Controversy Erupts Over Whitemarsh’s Board of Supervisors Amending Zoning Code Making it Easier to Build Townhouses

During last night’s meeting of the Whitemarsh Township’Planning Commission controversy erupted during a sketch plan review of 58 proposed townhouses in the VC-4 zoning district in Whitemarsh Township. The property involved is a field behind the office building and water tower at the corner of Butler and Skippack Pikes. It is basically across the street from Phil’s Tavern.

In regards to the townhouses. The previous plan we have posted has been reduced from 60 to 58 townhouses. According to the developer’s attorney, the zoning would actually permit the building of 118 units on the property. The main entry and exit would be off Butler Pike with a right turn in and right turn out permitted along Skippack.

There were not a lot of questions about the specific plan from the Planning Commission. Planning Commission member Scott Quitel did ask a more general question about how the plan was developed and whether it took into consideration that on the Skippack Pike side it borders (across a street) with a protected piece of land. Quitel asked whether the developer had considered making the plan more dense on the area of the property furthest from Skippack Pike and leaving open space near the existing protected land. The answer from the developer’s representative was that basically they feel they did reduce the impact of the development because it chose a plan with 58 townhouses, not 118.

Several nearby residents/property owners asked expressed concerns about traffic, the placement of the entrances/exits, sidewalks, and water runoff.

However, the big concern brought up by the public involved the process by which townhouses came to be allowed through a conditional use process within the VC-4 zoning district (which is how the property involved is zoned).

Prior to October 25, 2018 townhouses were not permitted in the VC-4 zoning district. Prior to that date, to build townhouses within the VC-4 district, a developer would have had to seek a variance from the Zoning Hearing Board and prove a hardship. That is a much more difficult process than seeking approval for a conditional use, which is now the case.

So what happened on October 25th?

The process for a text amendment begins with the Planning Commission which makes a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. The Board of Supervisors then votes to accept or reject it.

Over the summer of 2018, the Planning Commission considered some “housekeeping” changes to the zoning code. These type of amendments are meant to make small adjustments to clarify language, fix inconsistencies, etc. Adding townhouses as a conditional use with the VC-4 was never discussed.

Between the Planning Commissioning forwarding its recommendation to adopt the text amendment and the Board of Supervisors voting 5-0 adopt it on October 25th, Charlie Guttenplan, the township’s zoning officer, was directed by the Board of Supervisors to add the language involving townhouses (and other uses) as a conditional use.

Last night Guttenplan stated that he sought the legal advice of Sean Kilkenney, the township’s solicitor, as to whether the text amendment now needed to revert back to the Planning Commission. According to Guttenplan Kilkenney advised that is did not.

There were several members of the public who expressed concern over how the process for a text amendment was not followed. Members of the Planning Commission also expressed similar concerns.

In the end, the Planning Commission took no action on the sketch plan submitted by the developer.

In regards to the text amendment that was adopted by the Board of Supervisors on October 25th, the Planning Commission voted 5-1 to recommended to the Board of Supervisors that the zoning revert back to what it was prior to October 25th. It also voted 5-1 to request a review of the process and be able to question the solicitor.

What Needs to be Noted

As we noted, the Board of Supervisors approved the text amendment that made it easier to build townhouses in the VC-4 district on October 25th.

During the same October 25th meeting, the Board of Supervisors also approved the conditional use application for townhouses on the Abolition Hall property. One of the reasons given by members of the Board of Supervisors in regards to their approval of these townhouses is that the developer met the conditions of the zoning. They claimed their hands were tied due to the law.

Did they realize that same evening they voted to create a law that ties their hands when it comes to townhouses in the VC-4 district?

Things to Address

  • Is Kilkenney’s legal advice to Guttenplan on paper? What was the legal justification to not send the text amendment back to Planning Commission for review?
  • When did the Board of Supervisors discuss among themselves adding townhouses (and other uses) to the text amendment?
  • How did the Board of Supervisors direct Guttenplan to add the uses to the text amendment?
  • Did someone ask the Board of Supervisors to make the change?
  • According to a member of the public who spoke, Sydelle Zove, the Township broke its own law and that of the state when it voted on the text amendment that was not fully reviewed by the Planning Commission. If true, what are the legal implications?

We are going to seek answers through the right-to-know process and asking the people involved directly.

More to come.