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Judge tosses appeal of zoning changes at Apartments at College Avenue

A rendering of The Apartments at College Avenue. (Source: HDC MidAtlantic | Tippetts Weaver Architects)

A Lancaster County judge has dismissed the legal action holding up a major affordable housing project on Lancaster’s west side.

In an opinion issued Monday, Judge Margaret Miller granted a motion to quash the challenge filed by neighbors of the planned Apartments at College Avenue. Miller agreed with the project’s developer that they had filed their appeal too early.

The neighbors’ appeal had objected to the variances granted on Jan. 22, 2022, by the Lancaster city Zoning Hearing Board. The appeal was submitted on Feb. 23, 2022. At that point, the board had rendered its decision verbally, but it didn’t issue its written decision until March 4, 2022.

“Because the Notice of Appeal in this matter was filed prematurely, and is therefore untimely, the appeal is not properly pending before the court,” Miller wrote. “The granting of (Adamsbury Associates’) Motion to Quash is the proper remedy to address Appellants’ error.”

Adamsbury Associates is an affiliate of nonprofit affordable housing developer HDC MidAtlantic. In an email, HDC spokeswoman Kate Hartman said Miller’s decision removes a barrier to the project moving forward.

HDC needs to close on its financing by May 31 to meet a deadline for claiming $1.25 million in Low-Income Housing Tax Credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, or PHFA. Last month, HDC and City Hall had filed a joint “request for disposition” asking Miller to expedite her ruling.

HDC/Adamsbury “cannot move forward commencing the project if the appeal is not timely resolved,” the request said.

With Miller’s decision now in hand, “HDC is firing on all cylinders to meet PHFA’s deadline and close by May 31,” Hartman said.

“We are hopeful to have shovels in the ground as quickly as we can after that date,” she added.

‘Very pleased’

Mayor Danene Sorace said the Apartments at College Avenue represent “a huge step forward” in meeting the affordable housing goals in the city’s interim housing strategy, which calls for building 2,000 units by 2026, including 300 affordable units.

“We are very pleased with this decision,” she said.

Messages left with the plaintiffs’ attorney and lead plaintiff Jay Rosenthal seeking comment were not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.

In September, plaintiff Michelle LaGrassa said the group was prepared to drag out the process for years, appealing all the way up to the state Supreme Court if that’s what it took.

About the Apartments at College Avenue

The Apartments at College Avenue is a five-story project that will yield 64 one- and two-bedroom affordable apartments. A dozen will be fully handicap-accessible.

They are aimed for households with incomes of $11,000 to $45,000 per year — that is, between 20% and 60% of Lancaster County median income. A year ago, HDC said it was anticipating rents of $200 to $850 per month.

Project costs, initially estimated at $15.4 million, now stand at $23.4 million. HDC recently received $1.25 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds from county government and is seeking another $4 million in ARPA from the state. It also has received funding from the city and the private High Foundation.

Rosenthal, Lagrassa and other neighbors along West Chestnut Street and Elm Street have objected vigorously to the building’s size and proximity to their property lines. Some are party to the appeal, some are not.

The appeal alleged that the Zoning Hearing Board granted variances that were not based on “substantial evidence” and did not demonstrate the “unnecessary hardship” required for such exceptions to be granted under Pennsylvania law.

The building’s height is allowed by right in its zone. Its 6 1/2-foot setback from the property line is not — the Zoning Hearing Board granted a variance allowing it, rather than the 12-foot minimum that would otherwise be required.