Do small neighborhoods get equal time? The plights of the small neighborhoods, old and historic homes, and ethnically and racially diverse communities have been on our mind. Why? Because, whether it be from eminent domain or ordinary overdevelopment, these places are targets. And especially as is the case with small and racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods of more modest means, these segments of our population do not get equal time from respective local governments. It seems to be often the case again, that those who write the big checks make the rules, doesn't it?
Last night on WYBE, SAC members and others from all around the Philadelphia region saw a documentary film on eminent domain called All for the Taking: 21st-Century Urban Renewal, produced by George McCullough
Here is part of the description from Berkley Media:
In a highly controversial and precedent-setting decision in mid-2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution permitted local governments to use their power of eminent domain to forcibly acquire private property and transfer it to another private owner. In so doing, the Court put its stamp of approval on a nationwide epidemic of eminent domain abuse...
On April 18, 2001, the City of Philadelphia approved the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative (NTI) --...Through the use of eminent domain, the city has authorized the seizure of thousands of homes -- mostly owned or rented by the elderly, the poor, and by people of color -- in order to create a massive land bank to entice private developers to rebuild some of its most historic neighborhoods.
The film explores the consequences of the city's urban renewal policies on the lifelong residents of the communities affected and places their opposition to the city in the context of an increasingly global economic order that devalues labor, local economies, and the sense of community that once formed the core of urban America. The film demonstrates that urban renewal and eminent domain policies are usually aimed at community residents who are unaware of their rights and are easily confused and frightened by the powerful forces that are changing their neighborhoods and disrupting their lives.
"All for the Taking" examines the personal struggles of residents impacted by Philadelphia's urban renewal program and illustrates how housing activists are fighting eminent domain abuse.....This powerful documentary will engage students and generate analysis and discussion in a variety of courses in sociology and social issues, urban studies, American studies, ethnic studies, development studies, and public policy. It was produced by George McCollough.
The reviews of this documentary were spot on, and to SAC, this documentary was very personal to us because it followed the efforts of our friend, the late Rosemary Cubas. Rosemary devoted her life to her community and fighting injustices like eminent domain. When we last saw Rosemary in February, 2006, shortly before she lost her very personal battle with cancer, she told us about this film, and told us we might be in it.
So last night, as we watched Rosemary and another fellow activist SAC has spent time with, Carolyn Thomas, and one of our Institute for Justice superheroes Scott Bullock, we had no idea what was coming next. And next was Ardmore.
Ardmore in late fall 2004 (probably October), just before the forming of the Save Ardmore Coalition. We saw our pal Karate Joe Breidenstein and others talk about Ardmore, just as people were beginning to rally against eminent domain.
What a trip down memory lane. Was it only two years ago and how amazing was it to see the scope of what the original intent of the project was?
It made us think that although Ardmore was one the luckier communities that has beaten back eminent domain from private gain, there is another nemesis to communities: development.
That is not to say we are anti development and anti progress, because we are not. But there is nothing in moderation. We live in an area and era of “Supersize Me”. From McMansions to Garage Mahals to Condo Mania, insanity rules. And if you are the little guy trying to even improve a bad situation in your neighborhood, fogettaboutit.
Before we climb into local development stories flooding our weekly papers today, let us provide an update on something we previously reported from North Wayne. We asked a person from the neighborhood whom we know to have contacted the commissioner for that North Wayne neighborhood if they had had a response from said commissioner. The answer was no, not even an acknowledgement of the phone call. (Hmmm, SAC thinks when government officials are non responsive, it might be time for them to go – it sure worked well around here just about a year ago). This is of course, why it would be nice for the local papers to do something on this story- if you can’t get results from proper channels, a newspaper article or two generally helps your case.
Now, while we are visiting Radnor Township, let us point out an interesting and rare story where a small neighborhood beat back an unwelcome supersizing...at least for now:
Judge supports Radnor's subdivision denial
By Sam Strike
It's not over yet, but a group of South Wayne neighbors are celebrating nonetheless.
Their efforts to stop a subdivision on the 1.3-acre property at the corner of South Wayne Avenue and Conestoga Road proved worthwhile as Court of Common Pleas Judge James F. Proud Jr., released a verdict Monday in favor of them as the intervenors and Radnor's Board of Commissioners, the appellees.
Geoffrey Furtaw and Thomas Clerkin Jr., the developers of the proposed subdivision, had appealed the Board of Commissioners' 2005 denial of their plan.
While the township was technically the appellee, it had backed off from the case after an apparently rare glitch in which township staff failed to mail out to the developers its official letter of denial.
