thumbs down Wednesday from the city Planning Commission, which rejected a special exception to allow it.

The project aims to place 16 residential low-rise buildings that would house 16 one- and two-bedroom units each at 300 Morrison Ave. The property once was occupied by global health service company CIGNA.

The plan met with considerable opposition from residents.

Key issues were the potential for the project to substantially change the overall character of the area in addition to increased traffic and congestion in the area beyond that of the proposed use.

College Hill resident Ralph Bellafatto, an attorney, spoke on behalf of himself, his parents and several neighbors to raise concerns about the impact the project would have, particularly in terms of only two access points to reach the property.

“What I'd ask you to do is recommend that the zoning hearing board deny the special exception," Bellafatto said.

"Because the circumstances with this particular parcel are such that a low-rise apartment use, it's going to be exceptionally burdensome, way more than a normal low-rise apartment use would be in another place that had better access."

Brett Webber, a Morrison Avenue residnet, concurred with Bellafatto and said that despite the presence of other apartments in the area, the property in question was not conducive to such a large complex.

“I think that, again, the character of the entirety of this neighborhood, which is really different from the lower elevations, is something that should give the planning commission pause," Webber said.

"And I just, again, strongly reiterate what Ralph shared with us this evening."

Brian Myszkowski
Plans for a 256-unit apartment complex which would sit on the former CIGNA property in Easton's College Hill neighborhood. The city's planning commission opted not to recommend the zoning hearing board grant a necessary special exception for the project.

A new plan for the CIGNA property

James Preston, the attorney representing applicant BNE Real Estate Group, told the commission another project proposed for the property, a 412-unit complex, was submitted to the zoning hearing board last year and failed to get a variance.

“The unit count went from 412 to 256, that's where we are now," Preston said. "Again, it's permitted by special exception, and so it's compared to the last plan [it is] significantly less dense and impactful in terms of impervious coverage.”

Ana Martins, an engineer with Van Cleef Engineering Associates, said the 38.9 acres made for an allowable density of residents for the area and expanded on the matter concerning parking.

“In terms of parking, the ordinance requires one and a half spaces per unit," Martins said. "We are actually at 1.8 spaces per unit.

"And basically, you know, we have an internal access system to each of the units with the it's been laid out in a way that each apartment building has a parking facility near it right in front of it so that it can be used by the tenants.”

Tyler Krause of Bowman Consulting told the commission a transportation impact study was not required for the project, though one would be completed as part of the development process.

“So 102 trips would basically account to 51 vehicles, kind of entering and exiting that site in the weekday morning peak hour," Krause said.

"Then a weekday afternoon peak hour, it's 133 trips, which accounts about 66 trips, 66 vehicles in and out.”

Crowding, changes in character

Planning commissioner member Hubert Etchison raised concern about the density of the property.

“We get some interesting calculations on this, based upon a lot of the area that is not going to be developed, so then our units per acre go down precipitously because almost a third is undeveloped,” Etchison said.

Planners solicitor Joel Scheer said issues regarding the property's zoning would be addressed by the Zoning Hearing Board, regardless of whether the planning commission chose to recommend for or against the low-rises.

Preston tried to rebut the issues of changing the neighborhood’s character and causing congestion by highlighting the precise language for granting special exceptions.

“It says the special exception shall not cause congestion in public streets or transportation systems," he said. "We've heard that over and over. That’s what we're dealing with.

“But you have to keep reading. It says, ‘Beyond what would normally be expected from the proposed use.’

"Nobody, not on that side of the table, or on this side of the table, has suggested that any of these impacts, any traffic impacts, would not be what would normally be expected from this proposed use. That's really the key.”

After discussion among the commissioners regarding the details of the project and how they fit with the concept of the special exception, a single motion to recommend the project died on the floor.

A subsequent motion to advise against the zoning hearing board granting the necessary exception passed.

The fate of the special exception which would allow for the project will ultimately be decided by the zoning hearing board.