Luzerne County Community College officials believe hundreds of students would be interested in living in dormitories, if the housing were available. And a private equity firm's study backs up that belief. But under Nanticoke's zoning laws, the only place dorms could be built is nearly a mile off campus.
During a contentious city council meeting Wednesday night, a private developer's request for approval of a 240-bed, $15 million dormitory project along Kosciuszko Street, near the college's campus entrance, was rejected because of neighbor concerns and the fact that part of the city is zoned for only single- or two-family housing.
The council was just not interested in making a change from an R-2 zone, and 30 residents who came out were also not in favor of it, said Nanticoke City Manager Pamela Heard.
Alex Belavitz said he's surprised city leaders would reject what could have been the largest, privately funded development in the city in a generation – one that could have spurred tax revenue and brought more residents to the city to shop and eat. He noted the city's zoning map calls for dormitories to be located in an R-3 Zone, the closest of which would be in the vicinity of East Noble and South Chestnut streets, more than six blocks from the college's campus.
Tom Leary, Luzerne County Community College's president, said he and Belavitz spoke of the need for student housing nearly a decade ago and nothing's changed since other than student enrollment is up and the need is greater.
It's not an absolute necessity for us, Leary said. But it would be nice.
Since the college draws from a 10-county area, he said, often times it's difficult for students to commute back and forth; and with a lack of affordable places to live close by, it becomes a lost opportunity for some prospective students.
Belavitz, the president and CEO of Facility Design and Development, which has offices in State College, Scranton and New York, said he and private equity firm Kingsley Equity have been looking into the community's needs for some time and believed the property was ideal and the need real.
The land being considered for the project is Earth Conservancy property that was reclaimed mine land and is now a Keystone Opportunity Zone, meaning taxes will be abated through 2017. But the project still would create jobs and enter the tax rolls in five years, generating close to $75,000 annually, Belavitz said. While he lamented the city's rejection of the project, he said the plans aren't dead.
We remain committed to see it through, Belavitz said, though he declined to give details.
Leary said dormitories for community colleges are rare, though he mentioned Northampton Community College had a private company build dorms near its campus. He said he hopes the council's rejection is not the last time the idea is brought to the table.
Belavitz said the city has to realize their zoning is antiquated. He hopes zoning changes are made and the project could be a viable one once more, he added.
He also hopes city council members realize that the concerns certain residents raised about noise, light and parking are easily addressed, and he said the developer is willing to work with the city to make the project happen.