"Our obligation...was to get the appropriate notice out, and that did not happen," said Radnor Township solicitor David Blake. "We didn't have a legal leg to stand on when it was just the developer against Radnor."
Blake said that the neighbors were "the laboring oar."
Edmond Tiryak, a 400 South Wayne neighbor and lawyer who represented the group, said that while everybody was happy with the verdict they are still not with the township, which Tiryak accused of misinterpreting its own ordinance, and missing zoning violations in the proposed plan.
He said in all, the neighbors spent about $10,000 on the case, not to mention time and energy.
The township's Planning Commission had voted to recommend denial of the application because of steep slopes on the property and because the plan showed that one of the lots did not meet the required rear yard setback - a point that was originally discovered and raised by one of the opposing neighbors, two of whom are professional architects.
In Tiryak's post trial brief, he claims that the plan still violates steep-slope and setback ordinances.
Although it is not unusual for township boards to be presented with various interpretations of ordinances, Radnor Planning Commission chair Al Murphy said the township gets into problems when there are gaps in its codes.
Some of the codes are dated, and with things changing rapidly here, "We need as a township... to take a look at where, in a macro sense, [they] need to be refreshed," Murphy said.
He suggested that perhaps a group could be formed that did nothing but review township codes.
Since the commissioners denied the property last fall, the township has rewritten an ordinance that would restrict using a property's area from the right of way to the middle of the street in subdivision calculations...The developers, represented by Wayne attorney Nick Caniglia, also have the options of drafting plans to build a single home on the lot or appealing the judge's decision. Caniglia said Tuesday night he had no comment on the case because he had not received official notice of the verdict, nor had he spoken to his clients about it.
Isn’t that an unfortunate coincidence? It appears that perhaps Radnor’s zoning codes, like Lower Merion’s are outdated, putting neighborhoods at risk. This of course, leads us back to Haverford and the very controversial, yet approved behemoth of a condominium that will be plopped on North Buck Lane:
Hogtied by its own codes, LM OKs condo plan
By Cheryl Allison
ARDMORE - The horse may be out of the barn for the close older neighborhood around North Buck Lane in Haverford, but residents are still asking Lower Merion Township's leaders and planners to bar the door - and fast.
"It may be a little too late for us," said Bruce Gill, whose 1800s farmhouse sits across Old Lancaster Road from where a three-story, 20-unit condominium building soon will rise. "But it may not be too late for Lower Merion."
After another agonizing discussion Oct. 18, the board of commissioners voted 10-2, with two abstentions, to approve developer Tom Hall's preliminary plan for the "Allaire" development. Second in the three-step approval process, preliminary plan is the last step at which commissioners weigh in. The final phase is a technical review by township staff.
The lengthy debate, coming after a similar committee vote the previous week, was somewhat unusual. It was sparked when neighbors, while urging commissioners to uphold a long list of conditions of approval, returned to plead for the township to find ways to better protect existing neighborhoods from incompatible development.
"The board of commissioners did the utmost within current zoning regulations," said Nadine Kolowrat in a statement read by a neighbor. "But our own code is working against us."
Hall's project, which will replace three single-family houses, meets all zoning requirements. In painstaking explanations, most commissioners again said denying the application, without a legally sustainable reason, would remove any opportunity to mitigate the project's impact on the neighborhood, entail costs for litigation, and potentially make the township and its taxpayers liable for damages in an appeal.
"None of us like it. None of us like the design," said board President Bruce Reed. But he said the board had a "clear responsibility" to approve the project as a by-right application.
Not all on the board agreed. Repeating their previous "no" votes, Commissioners Brian Gordon and Lewis Gould again blasted the proposal.
"The Allaire project really is real estate speculation with zero consideration for the existing neighborhood," said Gordon. Although code allows such a large building, "There were opportunities to build less, ... to design it differently. But Hall "chose to build to the corners" of a zoning code that, even township planning staff have acknowledged, seems to favor a boxlike design.
Gould, who has been outspoken on property rights, said some "have called it to my attention" that opposition here seems contradictory. But, given other pressures of traffic and commercial uses in this neighborhood, it's a matter of a developer's rights versus a whole community's property rights, he said.
Gould said an Allaire - singlehandedly doubling the number of residents in its adjoining area, neighbors pointed out - isn't just a "neighborhood-altering event," as he once put it, but a "neighborhood-destroying event."
....Board Vice President Maryam Phillips, who represents the neighborhood, abstained in the vote, as did new Commissioner George Manos. While Manos said he did not have enough knowledge of the project, not having heard previous discussions, Phillips said she could neither bring herself to support it, nor vote against it as a by-right plan.
