WILKES-BARRE TWP. — It took two hours of testimony, five attorneys, some TV-drama style “just answer the question” moments, and an impromptu “I have one in my car” break as a resident ran out to get photo — enlarged and framed — upon request.
But in the end the Wilkes-Barre Township Zoning board affirmed that a controversial salvage yard at the center of complaints for decades violated township ordinances.
“We’re trying to be Solomon here,” said Tom Woods, who was named board president at the start of Tuesday’s hearing during a brief reorganization meeting followed by the lengthy hearing. Near the end he quipped “anyone want a job?”
The board held the hearing, complete with sworn testimony, stenographer and a room packed full people who clearly wanted something done — evident in shouts and comments Woods kept trying to tamp down — to determine whether or not salvage yard owner John Kocher had violated township ordinances requiring a buffer between his yard and residential properties, and another ordinance requiring a screening fence around the property.
Kocher, owner of John’s Auto Body, has run the yard for decades at the end of Augusta Street in two small plots behind property he and a business partner own. But residents have increasingly complained about expansion and unsightliness. The hearing focused on Kocher’s relatively recent purchase of a former bottling plant at 558 Anderson street, and steady expansion of the yard in a field behind homes between Augusta and the Anderson property.
Zoning officer Thomas Zedolik testified at length about letters and meetings with Kocher regarding compliance with the ordinances, showing photos he had taken earlier that day that he said clearly showed vehicles placed near property fences. He said those vehicles had not been in the area until after Kocher bought and started using the old bottling plant.
Kocher’s attorney, Andrew Katsock III, grilled Zedolik about details, prompting the zoning officer to offer longer explanations than Katsock wanted. At several points the attorney snapped “just answer the question.” Woods urged a more cordial approach and asked Katsock to let Zedolik finish his statements.
While Katsock and Township Solicitor Bruce Phillips sparred over dates of letters by Zedolik to Kocher since 2012, the issue kept coming back to whether or not Kocher was complying with an ordinance that required a 150-foot buffer between his yard and adjoining residential property, and the lack of a perimeter fence.
Through it all Zoning Board Solicitor Todd Johns periodically jumped in to help Woods moderate.
Kocher had sought and received a permit to install a fence in 2008 but Zedolik testified the permit had expired and no new one had been sought or issued. Kocher installed some fencing late last year but admitted under oath that it did not comply with the 150-foot buffer zone and that, in fact, some parts of his property are narrower than 150 feet.
Along with questions by Phillips and Katsock, Zedolik and Kocher faced some queries by Attorney Joe Terrana, representing some residents, and Wilkes-Barre Area School District Solicitor Ray Wendolowski. The district has sued Kocher in Luzerne County Court, contending his operation has encroached on district owned property.
But the most impassioned testimony came from nearby residents. When Katsock’s questioning of Zedolik got a little testy someone shouted out, “Why don’t we move the junkyard to your house,” and another added “tonight.”
When Woods invited public comment Mitch Rennick argued that, if Kocher had put the fence up in 2008, “we wouldn’t be here.” Sheila Mazur told the board she’s lived in the area 37 years and “I don’t think Stanton Hill residents should have to live with the feeling of being in a slum.”
When Robert Delescavage held up an enlarged, framed photo that showed a truck trailer, two vans and about a dozen cars near a road and said “I don’t think we should be forced to look out at a sea of cars,” the crowd cheered. Woods asked if he had a picture from several years earlier, and Delescavage obliged by heading out to his car and bringing another framed enlargement showing only two cars in the same space.
Woods asked for a motion affirming Zedolik’s decision that the ordinances had been violated, and board member Bob Komnath initially suggested the board visit the site, but no one seconded the motion. Cindy Dorzinsky moved to affirm both violations separately with Dave Cilvik making the second, and the board voted 5-0 in favor.
“I know you, John,” Woods told Kocher. “You have to understand how these people feel.” Woods said Kocher could apply for zoning variances to meet community concerns without a 150-foot buffer, and the meeting was adjourned.