Site plans prompt flood­ing con­cerns

The Review - - Front Page - Mike Weil­bacher Colum­nist Mike Weil­bacher di­rects the Schuylkill Cen­ter for En­vi­ron­men­tal Ed­u­ca­tion in Roxbor­ough, tweets@SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike.weil­bacher@schuylkill­cen­ter.org.

Last week, as re­ported in the page one news story, 50 neigh­bors and mem­bers of the Up­per Roxbor­ough Civic As­so­ci­a­tion gath­ered at the Schuylkill Cen­ter to tell the de­vel­oper of 7519 Ridge Ave. that the pro­ject he is propos­ing — and seeks a vari­ance for — should not be built.

And while I rarely get in­volved in de­vel­op­ment is­sues in the com­mu­nity, I do want to say one thing very clearly: I stand along­side our neigh­bors. From an en­vi­ron­men­tal stand­point, the pro­ject as cur­rently pro­posed is wrong for Roxbor­ough.

7519 Ridge is a long, skinny lot, longer than a football field, pre­sent­ing its short side to Ridge Av­enue. In the back of the lot, the prop­erty slopes down to­wards houses that front on Val­ley Av­enue, and some­where in the back is an en­cap­su­lated stream at the bot­tom of the val­ley that gives the road its name. The de­vel­oper pro­poses, in this it­er­a­tion, be­tween 18 and 22 units ar­ranged town­house-style across the prop­erty, the units in back vi­o­lat­ing the steep-slopes pro­hi­bi­tions of the zon­ing code.

“This prop­erty has all of the stan­dard is­sues civics are con­cerned with,” Rich Gior­dano, in­trepid pres­i­dent of the civic as­so­ci­a­tion, told me last week, “like park­ing, traf­fic, den­sity, qual­ity of life for the neigh­bors liv­ing nearby. But it also has two is­sues that are big­ger and areaw­ide: the wa­ter­shed or­di­nance and steep slopes.

“The back end of the prop­erty,” he con­tin­ued, “has a stream flow- ing through it,” ad­mit­tedly one that has been piped and buried un­der­ground. “But the houses behind it on Val­ley Av­enue have al­ways had is­sues of water in their yards. Houses have been set­tling, and some have even been de­mol­ished. The neigh­bors are jus­ti­fi­ably wor­ried about water.

“So for im­me­di­ate-neigh­bor rea­sons like traf­fic and park­ing,” he told me, “neigh­bors are op­posed. But for the macro rea­sons — stormwa­ter and open space— we are even more op­posed.”

Ex­am­in­ing plans pro­vided by the de­vel­oper, it seems that more than 66 per­cent of the plan is la­beled “open area,” and while he is en­ti­tled to build 70 per­cent of what is called “oc­cu­pied area,” he is propos­ing only 33 per­cent. So the num­bers at face value in­di­cate an abun­dance of open space. But this is actually ac­com­plished through paving the site’s drive­ways and park­ing ar­eas with por­ous pave­ment, newer kinds of as­phalt that al­low water to per­co­late through. Storms don’t run off these pave­ments; they run through them. At first glance, this is great — water per­co­lat­ing through a park­ing lot — and should un­ques­tion­ably be en­cour­aged.

But the city’s re­la­tion­ship to por­ous pave­ment is a lit­tle con­fused. The city’s North­west Se­nior Plan­ner Matt Wysong wrote to me that “for this par­tic­u­lar site, the Wis­sahickon Wa­ter­shed Over­lay lim­its im­per­vi­ous cov­er­age to 45% of the site. Por­ous paving has been ex­empted from this cal­cu­la­tion and the pro­posal meets the 45% stan­dard.” But Gior­dano re­sponded that while “the Water De­part­ment al­lows por­ous [pave­ment] in the cal­cu­la­tion, there is a Zon­ing Board and then Com­mon Pleas Court de­ci­sion that in­val­i­dates it.”

In my work in other com­mu­ni­ties, por­ous pave­ment has not been al­lowed in counts yet be­cause plan­ners had no un­der­stand­ing of how long the life­span of por­ous pave­ment is — after five years of strong storms, say, what hap­pens when the pores in the pave­ment are clogged with silt and mud? — sud­denly, por­ous becomes im­per­vi­ous and stormwa­ter floods nearby homes.

Re­gard­ing steep slopes, Wysong added, “The Steep Slopes Over­lay states that earth dis­tur­bance on slopes greater than 25% is not per­mit­ted. The de­vel­oper is seek­ing a vari­ance from this reg­u­la­tion and claims the steep slopes are man-made, in that a fill has been piled on-site over many years. The prop­erty sur­vey shows seems to in­di­cate this is true.”

Gior­dano’s re­sponse? “On the is­sue of it be­ing man-made,” he emailed me this week, “we haven’t seen any ev­i­dence of this, and the rea­sons for pro­hibit­ing build­ing on a slope that great con­tinue to ex­ist however the slopes came about.”

In our con­ver­sa­tion, Gior­dano re­minded me that Fair­mount Park was cre­ated for the pro­tec­tion of Wis­sahickon Creek. “The wa­ter­shed or­di­nance,” he said, “is not some friv­o­lous tree-hug­ging thing — it has a prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion. Us de­mand­ing changes to this ap­pli­ca­tion is not some cover for stop­ping de­vel­op­ment; it is a very real worry. Even in nuts-and-bolts con­cerns, it’s got is­sues, like park­ing and den­sity. But add the en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues im­me­di­ately on site and more broadly through the area, it becomes even more odi­ous.”

As the neigh­bors made abun­dantly clear at the meet­ing, Gior­dano, the civic and res­i­dents feel very strongly that if they cave in on these two en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions here, they’d have to cave in ev­ery­where else — and then where would Roxbor­ough be?

Coun­cil­man Cur­tis Jones seems to agree. After be­ing given a tour of the site by Gior­dano and oth­ers, and after be­ing del­uged by phone calls and let­ters, the civic as­so­ci­a­tion says he op­poses the cur­rent pro­posal.

“We’re not just say­ing no,” in­sisted Gior­dano. “There is a pos­si­ble com­pro­mise that might be a scaled-down pro­posal that stays off the steep slopes and ad­heres to the wa­ter­shed or­di­nance.”

Let’s hope the de­vel­oper takes this gen­tler path, which bet­ter pro­tects both neigh­bors and Roxbor­ough.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO — SCHUYLKILL CEN­TER

The un­im­proved 7519Ridge Ave. lot with its neon-col­ored sign an­nounc­ing plans for an Au­gust public hear­ing on zon­ing con­cerns.

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