Commentary: A meeting on College master plan

Opinion May 12, 2011 0 Comments

by Louise Thompson

To my neighbors and visitors to Chestnut Hill: I’m writing to ask you to become involved in the effort to get Chestnut Hill College to make its master plan for SugarLoaf Hill more consistent with its surroundings.

I come from a background of 33 years in Chestnut Hill with my husband and children. For 30 years I was an attorney with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, helping to protect the water, earth and air of Southeastern Pennsylvania. For the past three years, I’ve been retired, and one of my volunteer commitments has been working as an environmental law advisor with the groups that have been trying to negotiate a future for SugarLoaf that would be in harmony with its surroundings.

We have always loved the distinctive physical beauty of Chestnut Hill, and we come and go through the northwest approach very often, always marveling at the fact that the entrance to this very large city is still so green and unspoiled. That will no longer be the case if the college goes ahead with its current plan.  The plan would clear-cut vast portions of the Germantown Avenue side of SugarLoaf. At the top of the hill, it would cut down most of the large, beautiful specimen trees visible from both the Avenue and Bells Mill Road connecting the site to the neighborhood.  In their place the college would put storm water retention basins on the estate lawn part of the hilltop, and buildings, parking lots, roads and sidewalks on most of the rest.

Now that my husband and I are both retired, we spend many hours each week walking around the neighborhood, hiking on the trails of the Wissahickon and, for my husband, volunteering more than 10 hours a week with the Structures Team of Friends of the Wissahickon.  If anything, we value Chestnut Hill and the Wissahickon Creek gorge even more now than when we were working.

If Chestnut Hill College’s Sugarloaf campus is constructed as proposed in its master plan, it would not only greatly diminish the beauty of that approach to Chestnut Hill, it would also degrade the hillsides of the gorge and the creek itself.  In my former job I learned that there are very specific standards for environmental protection, including rigorous rules for management of stormwater runoff from construction and other human activities.  The Wissahickon Watershed Ordinance (WWO) is the detailed regulation with which developers must comply, in order to build anything in this watershed in the City of Philadelphia.

The college’s plan states both that it already complies with the WWO, and that the college will be requesting a variance from the WWO; these are inconsistent positions, and legally no variance can be granted.  In fact, the plan already violates the regulation:  it provides for a very large amount of impervious ground cover too close to the creek; it would place such cover on more than 20 percent of the watershed area, and it would construct buildings on slopes of greater than 25 percent, both directly contrary to the WWO.

In addition, a very small stream empties into the creek just north of the parking lot on Bells Mill Road, originating in an uphill spring.  The spring is fed completely by uphill runoff seeping into the groundwater inside SugarLoaf Hill. The amount of impervious cover the College proposes will likely eliminate the spring and stream, and therefore diminish the flow of the Wissahickon. The WWO and regulations simply do not permit development that degrades the environment, even in small increments.

These alarming problems are only a small part of the permanent damage that probably will be caused by allowing Chestnut Hill College to proceed with its master plan for the Sugarloaf site.  Because there are many different kinds of issues it raises, it will take a lot of us to address them, so we need your help.  Our next community meeting will be held at St. Paul’s Church, 22 East Chestnut Hill Avenue, at 7:30 p.m. on May 16.  Please join us.

Want to support the Local? Join the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Membership helps fund what we do. Join today.