Commentary: Why near neighbors can’t support college expansion

Opinion May 25, 2011 0 Comments

by Stacy Mogul, on behalf of the Northwest Wissahickon Conservancy Inc., and Robert. J. Shusterman, on behalf of the North Chestnut Hill Neighbors Inc.

More than 100 of our neighbors joined the Northwest Wissahickon Conservancy (NWC) and the North Chestnut Hill Neighbors Inc. (NCHNI) at St. Paul’s, Monday evening, May 16, and heard about the proposed development of SugarLoaf by Chestnut Hill College, which was followed by a discussion of the major issues that affect the plan and our community.

Ninety persons signed our petition after the discussion. One of our neighbors made the point that it was like walking into the last 10 minutes of a movie – and indeed for those who have not lived this daily process for 18 months, it must seem like this. To get a better understanding of this complicated group of issues, our website is loaded with information. Please go to: www.NWConservancy.org.

Over the next couple of weeks it is likely that you will hear the claim by members of the Chestnut Hill Community Association that an agreement has been reached with the college on the critical negotiations about SugarLoaf and the main college campus. Just as Neville Chamberlain proclaimed “peace in our time” in 1939, so too CHCA president Walt Sullivan will claim an agreement with the college. In fact, we believe that an agreement at this point will prove illusory on the following critical issues:

1. Easements

Despite 18 months of lead-time, the college has not received an appraisal from their bank that will make it possible for them to give permanent easements that will truly protect SugarLoaf and the community. The college’s financial resources are such that the needed appraisal is not likely; and, lacking the easements, the community will not be protected.  Instead, we believe that the college may propose “subordinate easements,” that is, easements that are second in line to the rights of the college’s lenders. Under certain conditions, a lender can extinguish the subordinate easements, and the protection afforded by those easements will be lost. The NWC and the NCHNA will not approve an agreement without perpetual easements, nor will they approve “subordinate easements” because the protections that they offer may be ephemeral.

2. IDD legislation that allows CHC to circumvent environmental law

The Institutional Development District legislation, which was approved by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission for SugarLoaf, contains within it exemptions for Chestnut Hill College from critical elements of the Wissahickon Watershed Ordinance, most importantly, the prohibition of building on steep slopes and the amount of building that can be undertaken on this most fragile Category 1 land. The NWC and NCHNI will not approve an agreement that undoes the hard-won protections for our watershed and that apply to any other developer and sets dangerous precedents.

3. The master plan of development

The master-plan drawings are based on a plan that can only be executed by violating the Wissahickon Watershed ordinance, and it continues to contain features that are inappropriate to this important gateway setting. Unless and until the master plan is in accord with the environmental protections of the site and consistent with the discussions of the last 18 months, the NWC and NCHNI will not approve an agreement.

4. The proposed community development agreement

The core Community Development Agreement (CDA), which ties together the above elements and provides assurances to all the parties, remains one-sided in favor of the college. It is illusory, and many of its critical provisions are legally unenforceable. It is designed to weaken provisions that should protect the site and the community. Again, until an appropriate CDA is completed, the NWC and NCHNI will not approve an agreement.

5. Potential conflicts of interest

Separate from the immediate terms about the site but critical to all, and as proof of the honesty of this process, there should be a resolute and clear Conflict of Interest Policy that makes it impossible for any of those who have been engaged in the negotiation to profit from their involvement. This means that the professionals would not take work from the college; the organizations involved in our negotiations would not take easements and other economic benefits so that the community can be certain that no promises were made (or will be made) outside of the negotiation that would benefit individuals or groups. Any financial or other taint of this negotiating process will run the risk of undermining our trust and must be avoided at all costs. This is standard fare for nonprofits. With that said, we want to be clear that we have absolutely no information whatsoever that would lead us to the conclusion that there has been (or will be) any improprieties in this matter.

But that’s beside the point, and certain of our NG members have stated that they won’t agree to this provision, claiming it’s too late to raise this issue. However, we raised it much earlier in our discussion, and under any circumstances it is never too late in the game to insert fundamental concepts of honesty and integrity into the process. Again, the NWC and the NCHNI will not sign any agreement that does not contain such a clause.

As the above list makes clear, there is little possibility of an agreement that truly protects the community. Any agreement that does not resolve these issues is illusory, and we will not agree to the current proposals. And we will never subscribe to the philosophy espoused by some that “any agreement is better than no agreement.”

As we indicated on Monday, we have been forced to place our confidence in the courts to protect the community interests. However, we remain committed to reasonable development by Chestnut Hill College on Sugarloaf, but we also remain committed to protections that will truly safeguard our community and comply with existing environmental laws.

Please look at the website (www.NWConservancy.org), involve your neighbors, pass your concerns on to them and become a friend on our Facebook page to extend our community. With a concerned community we will attain our objectives.

 

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