"We have moved through this process with both hands tied behind our backs," she said. But she agreed with neighbors that the township has to "move forward with aggressive protections" against intrusive development.
One form of protection for older neighborhoods is to seek designation as a historic district, something the Haverford residents are now exploring. Phillips said she would support its application as Lower Merion's "first residential historic district."... And Phillips, who initially had reservations, asked that a proposed ordinance reducing density in districts zoned for multi-family development - mostly older neighborhoods along Lancaster and City avenues - be reintroduced.
The common them of older communities and small neighborhoods: Protect us. Help Us. Lower Merion and Radnor need to implement changes to protect communities from unnecessary development. At least, lucky for us who live in Lower Merion, we have a Board of Commissioners with a “new attitude”. Radnor sure seems mired in the old boy network, don’t they?
Look at a couple of letters posted o line in the Suburban and Wayne – they sizzle:
Letters from Readers
Open Space: Do you know...?
*How has open-space money been spent in the past? How much money have the commissioners already given to the Radnor Conservancy? How has the Conservancy used taxpayers' money? Has anyone seen any audits?
* The definition of open space varies. To date, a significant number of open-space acquisitions have been properties with pre-existing structures including houses, garages, etc. These properties have been converted to "open space."
* Hidden costs to tear down structures on acquired parcels (AJ's, Brook Street, Woodland Avenue, etc.)?
* Hidden costs to "rebuild" as open space (i.e. FINAL price tag for Huggler Park installation and annual maintenance).
* Hidden costs for stormwater management associated with open-space sites (i.e. A.J. D'Antonio tract, Levin tract, Forbes property).
* Proliferation of soccer fields. Believe it or not, every resident of Radnor does not play soccer! Interests of senior citizens, handicapped, people without children, people with children who don't play soccer, etc. should be considered when crafting and funding a comprehensive open-space plan.
* What is the prescribed ratio of spending "... for purposes of open-space preservation, recreation and environmental and historic preservation..."
* CPR asserts that new "guidelines" will insure proper use of open-space funds. History and direct quotes from commissioners prove that guidelines are not enforceable. The commissioners have not followed them and they boast of their power to do anything they want, regardless of public opinion, as long as they have four votes.
* Pursuit of open-space targets and terms of acquisitions should be open for well-informed and meaningful public disclosure, discussion and debate. Can we expect CPR and/or vigilant Radnor residents to attend every commissioners' meeting to provide oversight for guideline adherence?
* What is the debt service on a $20 million loan?
* Ardrossan: will $20 million simply buy land that can't be developed? Will "swamp land" be purchased for a premium price?
* If 10-acre zoning minimum continues at Ardrossan (with an estimate of $ 500K/acre), how much will $20 million buy and how much land will remain for development? Will this referendum curb development as much as CPR propaganda suggests?
* How does this bond referendum fit into a comprehensive, long-term plan for open space? Will open-space acquisitions be situation-specific reactions and/or part of a well-thought-out the strategic plan?
I submit, these are only some of the questions that need to be asked and answered, to each voter's satisfaction, before voting yes or no for open space on Nov. 7.
Open space, open minds
The stable was about 400 yards north of Radnor Station. I got the job to "muck" the stalls after school. My pay was in "free" saddle time, which was a big deal. I'd pick the best horse and hop across King of Prussia Road. Looking north, only a few old houses and a stream were between me and cornfields, later called King of Prussia Mall. Now and then a bunch of Valley Forge Military Academy cadets in pointy hats would come charging out of the woods and scare my horse and me.
Then we moved to Church Road. Our neighbor, Mr. Rosengarden, had a big place with a wall and a gate. They now call it Chanticleer. The Montgomery Scott property was across the road, just right for me and my dog to hike and play pioneer.
Wandering around out there I met a nice guy named Steve Newman. He lived in the biggest house I had ever seen. Later it was knocked down; they blocked the driveway, left the pillars and fancy metal arch, plopped down lots of houses and called it Inverary. Anyway, Steve had a couple of beautiful jumpers. He would ride the stallion and I got the mare and off we went across Ardrossan, down to Skunk Hollow and all around Earl's Lake. Nobody was around. We'd build jumps on the trail for fun and rode for hours. Now they lock up the hollow at 3 p.m. Don't park and look around - it will cost you $500.
I'd love to hear from anyone who has watched more township "open space" disappear. It's really sad.
