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Jim Thorpe gives project conditional OK

Published February 16. 2019 06:23AM

Jim Thorpe Mayor Mike Sofranko cast a tie-breaking seventh vote Thursday night that awarded Carbon County conditional plan approval for its parking garage and office building on Susquehanna Street in the borough.

The vote came at the end of a nearly three-hour meeting dominated by discussion on the project, which has drawn the ire of many local residents, particularly the impact tons of rock removal may have on the Tiffany stained-glass windows and foundation of the nearby historic St. Mark and St. John Episcopal Church.

Before voting, Sofranko consulted with representatives from the church and the borough’s attorney, Jim Nanovic.

“This moves things forward, but it’s not the end of the road,” Sofranko said. “The land development agreement still needs to be worked out. This buys the church some time to get some of their concerns addressed in that agreement. My number one concern has been and is the church. I don’t want to see anything happen to it.”

Jim Thorpe was up against the gun with a Feb. 20 deadline in place to act on the plans. Had council not taken action, the plans would have been deemed approved without any conditions in place.

Greg Strubinger, Jay Miller and Edith Lukasevich voted for the conditional approval, with John McGuire, Kyle Sheckler and Thomas Highland in opposition.

The motion included a provision that allows the county to start demolition and rock removal at the site while it awaits its highway occupancy permit from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

“I don’t agree with that. I think they should have that in place before they start,” McGuire said. Sheckler and Highland echoed his opinion.

After hearing from numerous residents, almost all of which cited the protection of the church as their main concern, Lukasevich described her own internal debate surrounding the project.

“I’m one of the oldest active members in this town and I remember the good times and the bad times,” she said. “This is one heck of a predicament. I have a great love for the beautiful old buildings. At the same time, we have to have progress, but we can’t do it at the risk of damaging the church or any other buildings. I’m sure in the long run we can come up with something that can satisfy everyone.”

Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, flanked by a team of lawyers, engineers and project consultants, fielded numerous questions on the project. One member of the group, Doug Rudenko, of Hazleton-based Vibra-Tech Engineers Inc., drew the most attention as his firm will be conducting vibration monitoring from demolition of the current building at the site through project completion.

Rudenko said his team has done similar work during projects near St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“We will set a vibration limit, which is conservative to begin with, and if the vibrations get to 80 percent of that limit, the project will stop and we will evaluate what caused that to happen,” he said. “If that happens, mitigation measures may have to take place which could be using a different type of hammer or putting in an isolation trench. There are a variety of different techniques that can be applied.”

According to Nothstein, demolition of the current building will take place first, and then core drilling into the rock will take place to determine if anchors are necessary.

Vibration monitoring numbers, Rudenko said, would be made available on a website that Nothstein added would be able to be viewed by the public.

“We want to be as transparent as possible,” Nothstein said.

One of the other provisions included in Thursday’s approval is that the county will clean out sediment and debris on a 10-foot section of stormwater pipe near the project site.

The county is asking to be able to apply for its building permit before March 31 to have its plans grandfathered under a prior set of state building code requirements.

According to Jeff Gross of Form Space Design Architects, the architect on the project, the state adopted new building codes in October and gave a six-month window for permit applications using the old codes, under which this project was designed.

“If we had to go back and redesign and rebid the project, that would cost a substantial amount of money,” Nothstein said. “It would drive the cost up and we’re all taxpayers.”

Council deferred a decision on the building permit until a future meeting.

During public comment, Nothstein defended the need for the project after resident John Drury questioned if it was necessary.

“We have the caseload of a county double our size,” he said. “Carbon County is the epicenter for the drug issue, and our caseloads are booming. We are shoulder-to-shoulder on some days in the existing courthouse. The judges, between the three of them, will hear over 100 cases on some days. I would not commit to this project if we didn’t have to do it.”

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