Upper Gwynedd zoning debate continues: Jobs or housing?

UPPER GWYNEDD – While the main project that raised questions is now off the drawing board, questions remain about zoning in Upper Gwynedd and the bigger picture of housing development across the county.

Residents echoed Tuesday night, the latest in a long-running conversation about the shape of future development in the community.

“I think we should make economics the answer. You should get your light industrial areas. They should attract business so people can afford to live here if they want to,” said resident Carl Smith.

As of March, employees have regularly provided public information about a now-submitted proposed project on Pennbrook Parkway, in which a developer had proposed expanding the community’s transit overlay district for a project that the employees, at least in the early stages, have identified as the 44th residential units were described.

Staff later dubbed the applicant The Walters Group and said the developer was considering applying for a zone change before submitting a plan. The project was referenced in an update to Montgomery County’s housing action plan passed in July, prompting several question-and-answer sessions between residents and staff in Upper Gwynedd before the municipality announced earlier this month that the project had been submitted for the time being.

Those talks resumed Tuesday night when the commissioner, President Denise Hull, initiated public comment by reading emails from township manager Sandra Brookley Zadell to resident Linda Smith and responding to questions raised the week before about comments by the District commissioners on the impact of Hurricane Ida and COVID-19 had impacted the community’s housing supply and whether the proposed Pennbrook project was being considered.

“We have had numerous homes of residents affected by Ida. We filed 33 complaints regarding plumbing, rainwater and flooding in the days following Ida. Regarding COVID and its impact on community housing, we do not have a method to track COVID and its impact on housing. It is outside of our purview as a local government agency as we are not a public housing or public health organization,” Zadell said.

“As I mentioned, the Board of Commissioners does not look for developments. Developers contact us. The Board of Commissions has made no effort to recruit or invite the Cornerstone into station development at Pennbrook,” she said.

Carl Smith then took the floor and recounted a conversation he had with Commissioner Ruth Damsker following the September 12 Board meeting on the Pennbrook development issue and the Board’s attempt in 2021, a property on Allentown Road Domain to be acquired by Eminent from the Martin family for use as a public park.

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“It’s not about the zoning on this property. What irks me is the fact that this government agency is using government power to forcibly take land from a citizen of this community against their will,” Smith said.

Signage along the "Martin tract" on Allentown Road encourage passers-by to voice their opposition to Upper Gwynedd Commissioners over their potential October 2020 acquisition of the property.  (Submitted photo - courtesy of Tom Martin)
Signs posted along the Martin Tract on Allentown Road are encouraging passers-by to voice their opposition to the Commissioners of Upper Gwynedd over their potential October 2020 acquisition of the property. (Submitted photo – courtesy of Tom Martin)

In their conversation last week, Smith told the board, Damsker said the Martin family had benefited from other developments in the community and no longer live in the area – factors Smith said he said shouldn’t mean they had the rights of property owners on development lose or keep their property as they see fit.

“They lose their right, their personal property rights, if they don’t agree with you about what to do with their land? If they’ve ‘made too much money’ and if they’re from the state or from the community?” he said.

“The introduction of government-subsidized, high-density housing with subsidized residents has never solved a problem in this country. It just made them worse,” Smith said.

Damsker then responded, saying the two had a conversation after the meeting, and she shared that “the state has some new requirements and different things if we want to get any substantial grants or anything else they want affordable housing than.” be part of our community.”

“Affordable housing: We are talking about teachers, police officers. Unfortunately, we price the average person — I think it’s a godsend that people can sell their houses for $400,000, $500,000, $600,000, which a lot of people can’t afford. I think we should try to create housing that is suitable for people who work in our community and who should be able to afford to live in the community. This is not a disadvantage for the community,” said Damsker.

Smith asked if the board had a set definition of “affordable housing,” and Commissioner Liz McNaney said she had read recent comments from district commissioners and the coverage of Montco today in the county’s annual Homes for All report, which used a threshold of 30 percent of one’s income spent on rent or housing.

“Something that I found interesting was the fact that a lot of businesses, fire companies and emergency services want affordable housing in communities because that seems to be what attracts them to recruit their volunteers and grow their business,” McNaney said.

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She then added that she has a recently graduated son with a college degree who graduated with honors, “and he qualifies for affordable housing by those criteria.” Smith countered that he saw a difference between whether the county and/or federal government should subsidize housing projects and whether the municipality should allow and approve them.

“We moved here to escape the Abington traffic jam. We couldn’t afford to live in a nice little corner of Upper Dublin because we were overpriced. That may be the case here. People may not be able to afford it. The answer is not to diminish the value of the people who live here,” he said.

He then gave an example of a multimillion-dollar home on the New Jersey shore, and Zadell countered that New Jersey’s laws on affordable housing criteria differ from Pennsylvania’s.

“’Subsidised’ usually refers to help with rent, help paying for your house. Unlike ‘affordable housing’ which is more about your income level to qualify for that low rent – and at a lower rate because the federal government is giving developers money to develop at a lower rate can.” Zadell said.

Smith countered that his point still stands: Those who receive aid, either renters or developers, “do not pay the full freight, the taxpayers do. So ‘affordable housing’ you’re talking about is subsidized housing, one way or another.”

Linda Smith asked if staff knew how many community residents were made homeless or displaced due to Ida and COVID, and Zadell said the community didn’t have that number.

“Due to the lack of affordable housing, Montgomery County Commissioners are asking everyone to ‘do their fair share’ to help residents in need. From what I understand, you borough commissioners were elected to protect the interests of the borough’s residents, all who sit here,” Linda said, before citing a statistic from the borough’s comprehensive plan update for 2021.

“We’ve already said we’re happy with the community, 95 percent of us in the survey were happy. So I believe your interests should be what we as residents want, and not necessarily what the county wants,” she said.

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As for the zone change proposed by the developer? “Our philosophy on the housing problem should be solved by creating employment opportunities. So when you turn a limited industrial area into a residential area, you eliminate a location for a potential employer,” she said.

Residents Fred Hencken and Mark Connelly then commented on a different topic, before resident Tom Borneman asked if the staff and board were familiar with Montgomery County’s Industrial Development Authority.

“Maybe instead of investing time and money reallocating light industry, spending taxpayers’ money and time and energy, instead of trying to fulfill those Democratic Party agendas at the federal and county levels, close high-density housing for whatever purpose.” build — maybe look at developing some of our acreage in light manufacturing to create more jobs so people can make more money and afford some of the homes we already have,” Borneman said.

Zadell responded that she “promotes no Democratic or Republican agenda, I work for all residents,” noting that the municipality has its own industry board, of which Hencken is a member, “that can help spur this type of industrial development.” “

Donna Gill said she lives on Allentown Road near the Martin estate and already has heavy traffic: “At rush hour it’s difficult to even get out of my driveway. It’s bumper to bumper from Broad Street to Valley Forge Road,” especially after Martin had already developed another property nearby.

“I’m not an engineer, I’m not a builder, but we just have to keep the space. As I drive around, I notice that they are building in every nook and cranny of the township. And affordable housing? We have Lansdale Borough that surrounds us and North Wales Borough, we have affordable housing all around us,” she said.

And George Cressman said he knew firsthand that people in certain professions could afford to live in Upper Gwynedd: ‘In my development there lives a police officer and my neighbors who are teachers and several other teachers. They can more than afford to live in the township. That’s not an issue at all.”

The Commissioners of Upper Gwynedd next meet at 7pm on 20 September at the Council House, 1 Parkside Place. Visit www.UpperGwynedd.org for more information.

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