Date – March 1, 2012

Understanding the Trout Creek Overlay Ordinance … More Complex than a Wawa or an Apartment Building

I attended Monday night’s marathon 3+ hour public hearing and Board of Supervisors meeting.  The main event of the night was the public hearing and resident comments in regards to a zoning ordinance amendment that would develop a Trout Creek Overlay district. (Here is a link to the meeting video).

There was much to take in from the meeting and I have struggled to ‘wrap my head around’ the details of the proposed zoning ordinance amendment, affects the development project and storm water improvements may have on the community, misinformation and a degree of confusion among some residents.  Part of the confusion about the project is in the labeling – although the township information refers to it as the ‘Trout Creek Overlay’ proposal, the problem is that unless you attend Planning Commission meetings, local residents may not have initially recognized it was the ‘Richter’ tract and its possible development was discussion.

The Richter tract is 36 acres located at Swedesford, Old Eagle School and Walker Roads in the Glenhardie/Wayne area of the township.   Currently, twenty-six acres of the property is zoned R-1 residential district and the remaining ten acres is zoned ‘professional’ district.  R-1 zoning permits single-family homes and with special exception house conversion to multi-family dwelling.  The Professional zoning district permits office or professional buildings.

The proposed zoning ordinance amendment to develop an overlay district in the Trout Creek Watershed is more than just about the development of the Richter tract; although the Richter tract is the largest undeveloped property in the Trout Creek Watershed.  As the economy improves, there may be opportunities for future redevelopment projects in the township.  Therefore, this proposed zoning ordinance amendment change could be used elsewhere in the Trout Creek Overlay district as an incentive for developers.

As an example, we recently learned that the US Postal Service will consolidate postal services and the Southeastern PO distribution center will close in May.  The Southeastern PO location could become a future redevelopment area that might benefit from the proposed zoning amendment.  Click here to see the Trout Creek Watershed map and what areas would be potentially affected by the proposed zoning ordinance.

The reasoning behind the creation of a Trout Creek Overlay district is to provide for public stormwater improvements on development projects in the Trout Creek Watershed district.  (Area as identified on the Trout Creek Watershed map).

Back to the Richter property — this appears to be the guiding force behind the proposed zoning ordinance amendment.  The way I see it, there are four major groups of players in this specific development project – the developer Joe Duckworth and Arcadia Land Company, the Glenhardie area residents, township Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

Anyone living in Tredyffrin, knows that there are major stormwater issues all around the township and those problems are long-standing.  In addition, the township has been working on solutions to the flooding problems in the Glenhardie area for years.  The challenge for the township is that a number of large properties are needed for stormwater management facilities that would hold back runoff during heavy rain, thereby reducing the volume of water downstream into Trout Creek. However, the real problem is how to come up with long-term solutions, particularly in an economy where money is not easily available.

If the township does not have the necessary resources for stormwater management, and if the residents are not interested in paying increased taxes … what is the solution for stormwater problems?  One idea is to offer incentives to developers in exchange for increased stormwater management components in their land development projects.  I believe it was that specific objective, which drove the Planning Commissioners to create the proposed Trout Creek Overlay zoning amendment.  To be clear, I do not think that the proposed zoning amendment was some kind of quixotic effort on the part of the Planning Commissioners to encourage a specific development project. But rather the Trout Creek Overlay zoning amendment was a time-consuming, thoroughly discussed plan to encourage development but to also aid in stormwater management.

As an aside to the Planning Commission process to develop the Trout Creek Overlay zoning amendment, is the Richter property developer – Joe Duckworth and Arcadia Land Company.  Attending various Planning Commission meetings, I have found Duckworth to be very community-minded and responsive to all questions and concerns related to the development of the Richter tract.  However, those discussions were about carriage homes and/or townhouses on the residential parcel of the Richter property.

In reviewing their website, Arcadia Land Company has developed some beautiful residential properties – places that would be very well suited for Tredyffrin Township and our residents. Arcadia Land describes their company as “Town Builders and Land Stewards”, and further states, “Arcadia’s approach to town building has been influenced by the New Urbanism and the conservation development movement.  New Urbanism is a movement that promotes compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods as a positive alternative to low-density, automobile-oriented, single-use development. New Urbanism supports both the revitalization and expansion of existing centers as well as the creation of new neighborhoods.” 

Obviously, this wonderfully progressive planning language also needs to be tempered by local community and the resident’s needs (or desires).  My sense is that many of the local Richter property residents could accept (maybe even embrace) a beautiful carriage house/townhouse community.  What a great option for residents who want to downsize from large homes but continue to live in Tredyffrin!  Moreover, according to Duckworth, this project would include a costly and involved stormwater plan that would contain a 6-8 acre stormwater basin.  It should be noted that the stormwater issues in Tredyffrin are dramatic and it would be an overstatement to suggest that the Richter tract development would completely ‘fix’ the Trout Creek stormwater issues. But an improvement, nonetheless.

