Commentary

Haws Lane development in a tight spot

by Jim Lee, Springfield Township Commissioner for Ward 3
Posted 11/27/21

Jim Lee, Springfield Township Commissioner for Ward 3, provides some additional thoughts and context as there continues to be a lot of dialogue being shared by neighbors and various interested parties about Haws Lane.

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Commentary

Haws Lane development in a tight spot

Posted

In May of 2021, I provided some context and clarifications about the parcel located at 380-402 Haws Lane in Erdenheim, as plans for this project are of importance to many throughout the township and the overall community at large.  A few twists and turns have ensued since, and several iterations of new plans have been discussed at neighborhood and township meetings with no shortage of strong opinions on what should be approved or developed (or not developed) at this property.  I’d like to share some additional thoughts for residents to revisit the facts and provide further context, as there continues to be a lot of dialogue being shared by neighbors and various interested parties.

This 4.7-acre parcel is zoned as "Institutional" along with the neighboring parcels that contain the adjacent schools and Harston Hall on the opposite side from Erdenheim Elementary. Institutional allows various uses including schools, churches, athletic fields, hospitals, nursing facilities, group homes, day care centers, cemeteries, etc, and yes, even a single-family residence.  You can read about this zoning classification and all township codes (very searchable!) via the township website here: https://ecode360.com/SP0463?needHash=true

Roughly a decade ago, there was an approval on this parcel obtained by a previous owner for a 107-unit assisted living facility.  That approval was won in litigation despite opposition from the township.

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The project was never built for various reasons, and the heirs of the owner at that time sold the property to the current owner in early 2020.  That project can still be realized and built, per that approval in place, with no approval by the Board of Commissioners or zoning change needed. However, it is very unlikely that a new applicant would want to adopt that exact plan and site layout (and there have been no takers n that decade).

The developer, who has since bought the property, made application in 2019 (as an applicant but not yet owner) for a 100-unit, 4-story, age-restricted apartment building.  While the merits of the project as an alternative to the approved institutional use were widely discussed, the community to a massive degree and the township as a whole (but not unanimous) opposed the project vehemently (myself included for a myriad of reasons).  Note, I was an observer and small contributor at various community and board meetings on the project, but I was not a commissioner at the time.  That application was pulled and that project was abandoned.  Good community involvement at work in my opinion.

The same applicant from the 2019, 100-unit project now owns the property.  Earlier this year the developer approached several of the same neighbors that played a large role in opposition to those apartments to procure their feedback on a townhome development with 41 homes (later revised to 36 homes).  From there, various presentations and meetings have occurred, including informal presentations for feedback at the 6/1 and 9/7 Planning Commission meetings and discussion at several Board of Commissioner meetings.

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The latest discussion on tap is for the Planning Commission at its 11/16 meeting to review and discuss a conceptual site plan for a behavioral health facility, although it is evident that the applicant is simultaneously still encouraging community support for the townhome proposal.

I have heard from many residents in the community, whether in conversation, at meetings, or in an email message (other commissioners have heard as well).  There is no shortage of varied opinions on the matter that we all have to weigh.  Many want the township to find any possible way to find a solution that preserves this parcel as a park or other form of open space (and preserving old growth trees).  Many folks have expressed support for 30 townhomes (although a majority of these emails have been within the last week and in the context of being a preferable outcome compared to the conceptual behavioral health facility plan being brought to the Planning Commission). Many have shared being OK with townhomes, but not with the density of units being discussed.

Use 1: Institutional

So, let’s look at these 3 potential outcomes in more detail, first with the in-place institutional zoning.  It is absolutely possible that an applicant can submit a plan for an institutional use with no need for Board of Commissioner approval if the plan is “by-right”.  “By-right” essentially means that the plan meets all zoning standards with no need for any variances from what is defined in the code. Examples applicable here would be maximum building coverage, maximum building height, % of impermeable surfaces, side and rear setbacks, parking requirements, and many more.

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It would be uncommon (but to be clear, not impossible) for a project of this size to not seek some form of zoning relief to make a plan work, so it is still likely that the Commissioners (and hence the public) would have some say in a proposed institutional use.  While I understand that the concept of a behavioral health facility is unseemly for some neighbors, candidly I suspect a by-right design and/or this facility type would have its challenges by virtue of the cost basis already into the site, the relative small parcel size, lack of access to public transportation, and certainly the stigma/opposition to being adjacent to an elementary school, which would all factor in.  However, the developer has stated this is a feasible project, so it is worthy of discussion and scrutiny.

