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Westmoreland

Zoning vote moves Unity student housing a step closer to belated approval

Jeff Himler
| Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, 1:45 a.m.
The Unity Township Municipal Building is seen at twilight after a snowstorm on Dec. 14, 2017.
Jeff Himler | Tribune-Review
The Unity Township Municipal Building is seen at twilight after a snowstorm on Dec. 14, 2017.

Unity's zoning hearing board set the stage this week for John Baran to operate the township's first authorized student rental property, beginning July 1.

But township solicitor Gary Falatovich acknowledged that four college students who already have been staying at the Lakeview Drive house for about seven months represent a violation of Unity's zoning ordinance, because an application for township approval was made after the fact. He said he would recommend that township officials take action against the violation, which carries a potential fine of up to $600 per day.

The zoning panel voted 4-1 to approve the student housing as a special exception in the neighborhood's residential zone, for a period from July 1 of this year through June 30, 2019. The board's solicitor, David DeRose, pointed out Baran still must complete an application process, including submitting to an annual inspection, before an occupancy permit can be issued for the rental property. The application is due by April 30 for the following academic year.

No more than four rental units can be included in the house, and each occupant must have an off-street parking space, DeRose said.

Retired Commonwealth Court Judge James Kelley, an alternate member of the zoning hearing board, cast the sole vote against the housing request, arguing that Baran had demonstrated “bad faith” by placing the students in the home before obtaining township permission.

Jackie Nindel, who chairs the board, said she felt Baran acted in good faith by beginning the application process once he learned of the zoning requirements.

Baran's property manager, Amy Wertheimer, testified that he became aware of the requirements later last year, when the owner of a home across the street sought permission to use it for student housing.

The similar request by that owner, Daniel Archer, was denied by the zoning panel in November because the township doesn't allow a student home within 500 feet of another, whether or not the first home has a township permit, Nindel said.

Faye Musick, who said she has a 90-year-old in-law living near the Baran property, expressed concern that the students might have parties that could disturb him.

“We've had no problems with the house,” Wertheimer said, noting Baran's 84-year-old father lives next door and a neighbor's complaint about slamming car doors resulted in no police charges.

Kelley said that since Saint Vincent College is in Unity, the township should expect more applications for student housing permits.

Wertheimer suggested that other homes in the township are being used to house students without township permits, and zoning board member Dorothy Zello concurred.

Falatovich said the homes should be reported to township zoning officials so they can be inspected.

He said the supervisors might want to reconsider adopting a regulated rental ordinance that would give the township more control over student dwellings — with three or more unrelated occupants. It could enable the township to address “disruptive conduct” at the homes, whether or not it results in criminal charges, he said.

The supervisors previously considered such an ordinance. Falatovich said they shelved it because there was no identified student rental housing in Unity at the time and they thought it would be too restrictive on property owners.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6622, jhimler@tribweb.com or via Twitter @jhimler_news.

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