Updated: Aug 15
By: Brian Evans
August 13th, 2023
In the same month that Jim Thorpe was touted as a model for tourism in Pennsylvania by State Senators and Representatives, Jim Thorpe Borough Council approved a draft copy of new zoning laws to be published for public comment that, while helpful in many regards, significantly increases land use restrictions in Jim Thorpe raising concern for many about what effect the new regulation will have for local residents and the local economy.
Jim Thorpe received funding in 2019 from the state’s Municipal Assistance Program, commonly known as MAP, to overhaul their zoning code. The current zoning code for Jim Thorpe was adopted in 1997, and is 85 pages in total. The new zoning laws being proposed are 258 pages in total. Making sure residents know what the new laws being proposed are before they go into effect is critical to ensuring the laws represent the needs and desires of the community, and that those laws align with the Middle Carbon County Comprehensive Plan.
This version of the 258-page draft ordinance was published for the first time on July 19th, 2023 with direction that public comments must be received, in a specific format to be considered, in less than 30 days, on August 14th, 2023. A request is pending Borough Council for an extension of that deadline.
What is a zoning ordinance?
Zoning is a method used by local governments to manage communities and land uses. Zoning laws limit how people can use their property and what they can build on it.
Who decides on the new zoning laws?
Jim Thorpe has a committee consisting of 5 volunteers that were appointed by borough council to draft the new zoning laws. The borough also hired Carson Helfrich, consultant from Community Planning & Management, to provide recommendations to planning for changes to the zoning laws. The draft version being discussed now will be potentially edited further before a final vote is considered by borough council for adoption.
Is there anything in the new laws that is concerning?
The last time zoning was changed in this significant of a way was 26 years ago and these new zoning laws will largely dictate land use in this town for decades to come. Expanded from 85 to 258 pages, the draft ordinance includes changes to many permitted uses and creates new standards that will limit or prohibit new development in the area. A few notable changes include, but are not limited to:
The proposed new zoning laws redefine “Signs” in a way that would subject all visual artwork to the same treatment as any other commercial sign. The new definition for “signs” is found on Page 217 (221 of 259 in the PDF):
Per the zoning law amendment, a “Sign” is any object, device, display, or structure, or part thereof, situated outdoors or indoors, that is used to advertise, identify, display, direct, or attract attention to an object, person, institution, organization, business, product, service, event, or location by any means, including words, letters, figures, design, symbols, fixtures, colors, illumination, or projected images. The term shall not include any flag or badge or insignia of the United States, State of Pennsylvania, Carbon County, the Borough, or official historic plaques of any governmental jurisdiction or agency.”
2. Environmental Impact
Section §500-81 on Page 129 (133 of 259 in PDF), formerly known as §500-13, serves as an environmental impact statement within the Borough's development guidelines. Its purpose is to identify environmental and community impacts caused by development projects and suggest ways to lessen these effects. However, this section has been completely removed from the new proposed zoning laws.
Although some concerns addressed by this section are covered by other proposed zoning law additions, many are not. Without this provision, most future developments will no longer be obligated to provide environmental impact statements (EIS). The main aim of the EIS is to reveal the potential environmental and community effects of a proposed action. This information aids the Borough in deciding whether to approve or deny the project. If the project is approved, the EIS also helps establish conditions for approval. This requirement, in place to safeguard the natural environment and the community, is removed from the new zoning laws.
Section §500-29 of the new zoning laws, found on Page 83 (87 of 259 in PDF), regulates Off-Street Parking and Loading for new and existing structures. This includes an updated table which details the number of private off-street parking spaces that must be held by the property.
The new laws stipulate that private residences (homes or apartments) must maintain 1.5 private parking spots per dwelling unit. Hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, and short-term rentals are required to have one private parking spot per bedroom. Retail establishments, including stores and restaurants, must provide one private off-street parking spot for every 150-200 square feet of gross floor area.
Residents have observed vacant upper floors in downtown buildings that could address the community's affordable housing and labor needs. However, the absence of private parking downtown might discourage crucial housing investments. These restrictions will also hinder new businesses from developing on Broadway and West Broadway, as existing buildings lack space for private parking. Given that parking in these areas requires a permit, some residents argue that this regulation deters investment without apparent benefits.
4. Gondola Cable-car Tram
§500-17 the Schedule of Uses and Schedule of Development Standards found on Page 61 (65 of 259 in the PDF) establishes restrictions prohibiting amusement structures and rides in all but the R2 district. This proposed new regulation specifically prohibits the use of “trams, and Ferris Wheels”.
This comes at a time when local developers are planning to build a gondola cable-car tram that would run 2,600 feet from Flagstaff to the intersection of Race and High streets, within the C3 historic business district. The project has a $2.5 million grant from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program and has been in planning stages for several years. Under the new laws the development of the gondola would be prohibited as planned less variance hearings and approval.
These are just three areas of the expansive land use laws that borough expects to pass.
What does this mean for me?
New zoning ordinance laws hold significant implications for both residents and businesses within a community. These regulations shape the physical environment, affecting the availability of housing, the layout of commercial areas, and the overall quality of life. They can impact everything from property values and accessibility to the local economy and cultural heritage. Therefore, understanding and engaging with new zoning laws is essential for ensuring sustainable development, fostering economic growth, preserving community character, and creating a thriving, inclusive living environment for everyone.
What’s next and what can you do?
1. Write to your borough manager, Maureen Sterner (email@example.com) to request more time (60 days) to review and provide public comment on these proposed laws.
Though there will be another opportunity to comment on the final version before passage, it is often much more difficult to secure changes to laws in the final comment period before their approval. Extending this timeframe now is an important step to securing the communities input.
2. Review the proposed laws and follow the boroughs direction for providing comment.
Despite the deadline passing, the final laws will expectedly contain much of the same material. Preparing your comments now will help supply them within any extended timeframes or the final public comment period.
3. Organize with local community members to review the proposed laws.
Many residents and business owners in Jim Thorpe are interested in reviewing this document. Connect with these people in person, online through social media or JTNow.org, and organize. By sharing and discussing the proposed laws, we can better understand them and their potential implications.
Copyright JTNow.org 2023
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