In a sudden reversal that left everyone involved a bit stunned, the Bethlehem Planning Commission gave conditional approval to developer Abe Atiyeh's much-debated plan for a hospital near Bethlehem Catholic High School.
Atiyeh could hardly believe his good fortune brought about by Thursday's improbable turn of events. Asked his reaction afterward, Atiyeh told WFMZ.com, "Happy, very happy. I'm going to get my hospital built."
He said construction of the one-story, 80-bed hospital on five acres at 1838 Center St. could begin as early as next spring. "First, I've got to get the hospital designed and approval [to operate a hospital] from the state."
Just minutes before the planners voted 3-1 to back Atiyeh's plan, they voted 3-1 against it.
The unexpected flip-flop came after planner Thomas A. Barker -- attending his first meeting since being appointed to the commission in late August -- realized he had voted incorrectly.
An exasperated Atiyeh, his lawyer, Blake Marles, and his engineer David Harte, were already out of their seats and preparing to leave council chambers in Bethlehem City Hall when Barker let it be known he had misunderstood the motion to deny approval to Atiyeh's plan.
After some debate over proper parliamentary procedure, the planners unanimously decided to vote again on denying Atiyeh's proposal. But this time, the tally was 2-2 -- with Barker joining Andrew Twiggar in voting no -- and the motion failed.
Twiggar then took the initiative and made a motion to approve the plan, but with several conditions, the most important being that the hospital cannot ever operate as a drug and alcohol treatment center.
That condition was enough to sway Olga Negron to join Twiggar and Barker in voting yes.
The dissenting vote came from planners chairman Jim Fiorentino, who had made the original motion to deny Atiyeh's proposal.
Fiorentino said he remained unconvinced Atiyeh only intends to operate a hospital on the property, despite the developer's protestations to the contrary, and he faulted Atiyeh for being evasive.
Those criticisms have been constant since Atiyeh proposed the hospital in March, and Fiorentino was only one of several people to bring them up again on Thursday.
Among them was John Schadt, one of three people who spoke against Atiyeh's plan to build a hospital in their neighborhood. "There's simply a credibility issue here," he said. "We think we're going to be abused in the end. ... All we get are roundabout answers and evasions."
Atty. Steve Goudsouzian, representing a group of neighbors opposed to the hospital plan, stated flatly, "This applicant [Atiyeh] knows it is eventually going to be a treatment center," and he offered five pages of conditions he wanted the planners to attach to any approval the plan might get.
The planners moved on to other business for 35 minutes to give Atiyeh and Marles time to go over the conditions Goudsouzian requested.
But when the planners began discussing with Marles about what conditions might be acceptable, Atiyeh grew impatient and finally angry.
"I'm not gonna allow a third party -- a bunch of neighborhood objectors -- to place conditions on us," he declared. "This is getting out of hand. ... If you [planners] decide to put conditions on us, do it. But I'm not going to talk about this any more."
Atiyeh's sincerity also was called into question by city council solicitor Chris Spadoni, who was sent by council to oppose Atiyeh's plan.
Spadoni said Atiyeh and his attorney were "artful" in dodging questions about the nature of the hospital and did not want to get pinned down "for obvious reasons."
After the planners' about face, Spadoni said he was surprised by it, adding with a grimace, "This is a cluster something or other."
Throughout the meeting, Atiyeh resisted saying what kind of hospital his facility would be. "It's my choice what I want to put [there]. ... It could be like a Westfield Hospital, or a geriatric hospital. We'll see after Obamacare comes in."
For the planners to insist that he declare his intention is "overreaching" and "out of bounds," he said.
But Atiyeh was adamant about what it would not be -- a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility.
"Why would I want a third drug and alcohol facility?" he asked rhetorically, predicting he will eventually operate such facilities at the former Synthetic Thread factory along Route 378 at 12th Avenue and the former Moose & Bug Florist at 2349 Linden St.
"I'm not throwing you any smoke screens. It's a hospital."