However, enter the proposed Trout Creek Overlay zoning amendment change, and the beautiful carriage house/townhouse community concept planned for the Richter tract takes a back seat to the possible commercial use of the ten acres currently zoned ‘professional’.  The proposed zoning change would extend the usage of this parcel to include retail stores with accessory gas (Wawa) and apartment buildings, among others.

Herein lies the problem  – many of us have a vision of a huge Wawa facility, like is found on Rt. 29 in Malvern.  However, the Wawa site was built in a field next to Route 202 versus a residential location. As was pointed out at Monday’s meeting, these multi-function gas stations are the real estate model for Wawa.  Rationalizing that perhaps Wawa would consider some small residential-friendly gas station instead of a commercial giant, I was willing to wait for the project design.  But when I heard there was discussion of possibly building a 250-unit apartment complex on the 10-acre site, there was no way that I could support that concept. For one reason, our school district simply cannot bear the number of additional students such a project could represent.  In a letter presented to the Board of Supervisors on Monday night from the T/E school district, they said just that – they could not afford to have the additional students in the district from a large apartment complex.

The stretch of Old Eagle School Road between Swedesford and Walker Rds is short but significant — home to Valley Friends Meeting and their cemetery. Lewis Walker, one of the earliest settlers in Tredyffrin, and one of the founding members of this Meeting, left to Friends in the Valley the 18th century property on which his family burial ground was located, now the burial grounds of Valley Meeting.  Several members of Valley Friends Meeting attended the public hearing and presented a poignant history of the building and the cemetery.  The Valley Friends Meeting presents another reason for us to pause as we consider appropriate development for that area.

Whether the proposed development for the 10-acre corner site is a Wawa or an apartment building, the concern from the Glenhardie neighbors goes beyond a NIMBY (not in my backyard) attitude.  Their concerns about additional traffic  in the area are real. Then there is the issue about stormwater management – is the neighborhood helped more from an 8-acre stormwater basin or hurt more from the development of the property?  Some local residents suggest that as the Swedesford Road corridor between Gateway and the new Wegmans has developed, so has the stormwater problems.

I would ask for some kind of middle ground on this project – understanding that the Richter tract is a premier building site and that the owners of the property have rights, should we not also show consideration for the Glenhardie neighbors, Valley Friends Meeting and what is best for the entire community, including the school district.

In closing, I want to address the Board of Supervisors and how I view their participation in this process.  I understand how upset many in the Glenhardie area are over this proposed zoning change for the Richter property. I live in the Great Valley but my husband and I have owned an investment condo in Glenhardie for almost twenty years, so I have more than a passing interest in this project. As a Glenhardie condo owner, I know first hand the Trout Creek stormwater issues and the ongoing attempts to resolve the water problems.

But upon reflection of Monday’s public hearing, I feel compelled to defend the supervisors. It was apparent by some of the resident’s comments, that there are those that think the supervisors have made some kind of ‘backroom deal’ with Duckworth with regards to the development of the Richter property. If you believe that has happened, I would suggest that you are incorrect.

It was the Planning Commissioners who wrote the proposed Trout Creek Overlay zoning ordinance and submitted it to the Board of Supervisors for review.  I am not suggesting that the supervisors did not talk to Duckworth – some probably have, as well as Mimi Gleason and Steve Burgo.  In fact, supervisor Mike Heaberg often attends Planning Commission meetings where Duckworth attended.  But folks, there is a difference between supervisors having individual discussions with a developer versus the suggestion that some kind of backroom deal has been made.  Chair Michelle Kichline’s response to some of the resident’s accusations was measured but absolute; no deal has been made between the Board of Supervisors and Duckworth.  And I believe her.

However, maybe Phil Donohue, the middle district supervisor could, have lessened some of the confusion of Monday night, with a better resident outreach program. At-large supervisors (Michelle Kichline, Kristen Mayock, EJ Richter, and Mike Heaberg) have a township wide responsibility versus the district supervisors (John DiBuonaventuro, Paul Olson and Phil Donohue) who are elected and represent residents in a specific area of the township.  Not that the district supervisors should not be involved in township wide issues; but they should have specific focus on the western, middle or eastern districts, which they represent.  Perhaps some of the circus-like atmosphere of Monday night could have been avoided (or at least lessened) with an ongoing dialogue between residents and the middle district supervisor Phil Donohue.  I look forward to better communication in the future.

Before any decisions or votes can be taken, there is obviously going to be much more public discussion about the Trout Creek Overlay zoning ordinance and the Richter tract and its development.  As suggested, there will be a community meeting on Thursday, March 8, 7 pm in the Tredyffrin Township Building to discuss stormwater and flooding problems along Trout Creek. Stephen Burgo, Township Engineer, will present results of a 2010 study of the watershed and recommendations for improvements.

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