To paint or not to paint, that is the question. Or perhaps the question really is, Should a painting project be permitted to be finished if it's in violation of an ordinance? (An ordinance passed unanimously last year by Borough Council and crafted with good intentions, which has run up against the Law of Unintended Consequences.) That is the question before Columbia Borough Council, which will likely be addressed at its next meeting.
That same question was discussed at Wednesday night's meeting of the Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB). At issue is a painting project currently underway at Bootleg Antiques on Bridge Street, which has been going on for well over a month and is almost finished. The project appears to be in violation of Ordinance 905 (passed October 8, 2018) which revised the definition of the term ALTERATION:
"Any act or process requiring a building permit and any other act or process not requiring a building permit but specifically listed in this chapter as an act or process reviewable by the Borough's Historical Architectural Review Board, including, without limitation, the repair, application of paint to any previously unpainted building material or surface, replacement, reconstruction, demolition or relocation of any structure or object, or any part of any structure or object that is visible from a property's tax parcel street address, but excluding rear elevations and rear accessory buildings visible only from secondary public streets or public alleys, or the installation of a satellite dish, antenna and other required equipment on the front of buildings, along their facades, or on the roofs or sides of such buildings if visible from a public right-of-way."
Specifically, the project appears to violate the ordinance because the business owner painted a previously unpainted surface, namely, the building's brick exterior. The ordinance, which governs properties in the Historic District, states that no such surface may be painted (at least not without approval from HARB or Council).
Bill Pflumm the building's owner, and Tom Anderson, the owner of Bootleg Antiques (a building tenant) attended the meeting but were unsure which body - HARB or Council- is responsible for the ordinance and its enforcement. The two also questioned the reasoning behind the recent posting of a "stop-work" at Bootleg. Board members explained that HARB does not post such orders, or pass or enforce ordinances. Zoning & Planning Officer Jeff Helm, who posted the order and is responsible for enforcement, was conspicuously absent from the meeting. (The following report may explain why.)
Further complicating matters is the fact that borough officials have stated they only became aware of the project at the July 23, 2019 Columbia Borough Council meeting, at which time the project was already well underway. On top of that, Helm did not immediately act once he learned of the project but instead waited about another week. In addition, Helm's assertion that no borough employee noticed the project and reported it strains credibility.
At the July 23, 2019 Borough Council meeting, council candidate Sharon Lintner asked why the painting project was being allowed to continue when a similar project at the Haitian Maranatha Church on the 200 block of Locust Street was shut down almost immediately last year when it was discovered. Lintner cited the fact that the latest project violates the borough's ordinance.
At the August 8, 2019 Borough Council Work Session, Helm said he had been unaware of the project, because no one had filed a complaint. However, even after Helm was apprised, he still did not address the issue until the beginning of August when he reportedly sent a letter to the building owner informing him of the ordinance violation. That information apparently did not reach the owner of Bootleg Antiques until a week later, when Helm talked to him in person. The painting had "apparently" continued in the interim, according to Helm.
Helm also said that although a "stop-work" order is typically posted in such a circumstance, it was not done in this case. When questioned further, he explained the order was not posted because the painting was about three-quarters finished. In addition, Helm attempted to plead ignorance about the project: "To the best of my knowledge, this painting was going on for weeks and it never came to the knowledge of anybody in the borough that I know of that it was actually happening," Helm said. He also implied that the community was at fault for not filing a complaint. "If we're expecting minimal staff to do that [inspect properties daily], I think that's an unrealistic expectation," Helm explained. "There should have been no reason why this went on for two weeks, three weeks or whatever the time period was without some complaint being filed with the borough."
Helm told Council that he first heard about project two weeks previous when he was told there had been "multiple weeks of painting going on." He said it was unfortunate that a complaint was made only at the "last minute." Helm also noted several ghost signs had been painted earlier. [NOTE: The ghost signs were previously painted decades ago and the new painting therefore do not violate the ordinance.]
Councilman John Novak told Helm that a stop-work order should have been posted immediately when the owner was apprised of the violation instead of a week later. Novak added that imposing some sort of fines and penalties should now be considered, because painting allegedly continued between the time the owner was notified and the stop-work order was posted.
Mayor Leo Lutz said a stop-work order indicates a citable offense, and the fact that a notice was ignored takes it "into another category." Lutz told Council that the stop-work order should stay in place until councillors make a decision: "That stop-work order should stay in place until you seven say, yes you can continue on with it, or no you must remove it, or take it back and do it right."
Novak further explained that it is the property owner's responsibility to first approach HARB so that members can weigh in and send their "advise" so that Council may act on it. Novak also recommended imposing fines and penalties and not moving forward until that is done.