The Lehighton Fire Department crossed a major hurdle in its goal to extend the size of its fire station, Thursday night.

It received unanimous approval from the borough's zoning hearing board.

The $3.5 million project calls for demolishing three houses situated between Station 1 (Lehigh Fire Company No. 1 building) and Station 2 (Engine Company No. 2 building) in the 100 block of South Third Street, and then erecting bays and other facilities between them.

The only remaining obstacle to construction is funding. A $1.5 million state grant has been approved, but the fire department is seeking additional grants.

The variance was sought by Lehighton Borough on behalf of the fire department. The borough owns the fire company buildings. Borough council President Grant Hunsicker signed the variance request.

Presenting the case on behalf of the borough were attorney James Nanovic, borough solicitor, and Nicole Beckett, borough treasurer.

A combination of variances and special use exceptions were needed because the fire station is located in an "R-2" (residential area). The building will be 39 feet in height, which exceeds the borough height maximum of 35 feet. Some setback requirements also aren't within the zoning limits.

It was noted that the existing two fire stations have been located at their present sites well before zoning came into effect in the borough in 1969.

Attorney Nanovic told the zoners, "The need for an upgraded fire station is long overdue."

He said John Kuller, Lehighton's fire chief who died last week, "came into almost every council meeting" and spelled out the safety issues.

The lawyer also said although the borough is the applicant, "the fire company has been the mover and shaker for this." He said Lehigh Fire Company No. 1 purchased the three homes between the two stations – at no cost to taxpayers – and will be deeding them to the borough as soon as the funding for the project is approved.

Zoning board Chairman George Petrole questioned why the houses were purchased before the project was approved. He said, "You can't bring a hardship on yourself. I'm sure some other places were looked at for the purchase of the fire company."

The solicitor for the borough said he knows of one other site that was considered; a vacant lot next to the Lehighton Community Center. He said, "The cost to build a whole new fire station would have been astronomical."

Petrole also was concerned that only sketch plans and not final plans were submitted to the zoners.

Nanovic responded that such a submission to a zoning board is not unusual; that approval is first obtained before the expense of creating the formal plans occurs.

Zoning board member Mary Lou Brophy said her biggest concern was the lighting of the rear of the property, which could impact the neighbors.

"I'm all in favor of the fire house," she said. "I would like conditions that all lighting and signs fall under our ordinance."

When assured that the lighting regulations will be followed, she voted with the rest of the board to grant the requested variance.