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Environmental advocacy group takes Paradise Township to court

The developer, JSPA Reality, LCC wants to build a 240-acre resort and shopping center. 152 acres are in Paradise Township. The rest are in Pocono Township and Mount Pocono Borough.
JSPA Reality, LCC/Paradise Township
The developer, JSPA Reality, LCC, wants to build a 240-acre resort and shopping center. 152 acres are in Paradise Township. The rest are in Pocono Township and Mount Pocono Borough.

An environmental nonprofit filed an appeal against Paradise Township claiming that supervisors broke their own zoning ordinance.

In Sept., township supervisors approved an application for a 240-acre resort and shopping center. PennFuture, an environmental nonprofit, responded with an appeal to the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas. They were a party in the nine hearings that the township held in deciding whether to approve the development.

PennFuture lawyer Brigitte Meyer argued in the appeal that supervisors breached township rules. She said the applicant, JSPA Reality, submitted incomplete plans during a series of zoning hearings, which supervisors incorrectly approved.

“You have to show your work at the hearing. And produce the evidence to prove that you’re going to comply with the ordinance. And if you can’t do that, then you are not entitled to approval,” said Meyer.

The appeal hinges on defining the zoning application’s requirements. The developer applied through a conditional use application – the land is zoned for residential use, so the developer has to get approval to use it commercially.

Paradise Township has an unusual clause in their zoning ordinance that allows for commercial developments in residential areas: The Resort Development Area (RDA) Overlay District. RDA allows developers to issue a Master Development Plan to build resorts in residential areas if they also build another commercial structure, like a restaurant or shopping mall.

A sketch of plans for the Hawthorne Mount Pocono Resort project.
JSPA Reality, LCC/Paradise Township
A sketch of plans for the Hawthorne Mount Pocono Resort project.

However, Meyer said the resort and shopping center are not connected, violating the township’s zoning ordinance. The Hawthorne Mount Pocono Resort is u-shaped. A neighborhood already exists at its center.

“The way to get from the resort to the shopping center and vice versa is like a steep, narrow, unpaved pedestrian walkway that goes through the neighborhood and is actually on some of the roads in the neighborhood. It’s only for pedestrians. There is no way to drive between the resort and the shopping center without going on Route 611,” said Meyer.

Township supervisors approved the project with a series of conditions that developers will have to meet moving forward. Meyer said their decision sets a dangerous precedent.

“It takes too much of the decision-making process out of the view of the public,” said Meyer. “The board imposed more than 50 conditions on approval, stated that those conditions were, quote, ‘critical to demonstrating compliance with the zoning ordinance.’ But, because they are allowing the developer to meet those requirements later, there’s now no way for the public to see or comment on what the developer is doing or proposing.”

Board of Supervisors Chairman Peter Gonze disagrees with Meyer and PennFuture’s claim. He said the project needs further review, not dismissal.

“We decided that there was enough that had been provided that supported the conditional use, subject to a number of conditions that were included in our decision,” said Gonze.

Gonze said the developer should not have to present a fully drawn out plan at the time of application. He said the current plans are sketches.

“That’ll be up to them to provide that information. And then we will decide as it goes through. The next phase is really through land development. Where more specific plans, detailed plans are presented and then reviewed,” said Gonze.

Township engineers, code enforcement officials, and a host of other employees will assess whether the developer meets the supervisors’ conditions to final approval, according to Gonze.

An aerial view of the proposed project area.
JSPA Reality, LCC/Paradise Township
An aerial view of the proposed project area.

However, PennFuture’s Brigitte Meyer said the board originally found that the resort and shopping center failed requirements for conditional use approval.

“The board of supervisors actually agreed with everything I just said. They looked at all the evidence at the hearing and they said, ‘Yeah, these two uses, they are not really integrated. You are not doing what our zoning ordinance requires,’” said Meyer.

The township’s decision to grant conditional use approval states, ‘it is clear that applicant did not provide enough evidence as to how [the resort and shopping center] work together.’ The township will grant the conditional use permit to the developer once they show proof that all additional conditions are met.

The Monroe County Court of Common Pleas can uphold the board’s decision or revoke the developer’s permit as the board allegedly broke their own zoning ordinance.

Chairman Peter Gonze is not overturning his decision to grant conditional use approval to the developer, JSPA Reality.

“Well, we obviously disagree [with PennFuture.] And we have notified the court that we standby our decision. We don’t agree with their point of view,” said Gonze.

PennFuture and the board of supervisors have sent their responses to the court. JSPA Reality is drafting their response, according to Gonze.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.

You can email Isabella at isabelaweiss@wvia.org