Use 2: Park / Preserved Wooded Space

I have heard from many residents urging the Board to find a way to preserve this site and / or purchase the property to convert into a public park.  Preserving green space is an enormous priority of mine and one of the main drivers why I chose to run for the office, and certainly this is a worthy endeavor to champion.  However, we need to all be clear that this parcel is a privately owned property, and a property owner (like many of us that own a home) has rights. There is no legal way, nor should there be, for a municipality to deny a private property owner from legal development of their own property.  There was some discussion in late 2019 and 2020 about the school district or township (or both in partnership) buying the parcel.  There are several valid reasons why the school district purchasing was not an option (although we all on the surface see why that would be desirable and seemingly a fit based on location and those darn overcrowded school events).

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For the township, early efforts to find outside funding (grants, state programs, etc) were not promising, although frankly it is not clear that even with outside funding to minimize taxpayer impact that there was a serious possibility that could have happened at the time.  One important fact for a municipality to know is that we as the township (and stewards of the public) cannot legally pay more than fair market as-is value for a property.  If the township were to entertain buying this parcel (and this is not without precedent as other neighboring municipalities have recently purchased land for park space), there are still taxpayer implications and various public meetings would be held.  Additionally, of course, the developer would need to be agreeable to an as-is value sale regardless of what the sunk costs to date would have been.

I am absolutely open to continuing the dialogue on this as an option.  It would not be easy, but I know several commissioners would be willing to work on the effort to secure funding (partial or all) with the developer’s help.  We will have so few of these chances left in the future as our wooded and open spaces continue to diminish.

Use 3: Residential

I have stated on many occasions that I am not in blanket opposition to townhomes or another residential use if the community in large part supported a change in zoning, as an alternative to a potential institutional use, and would otherwise provide a demonstrable upside to our community.  However, I have also been transparent and consistent that I would be opposed to the level of unit density that has been presented to date.  Let me provide some comparable data from our zoning standards.

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While the original townhome proposal consisted of 41 units on the 4.7-acre parcel, the most recent iteration discussed seems to be 30 units, so I’ll use 30 units here to reference the subject project at hand.

There are various residential zoning districts, such as AA, A, B, C, and a few more.  You can see the specific guidelines and standards for each in the link to the Township Code I shared above.  We also have a pretty cool interactive zoning map where you can see where each district is located throughout the township:

https://sprtwp.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=9b97d65dd1c34048a982b2d4026bffdb

You can see the surrounding residential area near the subject is all “A” Residential, which allows single-family homes and a few specific special uses.  There are a few residential zoning designations which allow townhomes, including AAA, D, and CRD.  AAA requires a minimum parcel of 25 acres with a maximum density of 3 homes per acre.  “D” district allows the highest density of homes of 8 homes per acre.  However, “D” district zoning is intended for areas where multifamily and other high-density housing is more appropriate, such as along major corridors with commercial and public transportation access (and more attractive to renters or others who would utilize public transportation).  In our township you see “D” districts in sections that fit that bill (along Bethlehem Pike, near Willow Grove Ave in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania Ave in Oreland, and even that small strip along Ridge Pike - all bustling corridors).  You can see “D” zones visually in blue in that zoning map link.

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While not perfect nor immune from improvement, these zoning standards were enacted with a purpose.  Zoning changes are sometimes beneficial and worthy of review, but the bar must be extremely high in the overall benefit to the township.

The most applicable zoning district in my opinion here (if townhomes were the preferred use) is the Cluster Residential District (CRD). There is an example of this district in the neighborhood with its entrance right across Cheltenham Ave from Lasalle High School (dark purple on the zoning map).  If you wanted townhomes in an area like Erdenheim, then this standard would be the most appropriate.  CRD allows 3.5 homes for every acre and requires a minimum of 30% of the site be preserved for open space and recreation.  Based on this zoning, the subject parcel could be developed with 16 homes (and the density can be increased by 10% if at least 20% of the units are 1 or 2 bedroom).  30 units at this site is nearly double this density standard.

It is my understanding that any density below the 30 units proposed as a residential option is deemed not financially feasible by the developer.  I understand those realities.  We know, however, that it is not the burden of the public to make a speculative development feasible when realities change.  Once this site is developed, it is developed for good.  I also know that there is some risk in keeping this site susceptible for institutional use (although one could also make the case that some institutional occupants would ultimately be a better outcome / neighbor than an overly dense residential development).  As an elected official and steward of the public I have to weigh all of the possibilities and desires of many conflicted interests.

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At this point in time there has been no formal land development application beyond conceptual conversations on what might come down the pike as an actual project. There will be plenty of further opportunities for public feedback, and my hope is that we arrive at what will be a good outcome for all parties.  Perhaps there are options with housing that emerge that aren’t as black and white as what is on the table currently (affordable housing or homes suitable for downsizing, subdivide the site to create a hybrid of housing and public space, sell portion after subdivision, etc...).

Jim Lee is Springfield Township Commissioner for Ward 3

An abbreviated version of this opinion appeared in the November 25, 2021 issue.

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