Wilkes-Barre council moves ahead on body cams, historic preservation

i Oct 23rd 2020

By Steve Mocarsky, Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice

WILKES-BARRE — The city council on Thursday approved purchasing 70 body-worn cameras for police and voted to amend the zoning ordinance to protect historic buildings from demolition.

Mayor George Brown had asked council for permission to enter the city into a contract with Axon Enterprises for the cameras, related licensing and data storage at a total cost of $391,800, payable over five years at $78,360 annually.

Brown said the police department’s forfeiture fund would cover the first two years’ costs, and his administration would seek grants to cover the remaining years.

Brown announced the body cam initiative in June in the wake of local and national protests calling for police reform and accountability after the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.

The police department had spent about three months field testing cameras from three manufacturers.

Historic preservation

Council also approved on first reading an amendment to the city zoning ordinance that would enact provisions for an Historic Overlay District for the city zoning map and establish an Historic Overlay District Advisory Committee.

The seven-member panel would consist of an architect, a real estate broker, a city code administrator and four city residents with demonstrated interest in historic rehabilitation, or neighborhood conservation or revitalization. Members would be nominated by the mayor and appointed by council to three-year terms.

The committee would be responsible for culling a list of historic properties in the city for council approval. The committee would review applications for demolition or other significant changes for those properties and recommend to the city code officer whether an application should be approved or not.

The proposed ordinance sets criteria for those recommendations. It also requires owners of buildings included in the historic overlay to properly upkeep them to prevent “demolition by neglect,” which is the absence of routine maintenance that leads to structural weakness, decay and deterioration to a point where the building would meet criteria for demolition.

During public comment, Larry Newman, executive director of the Diamond City Partnership, the city’s nonprofit downtown management organization, said most people don’t realize that being listed in the National Historic Register doesn’t protect city buildings from demolition.

“The only way to protect historic buildings is to do it at the local municipal level, which is the reason for this amendment. For three decades, the city of Wilkes-Barre has contemplated local historic regulation, but to date, nothing had been implemented,” Newman said.

Councilman Tony Brooks said he spent “months and months” working on the ordinance. He credited Newman for his work and a collaborative effort with the state Bureau of Historic Preservation.

Brooks said the demolition of the former Frank Clark Jeweler building at 63 S. Main St. in July “galvanized downtown residents and board members of Diamond City Partnership to come to the table and do something about historic preservation.”

Brooks said the buildings in the River Street Historic District, which runs along Franklin and River streets between North and Ross streets, would be “the genesis of the inventory” of historic buildings in the city.

Residents would be able to contact the committee to ask that their home be added to the list that the committee would present to council for approval.

The ordinance needs a final vote of approval from council to be enacted.