Flash-forward 60 years (2005). I read about a plot of land called "AJ's", it's down the street from me; they call it "open space" and a "park." It was rumored to be paved over for a year and a half for teachers to park on during the Wayne middle-school construction. I checked it out and it was a mess. It had a blocked streambed down the middle that stopped at the end of the property. "Local officials" weren't happy when I asked questions about it and neither was our township manager who told me to stay out of "it." He told me not to bother local officials and only talk with him and only in writing. He said the township didn't have to tell me anything unless I applied for information under the state Sunshine Act, which I did. Digging through their reply, it appeared the commissioners wanted to buy this 1.3-acre plot to keep the owner from building on it. Then they drew up plans to subdivide the property, sell off a portion for people to build on and passed a township ordinance to do just that. The township then paid the owners of AJ's $1.8 million, got back $300,000 as a "gift" to the township, which helped the owners' tax situation, and paid someone $60,000 to handle the deal, all with "open space" money. Only one commissioner objected. He felt it was not right to spend "open space" funds that way. The ordinance passed and this property has been sitting there for four years, costing the township about $5,000/month (interest only). No one took the offer to buy and build.
Now it seems the commissioners were having private chats with the school superintendent, trying to work out arrangements to use this property to park cars for the middle-school teachers. Then the questions started. Basically, "What's going on?" Neither wanted to say who started the talks, but our township manager said it all started when they opened the bids for the middle school.
All we learned was that the township manager had been scooting around town for a couple of months looking for property (even Skunk Hollow) to park the teachers. They eventually ended up renting parking space from the Church of the Saviour, which had been originally suggested by a knowledgeable Radnor resident.
The fate of AJ's is still a mystery, but the commissioners still call AJ's a "park" and part of our "open space." The township manager's handout on "open space" to the League of Women Voters even had a picture of it.
Another curious purchase from the previous $10 million bond issue was next door to AJ's. It's a little house on about a half-acre that the township purchased in 2005 with "open space" funds for around $232,000. Why they purchased it and who's living there are questions that I've been unable to have answered. It too was pictured as "open space" along with AJ's.
These two "open space" acquisitions show that no one in the public, except for a brave minority of the commissioners, Dave Cannan, is watching the cash register or, for that matter, allowed anywhere near accounting for the fund.
Most frightening is that when Commissioner Dave Cannan asked the other commissioners to define "open space" and suggested it be defined clearly before going ahead with the $20 million, the president and other board members seemed to explode with resentment, insisting they needed flexibility to spend the "open space" fund money as they deemed fit.
The League of Women Voters and the CPR/Radnor Conservancy have produced some great professional "open space" analysis, one in 1991 and another in 2003. A major theme of these studies has been, and should be, the overriding importance of "stewardship" (Webster's definition: one who actually directs.)
These two groups are a very influential force in our community. I hear no other determined voice watching out for all of the wonderful "open space" I took for granted in 1944. With this influence comes the moral responsibility to monitor the suggested/recommended projects and insist on carefully defining what it is they want the taxpayers to pay for. They must also have faith in the Radnor taxpayers and allow them to participate before the monies are spent. CPR/Radnor Conservancy/all Radnor residents who chose to vote yes for this $20 million bond issue will need to assume the duty of watchdog and introduce public oversight and accountability for how the commissioners manage "open space" money.
The job of getting "open space" doesn't stop after ballots are cast in November. Commissioners should not have the power to do whatever they want and, in my mind, they've proved over and over again that they can't be trusted, as I've shown above, and are not capable of managing the money and making appropriate decisions.
Vote no, but don't stop there. Let the taxpayers of Radnor Township be stewards too.
While we leave you to ponder communities and their respective issues, we’ll leave you with a few things to put on your collective radars:
The article in Main Line Life about the fate of the former Christian Science Church in Ardmore. The upcoming discussion on the fate of a once elegant Victorian home at 254 Righters Mill Road in Gladwyne at the Zoning Hearing Board, we assume in November. And lest we forget, the upcoming discussion once again on the supersizing of Waverly Heights
There’s more to be sure, including an article on the on the real estate market - of course to this we say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder are local realtors. They see a correction and not a bubble. Well, that is contrary to what is being said by professionals all across the country, but it’s their opinion. Ours is the bubble is gonna’ pop, and rates are going to continue to climb. Of course, ten years from now, won’t it be interesting to see if all these artificially inflated property values stick, or in ten years, will a lot of homeowners, real estate investors and speculators be stuck and is that already happening? In real estate, we say 2007 might just be one wild ride...it will of course be interesting.....
More points to ponder while we’re off to walk through Ardmore on a rather cloudy fall day...please tell us if you think the little guy and the small neighborhood gets equal time, or if local governments need to remember certain sections of their communities deserve representation and protections too....