Minutes after police restored order at a raucous Lancaster Zoning Board meeting Tuesday, the board voted, 5-1, with one abstention, to grant a controversial size variance that clears the way for the construction of a federally funded low-income senior citizens apartment complex off North Maple Drive.
But in casting their votes, board members made statements ensuring that neighbor problems are just beginning between AHEPA 91 Inc., developer of the complex, and the nearby Larkspur Acres subdivision.
"My advice to Larkspur Acres is, be a bad neighbor," said board member James Perry, who voted in favor of the variance. "Revenge can be sweet."
Joseph Giglia, another board member voting for the variance, directed his comments to some senior citizens in the crowd of about 75 people. "As to the seniors here to support AHEPA, shame on you," he said. "We were only trying to give you a decent living space. AHEPA is taking advantage of you."
The 51-unit complex, previously approved by the Town Board, needed as a last step Zoning Board approval of a variance for apartments of under 600 square feet, less than the town 640-square-foot minimum.
Initially broached to the town a year ago, the proposed complex has been bounced between town governing boards and the court system several times since then. Most recently, a Sept. 10 order issued by State Supreme Court Justice Peter J. Notaro stated that a previous Zoning Board denial of the size variance was "arbitrary and capricious," and remanded the petition to the board for approval of the variance.
"The town has gone to court three times and has lost three times. A formal appeal would be a waste of time and a waste of taxpayer dollars," said board Chairman Anthony Esposito, shortly after he summoned police to the boardroom to restore order. "But Larkspur Acres should be on their toes. Make sure the developer (Harry Konst, head of the AHEPA group) is on his toes at all times."
Esposito did not allow residents, including representatives of a Larkspur Acres homeowners group, to speak at the brief meeting. Residents have protested the complex partly on the grounds that they were told that the undeveloped land surrounding their properties would remain a nature preserve.
Jack Scherlein, head of the Northwest Lancaster Homeowners Association, later called the meeting "totalitarian."
"It's terrible. It's like the Third Reich," he said. "This has the taste of some type of dictatorship."
The homeowners group, represented by attorney Arthur J. Giacalone, is going to try to get the Zoning Board to appeal the court order by the cutoff date of Oct. 10, Scherlein said.
Giacalone said Zoning Board members were misinformed by Esposito and special counsel Paul D. Weiss about the possibility of appealing the judge's order. "They had the right to decide to appeal this," said Giacalone, who was ordered to leave the Town Hall by Esposito during the meeting. "Instead, we have this situation where we have grounds to appeal and they're being told they can't appeal. We have this charade tonight."
Zoning Board members, in voting approval to the variance, were motivated not only by Notaro's harsh criticism but by the threat of a $250 per day fine for each board member if the variance was not granted at Tuesday's meeting.
"I feel like I have a pistol to my head at this point," said John N. Kicak, voting for the variance.
"To the people of Larkspur Acres, I offer me sincere apologies," board member Perry said. "It is with complete disgust that I am forced to vote on this issue."
Opponents of the project and some Zoning Board members were still uncertain late last night as to whether an appeal would be made in the case. If an appeal is lodged before Oct. 10, the 30-day cutoff on further action, construction on the apartment complex would be temporarily halted.