Apparently there is nothing that money cannot buy in Wayne Township. For Miller Bros. Construction that means possession of a monopoly that has lined theirs and township officials pockets at the expense of a small group of homeowners in Friedensburg.
The Pottsville Republican and Herald reported today that some property owners in the small township outside of Pine Grove have retained an attorney to represent them in enjoining MBC from go forward with plans to build a tractor-trailer terminal and industrial warehouse on a 30-acre parcel of wetland that is bordered by numerous residences, including those belonging to elderly and disabled individuals. But that is only half of the story. The other half is a tale of government corruption and greed that has threatened to turn a pristine neighborhood that is home to various species of wildlife including the endangered Bogg Turtle into a noisy, smog filled, glorified parking lot.
To understand this story, you must first know the players.
MBC is a multi-million dollar construction and development corporation owned by this area’s own Jim Miller and based in Schuylkill County. They are responsible for some of the most beautiful and expensive buildings in our county and across Pennsylvania. MBC has been responsible for such structures as J. Bertolet Volkswagon and the new surgery center at the Cressona Mall, as well as refurbishment of many historical buildings in northeast and central Pennsylvania.
Wayne Township, situated just outside of Pine Grove, is the site of the proposed industrial complex and maintains authority over zoning and building permits in Friedensburg. The township is governed by a three member board of supervisors. The responsibility of maintaining zoning regulations and allowing variances is given to a three-member zoning hearing board.
MBC purchased the parcel of land last September for a bargain basement price of $200,000 for 30 acres from an elderly woman who reportedly needed the money to pay for her husband’s continued stay in a nursing home. At the time of sale, Miller allegedly told area resident Mel McDonald, who unsuccessfully tried to purchase the property himself, that MBC planned to subdivide the lot into five parts and develop residential homes. That turned out to be a lie because shortly after closing on the property, MBC went ahead with plans for the proposed truck terminal and warehouse. They even reportedly contracted with a Cressona based pet supply company, to store the company’s product.
When residents caught wind of MBC’s proposal, they immediately began to fight it. According to the Wayne township zoning ordinance, the parcel is zoned as CR2, meaning that the land can only be developed for residential and certain commercial purposes. Before begining construction, MBC had to obtain a special exception to ensure the health, safety, and security of adjacent properties.
This is where things start to become crooked.
In May, the Wayne Township Zoning Hearing Board heard MBC’s petition for the special exception. 15 of the affected residents were in attendance to oppose it. Only two of the board’s members were in attendance: Board chairman Bryan Hoover, father in-law of Jim Miller’s daughter Becky, and Michael Pohronezny, reportedly a former sub-contractor for MBC. The third member of the board was on vacation and unable to attend.
After a long and raucous debate in open meeting, Hoover and Pohronezny adjourned to an executive session (a meeting behind closed doors). However, they reportedly called David Rattigan, attorney for MBC, into the session with them. When they returned from the session, the residents were informed that the board had voted unanimously that to grant the special exception.
If any of this seems shiesty to you, just wait.
First of all, this issue should not even have been in front of these zoning officials to begin with. According to Section 1103(a) of the PA Ethics Act, no public official shall engage in conduct that constitutes a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest is defined as use by a public official of the authority of his office for private pecuniary benefit of himself OR a member of his immediate family OR a business in which he or an immediate family member is associated. Zoning board members fall within the Ethics Act as a public official because they are responsible for taking official action of a non-ministerial nature with regard to zoning. As mentioned above, Hoover is an in-law of the Millers, the owners of MBC and Pohronezny has a business relationship with MBC as a former sub-contractor. Thus, under the Ethics Act their decision to act on this proposal was not only inappropriate as to procedure, it may have even been criminal.
Secondly, it was completely inappropriate, not to mention unfair to the residents in opposition, to allow the attorney for the party seeking board action into the deliberations of executive session. As a former planning commissioner in Hamburg, it was against our borough charter for anyone other than commission members and council members to be in the roon for an executive session.
It is clear that in this case, MBC stacked the deck. Not only should they be enjoined pending an investigation into whether the project actually conforms to the stated commercial usage allowed in that zone, but Hoover and Pohronezny should be criminally charged with conflicts of interest and removed from their posts. In addition, Atty. Rattigan may have violated the PA Code of Professional Conduct himself and should be investigated by the State Disciplinary Board.
Shady backroom deals like this that leave good ordinary people in the lurch makes me sick. It is the job of the government to ensure that these people don’t get bowled over by such a huge corporation. In this case, though, the government was in on the bowling and its members seemed ready to profit themselves. Ridiculous.