Company amends complaint against Penn Forest Township zoning board
In an ongoing battle over the fate of the Bethlehem Watershed wind turbine proposal, Atlantic Wind filed an amended complaint on Tuesday in the Carbon County Court of Common Pleas in response to the preliminary objections of the Penn Forest Zoning Hearing Board.
The amended complaint makes the same assertions as the previous complaint, originally filed in late September and amended in early November, calling for a change of hearing location to the Carbon County Courthouse over safety concerns and requesting an independent hearing officer.
Atlantic Wind said in its complaint that hearings at the Penn Forest Volunteer Fire Company No. 1 have become unsafe and that the zoning hearing board is unable to control the “unruly” crowd. The complaint says “credible” threats have been made against Atlantic Wind representative Craig Poff and hearing board Chairwoman Audrey Wargo.
The complaint includes concerns over “chatter” on the Facebook page “Say No to the Bethlehem Watershed Wind Farm Project.”
Examples of posts are included in the 60-page complaint which discuss Poff’s home, family and a plan to protest outside his residence. It is alleged that Poff has had to hire a security service at his home.
On Tuesday, Atlantic Wind filed a second amended complaint to include a statement made by township resident Jeannie Nelson which the company claims supports its allegations that the hearings need to be moved to the Carbon County Courthouse.
“I think I can speak for all of us that we’ve really been intimidated by their armed guards. And I, for one, wouldn’t mind seeing it go to the courthouse because then there’s no guns period,” said Nelson. “It works both ways. You know, we had a fellow here last month who had a damn cannon on his side. He couldn’t move without keeping his hand on it. I don’t need that.”
Nelson was referring to the security detail engaged by Atlantic Wind to provide security for its employees, witnesses and attorney. The complaint includes allegations regarding residents having both open carry and concealed firearms at the meetings.
Atlantic Wind concludes it will not have a fair hearing unless the court takes over the matter, moves the venue to the Carbon County Courthouse and appoints an independent hearing officer.
Zoning hearing board attorney Matt Rapa has responded to each of the Atlantic Wind complaints with preliminary objections, which focus on the court’s lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter since zoning matters are left up to the municipal authority until a decision is made, at which time an appeal can be made to the Court of Common Pleas.
Rapa has not addressed the safety concerns in his objections to Atlantic Wind’s complaints, but did address them during the Sept. 20 meeting. Both Rapa and Wargo said the township was prepared to go forward with the meetings being held at the fire hall.
Rapa said the board can remain neutral. He said the zoning hearing board has not “demonstrated or displayed an inability to remain impartial and fair.”
Atlantic Wind has responded to the zoning hearing board’s preliminary objections claiming that returning to the fire hall would be unfair to the applicant.
“There is nothing fair or reasonable about being required to attend a hearing in fear for your safety due to a complete lack of appropriate security measures. It is neither fair nor reasonable to be required to provide your own security as a result of threats against your family and the tribunal that is meant to objectively determine your zoning application,” said attorney Debra Shulski.
She maintains the township needs an independent hearing officer and to move the hearing to the Court of Common Pleas for Carbon County for “the necessary security for the fair and meaningful hearing, to which (Atlantic Wind) is entitled.”
Shulski refutes the hearing board’s argument that the court lacks jurisdiction over the matter by claiming that the “unsafe” environment makes it acceptable to turn the matter over to the court before a final decision has been rendered by the hearing board.
“Members of the public in opposition to (Atlantic Wind’s) application are coming to the emotionally charged hearings armed with guns.”