Ironically, Bernie Bernstein’s not in trouble with the zoning board for the rusted-out old car he keeps in his garage. Instead, it’s the vehicle he uses to tow that one and others like it.
A longtime Bensalem resident, Bernstein owns nine hot rods he fixed up, and cruises and maintains himself. They range from a 1927 Model T to a 2004 white Corvette convertible.
The rusty one is a 1932 Dodge rat rod, which runs perfectly but purposely looks beat-up. Meanwhile, Bernstein regularly takes others, like an orange 1940 Dodge Gasser or green 1929 Ford Model A, to the Atco Dragway in New Jersey.
But he can’t drive those two there, because the engines are customized to work twice as hard as normal for racing and would burn out on a long drive.
To transport them, Bernstein was using a 2011 International 4300 flatbed truck that he kept on his property. It’d been there for years, but only became a problem this summer when someone called the zoning board accusing him of running a business out of his home.
That wasn’t the case, he contends.
“Because I’m into the automotive culture, it’s just part of my toolbox, like a wrench,” said Bernstein. “My neighbors know I keep my place good. It’s not an eyesore, I don’t take it out at night.”
The registration and insurance is all under his own name and designated for personal use, and even says “Not 4 hire” on the side.
His name and phone number are on the door because he travels regularly to places like Philadelphia where all tow trucks are required to post that information. He’d run the risk of getting impounded otherwise.
“It’s my own personal vehicle, for my own personal use,” he stressed. “It’s that simple to me, but it’s not that simple to the township.”
Fortunately, Bernstein was actually able to get that part sorted out relatively quickly once he met with a zoning inspector.
The fact that his name and number on the side made it look like a commercial vehicle, he was told, so he shelled out around $200 for a residential occupancy license to address it.
But the call opened up another can of worms: the truck weighs 25,500 pounds, which is well over the township’s 10,000-pound gross vehicle weight limit on a noncommercial vehicle.
It’s a rule that he’s hoping to appeal not just for himself, but for virtually anyone in the Bensalem with a dual rear-wheel vehicle.
Technically, the Bensalem ordinance means even some late-model heavy-duty pickup trucks like a GMC 4500 or Ford E-450 aren’t allowed to be parked in a driveway, even if they’re not used commercially. Their gross vehicle weights range from 11,000 to 14,000 pounds, depending on the exact model and type of fuel they use.
It’s been a trend in the automotive industry to keep making those trucks bigger and heavier. “Men have a thing about big trucks. The bigger trucks there are, they more manly they are. And there are a lot of men in Bensalem that are manly,” laughed Bernstein.
Just to be safe, Bernstein sold the International while he’s waiting to have his appeal heard by the zoning board on Thursday, Oct. 6. He’s already getting signatures from his neighbors to prove they are aware and okay with a truck like that on his property.
If his appeal goes through, he plans to buy a light-duty truck that looks like a pickup that can still tow his cars. But the lightest one he can find is still 17,000 pounds — just under the state’s benchmark for a commercial vehicle.
That’s why, he speculates, Pennsylvania recently changed their designation for a commercial vehicle to 17,001 pounds. Bensalem, he says, is just behind the times.
“I’m not blaming Bensalem, I think they just don’t know,” he said.
That may be the case, even according to Matt Takita, Director of Building and Planning for Bensalem.
“We’re going to look into that, and consider the provision that’s in place,” he said regarding Bernstein’s appeal.
He said the weight limit is in place partially due to the wear and tear heavier vehicles can have on roads, but mostly to keep people from running businesses out of residential properties.
Takita’s seen Bernstein’s property and said it was “immaculate.” The fact that he’s been cooperative and forthcoming also helps his case.
“When we know the person cares, we’re more willing to work with them,” he said.
But the problem could be the person who’s after him. A variance like this stays permanently with the property. The board could be concerned with how the next owner uses it.
“He could give his word, but we wouldn’t want someone else to take advantage of it later,” said Takita.
All the more reason then, said Bernstein, for the township to reconsider its gross vehicle weight limit. That’s especially so, he noted, when plenty of dealerships in the area sell pickups over 10,000 pounds.
“What happens if you buy a brand new truck but you can’t park it in your driveway?” he asked.