New Hope’s Zoning Officer and Borough Manager both walked out of a scheduled interview with the Free Press at approximately 11:10 a.m. Thursday, after directing obscenities toward this reporter, and admitting to secretly taping the meeting without consent.
Under Pennsylvania law, individuals may not be audio or videotaped in a conversation without first being informed and agreeing to be recorded. A few minutes into the promised interview, New Hope Zoning Officer Robert Larason produced an electronic device from his pocket, and showed it to this reporter, saying, “I’ve recorded everything you’ve said.” Larason and New Hope Borough Manager and Secretary to Borough Council John Burke, were informed that they did not have, nor have they ever had, permission to record this reporter. Burke said to this reporter, “You’re such an a******,” using an obscene euphemism for a body part.
Although Larason had agreed to be interviewed one-on-one earlier in the week on zoning issues, including what appears to be non-enforcement of unapproved signage at Bucks County Playhouse, he brought Burke with him unannounced to the Borough Hall interview. Both expressed anger that their responses would be published, with Larason asserting he wasn’t obligated to answer questions from the press, and Burke muttering a second vulgarity as he and Larason fled down a nearby hallway.
The Free Press has been seeking an interview with Larason for more than a year, only to be told by borough employees he is in a meeting, or to be directed to Burke, who has answered questions on Larason’s behalf.
It’s no secret that Bucks County Playhouse (BCP) officials have been feuding with New Hope’s Zoning Hearing Board since 2012 over zoning variance requests, with New Hope Borough Council moving to accommodate BCP by creating a “cultural overlay district” in August 2013 that, in effect, granted special status to the historic building and surrounding area.
Conspicuously absent from “cultural overlay” decision was input from the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB), a powerful group that is mandated by state law to adjudicate zoning ordinance issues. The apparent sidelining of that commission may or may not have been intentional, but Burke asserted on Nov. 21, 2013 that, “Once we recognized the breadth and depth of the variances required to transform the Playhouse into a going concern, we recognized that this was not a case where ‘an adjustment in zoning’ would make any sense. This was clearly a policy, planning and zoning issue and it was simply not fair to expect the ZHB to perform that role. Policy, planning and zoning are Council prerogatives, not rightful matters for the ZHB under P.A. law.”
On Aug. 16, 2014, when asked why Larason was not enforcing the removal of an unauthorized river-facing sign from the BCP, Burke said, “The zoning officer has reviewed the plans and found certain areas of non-compliance. The applicant can make necessary corrections. I have recommended they [BCP] amend its pending Zoning Hearing Board application.” BCP at the time had a pending application before ZHB that would allow colored LED lights and even more signage around the property.
But BCP withdrew that amendment on Sept. 4, 2014, leaving the river-facing sign still unauthorized. On Sept. 15, Burke was asked whether the BCP had received a notice of violation for the unapproved river sign.
Said Burke on Sept. 16, “We received a formal application and denial of the north-facing sign on Sept. 9…we will issue a Notice of Violation if the ZHB application for the north sign is not received by Tuesday, September 23.”
To date, there is no record of any formal notice of violation being issued by Borough Hall, and throughout, Larason, the individual charged with enforcing New Hope’s zoning ordinances, has remained inaccessible.
Interviews with several borough officials with close knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of zoning matters said that Larason does not appear to be enforcing the zoning code. The BCP, even without the addition of a new lit banner on the building’s right facade, colored lights that can blind pedestrians proceeding north on South Main Street, and several additional signs advertising the BCP bar, already is utilizing three times its permitted signage area, they say.
In fact, BCP aside, zoning violations seem apparent throughout downtown New Hope, these officials agree, with commercial signage well in excess of borough standards, and what seem like expanded outdoor food service areas readily visible.
Meanwhile, Larason isn’t talking, although he was admittedly taping. And Burke continues to dodge zoning questions, although foul language flows readily from his lips.