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Court upholds business improvement zone in Lebanon

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In a ruling handed down last week, the state Commonwealth Court upheld the creation of a business improvement district in downtown Lebanon, knocking down a challenge to the district's approval process.

A property owner had challenged the method for calculating votes during the approval process for the district, in which property owners pay an extra fee to support marketing, beautification and other efforts

City leaders hailed the ruling in their favor.

"The city is excited to move forward with confidence as downtown Lebanon progresses as a Business Improvement District. We already have seen positive results from having a BID in place, and we look forward to working cooperatively with the NIDMA (Neighborhood Improvement District Management Association) and Kelly Withum, BID executive director, on additional projects and events,” Mayor Sherry Capello wrote in an email Tuesday.

The district was approved by city council in February 2016. Businesses in the district are expected to pay an annual assessment of $2 for every $1,000 of assessed value on their properties for a five-year period. 

According to court documents, property owner Edward J. Schock objected to the way the BID was given approval. Efforts to reach Schock Tuesday were not successful.

The objections centered on the formula for deciding whether enough 
"no" votes had been cast to derail creation of the district and begin taxing property owners.

At least 40 percent of affected property owners would have had to vote against the district. 

The BID includes 358 properties. Of that number, 78 were deemed exempt from BID assessment. The city received 146 objections from property owners subject to assessment. However, the city rejected a number of objections on various grounds, ultimately counting 132 objections. 

In evaluating the 40 percent threshold for a veto, the city considered not just the 280 properties subject to assessment, but also the 78 exempt properties. Under the city's interpretation, 36.8 percent of the 358 affected property owners objected.

Schock disputed those calculations. He filed a complaint in March 2016 in the Lebanon County Court of Common Pleas arguing that properties that would be exempt from paying an assessment in the BID, or tax-exempt properties, should not be used to calculate the 40 percent threshold.

Schock's challenge was dismissed by the court in December 2016. He subsequently filed an appeal with the Commonwealth Court, which sided with the city's interpretation.

Mayor Capello said the city’'s position is that all property owners in the improvement district should have a voice in the zone's establishment.

"Property owners that are non-taxable or single-family owner-occupied are not assessed a fee but they will be affected by improvements made in the BID area and thus should have the right to voice concerns and/or support to the establishment of a BID," she wrote.

She pointed out that the city has upgraded 19 Victorian lights from sodium vapor to LED in the downtown, allowing more direct and whiter light.

In addition, the Neighborhood Improvement District Management Association has begun sidewalk cleaning in the BID area and has been removing approximately 800 pounds of trash each week.

A public camera system also will be installed in the near future, which will enhance security in the downtown, she added. "These improvements will affect all properties located within the BID." 

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