Nat Hyman wants to convert the former Majestic Athletic building in Whitehall Township into 49 apartments. (MORNING CALL FILE PHOTO)
Citing concerns for the surrounding neighborhood, the Whitehall Township Building Code Board of Appeals has turned down developer Nat Hyman's request for relief from what he calls exceptionally high costs to keep a sprinkler system active in the vacant building he owns on Roosevelt Street.
Wednesday morning's ruling was the latest in a long list of grievances between the township and Hyman, who bought the abandoned Majestic Athletic factory at 4154 Roosevelt St. in September 2009 with the intention of converting it into 49 apartments.
The project, which requires numerous variances as well as a special exception as a non-conforming use, has been in and out of courtrooms and zoning board hearings for years. Hyman was handed a victory earlier this month when Lehigh County Judge Douglas G. Reichley issued a ruling halting a zoning hearing scheduled for April 21 until the petition for special relief is heard.
In the meantime, Hyman and his attorney, Sandy Engel, came before the building code board over the fire department's refusal to allow him to shut off the building's sprinkler system.
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Hyman contends that his building meets the exceptions spelled out in the township's building code that would allow the system to be deactivated and that Fire Chief Robert Benner made the decision not to allow the deactivation without giving any reasons why.
At the hearing, however, Benner said a big fire in the township early in his career made him decide to never grant exceptions to the rule that buildings must have fire suppression systems. That fire, which happened in the late 1980s, occurred after Benner had agreed to let the building use heat detectors instead of a sprinkler system. The heat detectors didn't go off until some 30 minutes after the fire started. The building burned down and three people were injured.
"It was my thought at that time that I would never allow sprinklers to be shut off in vacant buildings," Benner testified.
Hyman, however, argued that his building is surrounded by parking lots on three sides, and Roosevelt Street on the fourth. There are no structures abutting the building, and it is completely vacant. The township's insistence that he have an active sprinkler system – added to the fact that he must keep the empty building heated in the winter to prevent the pipes from freezing – is just another way the township is continuing to harass him.
The Northampton Borough Municipal Authority charges him $400 a month to have water available for the sprinkler system, even if it's never used, and the cost to heat the building in the fall and winter months runs between $4,000 and $6,000 a month, adding as much as $70,000 a year to his carrying cost for the building, Hyman testified.
The matter came to a head during a February cold snap when neighbors called the fire department to report that water was coming out of the building. The leak was found to be a broken pipe, resulting from Hyman's decision to shut off the heat in the building. When firefighters arrived, Benner said, they found that the key in the building's Knox-Box didn't work. Ultimately, firefighters found an unsecured door and were able to gain access to the building.
But when the discussion returned to Hyman's request to be allowed to shut off the building's sprinkler system, township solicitor Charles Fonzone asked him whether he had asked the water authority for other options to reduce his water rates. Hyman said he and his staff had been told there was no way around the $400 a month fee.
And, Hyman contended, the building meets the exceptions spelled out in the township's fire code, so there is no reason for the fire chief's continued refusal to allow the sprinkler system to be disabled.
"And we're not talking about forever," Engel said. "We're talking about disabling the system until the building is occupied."
After deliberating in executive session, board members voted 5-0 to deny Hyman's request that he be allowed to shut off the sprinkler system until the building is occupied, citing the part of the fire code that says wooden floors, property distance, and vandalism are all conditions that would allow for the denial of such a request.
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