by Lou Mancinelli

The Cheltenham Township Board of Commissioners is expected to discuss and provide its first public response to alternate plans presented by developers seeking to transform the Laverock Hill Estate on Willow Grove Avenue into a combination of 156 single-family homes and townhouses at its Public Works Committee meeting at 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, March 13, in Curtis Hall, 1250 Church Rd. in Wyncote.

Cheltenham officials provided developers with input regarding the most recent plans at its Building and Zoning Committee meeting last month, according to Drew Sharkey, Ward 1 commissioner. That input included concerns about aesthetics, building materials, density and how many new students might result from 44 town homes in its district. Still, Sharkey said, no official position has yet to be adopted by commissioners.

“We’re still at the very macro level of this project,” said Sharkey. “We’re trying to get a feel for the design … We’ll see if they decided to amend their plans.”

Community members who formed the Laverock Hill Steering Committee in 2009 to fight against the development and for the preservation of the historic mansion and gardens, recently established Save Laverock Hill, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization registered in Pennsylvania, to assist in their efforts to obtain legal help to fight the development.

A zoning ordinance is required in both townships before the alternate plans could be approved. Both townships have stated they will host public meetings to discuss the issue. Cheltenham Township’s meeting is scheduled for May 16. Springfield Township commissioners have yet to announce a date.

Cheltenham Township commissioners have reviewed the developer’s proposed zoning ordinance change, the developer’s traffic study and have solicited an opinion from the Cheltenham Township School Board about the future cost of the implications of 44 market-rate townhouses on its budget. According to Sharkey, those items and others will be discussed and community input collected at this week’s meeting.

Last fall, developers from Blue Bell-based Hansen Properties sought to have the decision about the proposed zoning ordinance changed to a community decision instead of a vote by township officials, thus the need for public meetings. Developers also introduced a proposal that for the first time since the Laverock Hill planning started in 2009 included the construction of single-family homes.

The most recent set of alternate plans presented by developers proposes the same amount of total units as the previous plans announced in July 2012. “Plan A” calls for 69 townhouses and 45 single family homes to be constructed in Springfield, and 44 townhouses in Cheltenham. “Plan B” calls for 98 single family homes to be erected in Springfield and 44 townhouses in Cheltenham.

The developer’s initial proposal to construct 216 age-restricted units in the form of six four-story buildings, announced in 2009, has yet to be tabled. According to Bob Gillies, Springfield Township Commissioner of Ward 7, it is still the official project that has been presented. All other plans still exist solely as alternatives.

That includes a July 2012 proposal, which also presents two alternatives, both of which proposed only the construction of townhouses. One plan calls for the construction of 44 townhouses in Cheltenham and 112 in Springfield; the other, for 35 homes in Cheltenham and 121 townhouses in Springfield.

Both plans call for the historic gardens, designed by the renowned landscape architect Elizabeth Biddle Shipman, to be razed to make room for parking and for the mansion to be converted into professional office space. The latest plans, however, reflected changes which indicated parts of the gardens would be preserved.

The 42-plus-acre former Sims Estate, designed by renowned architect Charles A. Platt during World War I, at 1777 Willow Grove Ave., was included on the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s 2010 Endangered Properties list. The portion situated in Springfield Township is zoned AA, which allows for construction of detached single-family homes. In Cheltenham, the site exists in an age-overlay district that allows for development of 55-plus housing.

“We have organized ourselves to fight what we need to,” said Laughlin. who reported that the Save Laverock Hill, Inc. constituency has raised $7,500 to contribute to its efforts. Those efforts include contracting a land use attorney and a land planner.

According to Laughlin, commissioners have indicated that a lack of community attendance at public meetings is viewed by some as indicative of a lack of community interest at large in the project.

“Something will be developed here,” said Sharkey.

Whether that will be single-family homes, town homes, or the initially proposed senior-housing, or if community members can stop the development, remains to be decided.

“We’re not getting to the engineering part of it yet,” said Sharkey about this week’s meeting and the plans in general. “We’re not there yet.”