The New Hope Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) met Thursday night with Bucks County Playhouse representatives to continue discussion of their request to install LED lights and new signage around their Delaware riverfront property and erect up to five large tents in their parking lot.
Playhouse officials once again pursued an unconventional strategy, choosing not to be accompanied by an attorney, and withdrawing variance requests pertaining to signage, like temporary banners over the front entrance, and construction of a showcase-type sign to the right of the main entrance similar to an existing sign near South Main Street.
Representatives from the Playhouse were largely granted the variances they requested relating to the use of several event tents in their parking lot, with restrictions like permission for food service (but not food preparation), minimum advance notice of usage, and providing proof of additional parking leased for times when the tents’ footprint is eliminating valuable parking space.
But here’s the rub: by withdrawing its request for additional signs, the Playhouse may have inadvertently removed its only protection from receiving a notice of violation for a sign painted in 2013 without necessary permits.
In fact, a source close to the situation who spoke on background said issuance of a notice of violation to the Playhouse is imminent.
The next step in the process could be “to file a trespass and assumpsit complaint with the local district justice,” confirmed a borough spokesperson.
“The Pennsylvania municipalities planning code requires municipalities to suspend enforcement actions once a violator applies to the zoning hearing board for either a variance or to challenge the decision of the zoning officer,” added the spokesperson.
The borough apparently informed the Playhouse that they were able under the law to amend their then current, pending application before the ZHB to include the unapproved north-facing sign. The Playhouse chose not to take advantage of that generous retroactive loophole, inexplicably withdrawing their signage variances completely and possibly triggering the borough’s ordinance enforcement process.
The north-facing Playhouse sign was not only painted without requisite borough approval, but also violates the spirit of a 2004 Zoning Hearing Board decision denying similar lit advertising on the Delaware to the owners of the former Club Zadar, and seeking to keep views of the Delaware River pristine and bucolic.
While few would oppose the use of tasteful lighting around the Playhouse grounds, a damaging precedent could be set that might encourage neon lights and billboards along the pristine banks of the Delaware River, worry some.
“The zoning officer has reviewed the plans and has found certain areas of non-compliance,” confirmed a borough spokesperson several weeks ago. “The zoning ordinance regulates the height of the light fixtures and the lumens at the property line. The color of the lights falls under the jurisdiction of HARB and Council pursuant to an application for a Certificate of Appropriateness. HARB has already recommended that this application be approved. It is now up to Council to approve or deny the Certificate of Appropriateness,” they added.
Two people familiar with the situation who requested anonymity said HARB members had not approved any formal lighting plan of late, although it is possible council is referring to documents HARB may have seen some time ago that included renderings of possible signage without specific notation or requests for approval. Nonetheless, New Hope Borough Council considered the Playhouse’s zoning requests on Aug. 19, tabling their lighting-related variances pending a technical study ordered to be undertaken due to concerns by East Mechanic Street residents over potential late-night glare.
Meanwhile, the Playhouse gets the special event tents it wanted, and maybe a violation notice to boot, as the “cultural overlay” trump card may not be played this time around.