WILKES-BARRE — The owner of the former Hotel Sterling lot will face a legal fight over the continued use of the property as a parking lot.
The Wilkes-Barre Parking Authority intends to file a complaint as early as Monday in Luzerne County Court against H&N Investments LLC.
Attorney Jack Zelinka, solicitor for the authority, said a provision in the city zoning’s ordinance allows for the court action.
Zelinka discussed the litigation Wednesday after the property owner withdrew its application before the city’s Zoning Hearing Board for a variance to operate a temporary lot on the site of a proposed $35 million, mixed-use project that includes a hotel, conference center and condominiums.
“Being that they withdraw an application and they’re not before the Zoning Hearing Board seeking a variance, we’re going to go ahead and under that part of the zoning ordinance file a complaint with the Court of Common Pleas,” Zelinka told reporters in the hallway outside council chambers at Wilkes-Barre City Hall.
The authority can proceed because it’s already notified city council of its intent to go to court, the first step in the process, Zelinka explained.
Whether council members saw the certified letter the authority sent out 30 days ahead of the zoning board’s hearing, Zelinka said he was unsure. The authority received confirmation that the letter was delivered.
But Tom Torbik, executive director of the authority, said he received an email from councilwoman Beth Gilbert on Wednesday saying she did not see the complaint.
Nonetheless, Gilbert said she supported the authority’s effort to stop what Torbik described as an “illegal” parking operation on the Sterling lot that’s taking away revenue and customers by undercutting the authority’s rate of $70 a month by $10 and not paying a city parking tax.
“I think it is imperative that the authority, or city, regain control of parking assets on that lot or cease parking on the lot all together,” Gilbert said in her email to Torbik.
Torbik attempted to put Gilbert’s comments on the record at the hearing, but was stopped by the zoning board’s solicitor Charles McCormick, who said it was not relevant to H&N’s application.
McCormick ripped into the application, however.
It lacked specifics and asked the board to waive all its off-street parking requirements so H&N could operate a mostly dirt lot to accommodate 200 vehicles for up to two years, McCormick said.
“It’s just a general mayhem that goes on in there. They pull in. They park where they’re going to park and they go where they’re going to go,” McCormick said.
George Albert, a consulting engineer for Hysni “Sam” Syla, one of the principals of the H&N development group, acknowledged that parking is not a permitted use for the property. Albert said he was willing to work with the board.
“Well if there’s conditions or anything like that, we’re certainly open to entertain them,” George said.
“But it’s not our job to tell you what you need to do,” noted McCormick.
Steve Barrouk, who’s worked with Syla on this project and others, assured the board that Syla indicated he would do whatever he has to do to comply.
“But the board needs to consider that it’s also temporary and there should be some accommodation for that particular consideration,” Barrouk added.
Not sure about tax
H&N has hired LAZ Parking to manage the lot since mid-July and has been collecting monthly rents, Barrouk said. He admitted that he did not know if LAZ was collecting the 8 percent parking tax charged by the city.
McCormick limited testimony on the tax saying it was not an issue before the board.
Torbik said he was informed by LAZ, who also manages authority assets, that it wasn’t the company’s responsibility to collect the tax or apply for a permit from the city for the lot.
As long as the lot continues to operate, it generates $13,000 a month in revenue, Torbik said. If it’s allowed to operate for two years, H&N will earn $353,000 or 59 percent of the $600,000 it paid the city for the property, he added.
Reach Jerry Lynott at 570-991-6120 or on Twitter @TLJerryLynott.