Barkeyville’s zoning ordinance will now name hot-mix asphalt (HMA) plants among the acceptable uses in Barkeyville Industrial Park on Stevenson Road – although the controversy surrounding it is far from cooling down.

On Tuesday, borough council’s seven members approved HMA plants as light industry for the park, giving Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc. what it asked for in May.

“Council voted in confidence for us, and we hope to be working with the community,” said Mike Hawbaker, vice-president of the State College-based company. “We hope to be running later this week.”

Hawbaker was given a zoning permit by former Barkeyville zoning officer Gary Dovey on Dec. 31 to build the plant in the industrial park under “light industry,” an acceptable use there.

Opponents claim the plant is “heavy industry,” which is a non-permitted use in the park. They say Dovey violated the zoning ordinance in his decision, and believe Hawbaker’s plant will pollute the environment and diminish the quality of life for residents.

The Barkeyville Zoning Hearing Board upheld Hawbaker’s permit under the old ordinance during an appeal this spring, but council’s nod for the amendment on Tuesday helped solidify the plant’s existence.

“Our vote was to fix that big hole in our zoning ordinance,” said Leanne Stearns, council president. Its former definition of light versus heavy industry was “very, very vague in this day and age.”

Council created a planning commission two months ago to update the borough’s zoning ordinance and comprehensive plan. Council generally votes on changes after the commission gives its recommendation.

This time, council jumped protocol because “we’ve waited and waited and waited ... and the planning commission wasn’t doing anything,” Mrs. Stearns said. “It was a time-delaying tactic,” she added, since more than half of the planning commission is against Hawbaker.

Bill Coursen, chair of the planners, is one of five appellants in a Venango County lawsuit contesting Hawbaker’s permit. Council solicitor Ray Bogaty has stated that Coursen has a conflict of interest, and should recuse himself in voting on matters involving the plant.

Coursen’s wife, Carol, also an appellant, implored council to do the same before Tuesday’s decision. At an Aug. 15 public hearing, she promised council would be sued if members did not recuse themselves in voting on the amendment.

She and her husband weren’t surprised with the outcome, however. “Council already voted on July 28,” they agreed after Tuesday’s meeting. Members signed a July 28 petition approving Hawbaker as light industry in the industrial park.

Mrs. Coursen read a letter on Tuesday from the appellants’ attorney, Robert Varsek, Oil City, which claims that council had “unfettered and blatant bias” in the Hawbaker issue.

Varsek claims there is overwhelming case law against public officials having such a bias in performing civic duties, she quoted him.

Hawbaker attorney George Thompson, Franklin, believed Varsek’s letter was simply a scare tactic to keep council from approving the amendment.

“Mr. Varsek is concerned because their case will be moot,” he said. “(The amendment) is so clear, we don’t think anyone will be willing to file a challenge,” Thompson added after the meeting.

Mrs. Stearns agreed. “Their court case up there is done, all the lawyers say it.”

Solicitor Ray Bogaty added that council didn’t need to disqualify itself from voting. Under the borough code, members had a right to express their opinions about Hawbaker, he said. “Don’t feel you acted improperly.”

Thompson issued a warning to the appellants.

“These people bring frivolous lawsuits, but they can be sued themselves in their attempt to harass and trample on the rights of council with this threat of a civil suit here in Venango County,” said Thompson, who is solicitor of both the county and the county’s planning commission.

The appellants will consult with Varsek about going after council in county court, Mrs. Coursen said after the meeting. They will continue pursuing their initial court action to overturn Hawbaker’s original zoning permit, she noted.

Attorney Alan Shaddinger, Meadville, will be filing for a new permit for Hawbaker under the amendment, Thompson added.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with that,” said Bill Walker, current zoning officer.

The issue has packed borough meetings with Barkeyville and township residents weighing divergent and divisive opinions on Hawbaker’s HMA plant.

A few of the same people commented on Tuesday, which brought a small 40-plus crowd. Some new opinions came from residents like Judy VanDyke, Mr. Coursen’s cousin. She referred to the appellants as “the circle,” who should be ashamed for pursuing litigating against their neighbors.

Mr. Coursen said he has only sought to defend the zoning ordinance, which he helped write as the planning chair in 1999. “It’s very bothersome when someone comes in and twists my words and tells me what it means,” he said. Raeman Hanna felt the town should apologize to those vilifying Mr. Coursen – also his cousin – for making his stance.

Mrs. Stearns felt she was standing for the town in amending the ordinance. The 72 signatures of borough-only residents on the petition bore a lot of weight in her decision, she added, as well as her talks with residents.

Mrs. Stearns noted that most in town approved of Hawbaker, and those in opposition have primarily come from outside the borough.

Those outside residents believe they have a right to their opinion, like Mark DeWalt, Irwin Township. Living a mile from the plant “affects me,” he said at the meeting.

“None of these people gave Hawbaker a chance,” said council member Wallace “Wally” Stearns. The borough needs the financial boost Hawbaker will bring, he added, since borough expenses have doubled in his eight years on council.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took HMA plants off its major polluters’ list in 1992, Mr. Stearns said, with Mrs. Stearns, his wife, presenting an article about the measure.

“We did a lot of homework to decide on this vote,” he noted. “You have to keep an open mind, but ... I was pretty much in favor of this.”

“I weighed everybody’s opinion. I voted my conscience,” added councilman Warren Whetzel.

“I’m not afraid of getting sued,” he noted. “Who are they going to sue, the borough?”

Visiting Judge William Morgan, of Warren County, will hear oral arguments against Hawbaker’s original zoning permit in Venango County court on Sept. 27.

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