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Jim Thorpe councilmember questions zoning ordinance

A view of Jim Thorpe, a Carbon County borough, from the top of Flagstaff Mountain.
JackJM / Getty Images
A view of Jim Thorpe, a Carbon County borough, from the top of Flagstaff Mountain.

A Carbon County borough is expected to adopt new zoning ordinances in 2023, but there’s been debate over the pending draft and recent amendments that look at short-term rental properties.

Jim Thorpe received funding in 2019 from the state’s Municipal Assistance Program, commonly known as MAP, to overhaul their zoning code.

“This is a process that has been going on for about 18 months,” said Jessica Crowley, a Jim Thorpe councilmember who was sworn in January 2022. “A consultant comes to break down pieces of the zoning ordinance, you meet in private committees.”

Crowley has been vocal about some of the language in the borough’s existing code, hoping to alter it while the municipality is updating their property laws.

Under a section titled “Functional Families,” a current Jim Thorpe ordinance caught Crowley’s eye.

The section reads, “Larger groups of unrelated persons have been frequently shown to have a detrimental effect on residential neighborhoods since larger groups of unrelated persons do not live as a family unit and do not have significant economic or emotional ties to the neighborhood.”

That’s part of an amendment that was added to the borough’s code in March 2021, before Crowley was a council member. Other parts of the 2021 amendment address short-term rental licenses and definitions of group homes, according to borough meeting minutes. She said she worries the borough could enforce the law in a discriminatory way.

Rick Vilello is with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), the organization that approves MAP funding.

Vilello said zoning household restrictions are usually expressed in ways to ensure landlords don’t take advantage of renters.

“A lot of times you’ll see limits to the number of unrelated people that can live in a single-family dwelling or an apartment,” he said, “and it’s kind of to protect individuals so you don’t get into some landlord practices where you overcrowd a unit, and it’s for life safety reasons.”

Vilello added that philosophies about zoning decisions change, so making updates with community support should be part of a municipality’s routine.

“It’s just something good to look at every five or 10 years,” he said.

A recent zoning code for Jim Thorpe was adopted in 1997, but amendments like the one Crowley singled out have been added over the years.

Crowley said she wants to make sure residents know what’s in their property laws before a new version is expected to be adopted sometime around March. She began livestreaming borough council meetings on her social media accounts with hopes to engage more residents in the civic process.

Debates in zoning

Vilello said there are common themes among zoning debates across the state.

“There’s been a lot of discussion recently about part-time rentals… trying to control when and where and how Airbnbs are used,” he said.

Vilello added that commercial rezoning in residential areas is another topic that spurs discussion among communities.

But those kind of statewide debates might look different depending on the municipality. For example, not all boroughs have their own zoning codes.

“Some counties provide zoning for smaller municipalities that don’t have their own zoning ordinances and enforcement,” Vilello said.

MAP funding awards from recent years could change that.

Last January, Northumberland County received $42,5000 to develop zoning codes and “create a joint comprehensive plan” for the boroughs of Marion Heights and Kulpmont, according to a DCED release. A portion of the funds will also help Mt. Carmel Twp. update its zoning rules.

In May, Lycoming County was awarded $50,000 for zoning work. The DCED announcement says the county will work with a consultant to “reflect the changes needed to encourage and revitalize economic development in areas that have traditionally been under-utilized.”

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.
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