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Mystery flyers are asking residents of several Lehigh Valley communities for evidence of discrimination. A familiar name is behind them.

Developer Abe Atiyeh has paid for anonymous mailers in three Northampton County communities: Bethlehem, West Easton and Palmer Township (seen here). The mailers accuse those municipalities of discrimination and ask for residents and business owners to share their experiences. (Anthony Salamone/첥Ƶ)
Developer Abe Atiyeh has paid for anonymous mailers in three Northampton County communities: Bethlehem, West Easton and Palmer Township (seen here). The mailers accuse those municipalities of discrimination and ask for residents and business owners to share their experiences. (Anthony Salamone/첥Ƶ)
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Abe Atiyeh has never shied away from going to court.

The Lehigh Valley businessman and developer has frequently appealed zoning decisions and taken other legal action over his proposed development projects — some of them controversial.

But Atiyeh, who owns several adult-care facilities and numerous other commercial and residential properties, has acknowledged a new tactic.

In recent weeks, the Bethlehem Township resident has paid for anonymous materials mailed to residents or merchants in three Northampton County communities: Bethlehem, Palmer Township and West Easton. Each one is headlined by the community name and the word “Problems.”

His goal: Obtain as much information from others who believe they have faced discrimination, racism or other forms of bias, or overall mistreatment, that would prompt him potentially to file class action lawsuits. He said no such legal actions are yet in the works.

Developer Abe Atiyeh is seen outside the AMF Parkway Lanes property in south Allentown that he acquired in 2017. (Chris Shipley/첥Ƶ)
Developer Abe Atiyeh is seen in 2017. (Chris Shipley/첥Ƶ)

The mailers essentially accuse each community of treating people differently because of race, religion, creed, nationality or personal connections. They ask people to complete a confidential community survey via various websites, email or phone.

“We invite you to participate in a class-action lawsuit to seek compensation for the way [each community] has treated you,” the mailers say.

“I don’t want it to look like I sue people for no reason,” said Atiyeh, who said he has projects or proposed projects in about 15 Valley municipalities. “But I have legitimate reasons, and I don’t like municipalities that discriminate against anybody.”

The communications do not list Atiyeh by name. Asked why, he said, “I didn’t want to attract or distract people. I wanted to be neutral in the hope that people would open up without knowing initially who sent this.”

Past actions

Atiyeh has filed a federal lawsuit against Palmer Township and its supervisors regarding development projects he has proposed, including warehousing off Van Buren Road and apartments off William Penn Highway.

Developer Abe Atiyeh says Palmer Township officials were wrong when they issued a violation and cease and desist order against him for using a three-acre parcel at 530 Milford St. as a parking lot. Atiyeh will appear before the Township Zoning Hearing Board on Tuesday to appeal.
Atiyeh has filed a federal lawsuit against Palmer Township and its supervisors regarding development projects he has proposed that include apartments on this site at Milford Street, off William Penn Highway. (Christina Tatu/첥Ƶ file photo)

The lawsuit claims that, in a closed-door executive session held by the township regarding the apartment project, a former township attorney asked attendees why the township was negotiating with “a terrorist,” referencing Atiyeh. The legal complaint also says during a public hearing June 26, 2022, one supervisor said Atiyeh “could be building bombs” in one of his building projects.

“To call me a terrorist and to try to ruin my reputation … is harmful to me emotionally, financially,” said Atiyeh, who believes some words used about him implicate him as a Middle Eastern radical. (His parents came to America from Syria, but he is an Allentown native.) He estimated he has lost millions of dollars in proposed township projects.

“It bugged me,” he said. “I work hard to do what I do.”

Atiyeh said the Palmer episodes left him wondering if anyone else in the township experienced bias.

Township officials declined to discuss the discrimination lawsuit or other aspects of Atiyeh’s appeals but said his mailer was a departure from the usual in seeking people to build lawsuits against municipalities.

“If I know of any discrimination going on in the township, I’m obligated to look at it,” said Robert Williams, Palmer’s manager, of Atiyeh’s solicitation. “But it needs to be identified.”

In West Easton, where Atiyeh built a processing center for driving under the influence offenders but lost on plans to build a drug-treatment center after the borough turned it down, he sued in federal court over discrimination against those with substance abuse issues and their rights under federal disabilities law. Mayor Dan DePaul said neighbors of the proposed drug-treatment facility expressed concerns for their safety.

DePaul was surprised to learn about Atiyeh’s mailer when someone asked him what the mailer meant.

“At first, I thought it was a law firm trying to drum up business,” DePaul said. “I was shocked and disappointed to find out it was from him.”

In Bethlehem, Atiyeh has a federal lawsuit seeking millions of dollars from the city for turning away his plans to build a psychiatric hospital on Center Street. The lawsuit says in part the city stalled his project to the point where the 80-bed hospital was no longer in demand.

Mayor J. William Reynolds referred comment to the city’s lawyers; city solicitor John Spirk declined to comment on the mailer.

Abe Atiyeh's five-acre property at 1838 Center Street in Bethlehem.
Abe Atiyeh’s five-acre property at 1838 Center St. in Bethlehem. (Nicole Mertz/첥Ƶ file photo)

Atiyeh has said he could have made $2.5 million a year off the hospital and wants the city to pay damages for lost profits plus his legal fees and the fees to submit planning and zoning paperwork to the city.

Atiyeh said he has received responses to the mailers and they are being referred to a law firm that he declined to identify for review.

“I have the money to fight back, and I’m fighting back,” he said.

Buddy Lesavoy, a longtime attorney in South Whitehall Township who has been involved in land development proceedings before municipal governments, said sometimes developers become frustrated to the point of appealing a decision or suing a community or residents who protest.

Sometimes, he said, developers and communities continue to negotiate, or both sides reach a compromise. Or, he said, the parties come up with community relations measures for a landowner to gain favor on a project.

Pressures exist among municipal zoning, planning and other boards, despite rules and ordinances in place, he said. Part of the pressure can come from community protests, for example.

Still, he found Atiyeh’s attempt at gathering complaints from the three Valley communities for possible class-action lawsuits uncommon.

“I’ve never seen or heard that before,” he said.

The Pennsylvania Municipal League, a nonprofit group that represents nearly 150 communities with nearly 4 million residents, is also unaware of any legal actions similar to Atiyeh statewide, said John S. Brenner, its executive director.

Morning 첥Ƶ reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at asalamone@mcall.com.

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