Tuesday, December 7, 2010

By George

George Marinkov, Methacton High School's iconic football coach and Russian History teacher for almost forty years, was honored at a dinner November 23 during which he and several other area sports luminaries were inducted into the Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame. (http://www.mcchof.com/mcchof_banquet.html) Several tables of past players and current colleagues (and SEVEN tables of officials!) were present amongst the 500+ attendees to support "Coach" and celebrate this occasion.

I decided to attend the dinner on behalf of my deceased husband Wesley, who played for George from 1978-1980 and enjoyed every minute of Warrior football, George style. He wouldn't have missed this dinner and seeing Coach again for the world. It was a wonderful event and I had the opportunity to connect with some students and players from 'my' era as well as meet ones who came afterward - all of whom were absolutely wonderful, stellar people.

Also, I had Mr. Marinkov for Russian History in my senior year and his no-nonsense, call-it-as-you-see-it style quickly made him my favorite teacher. You always knew where you stood with George - good, bad or ugly. It's a style I've tried to emulate ever since. No muss, no fuss, no BS.

When it was Marinkov's turn to speak, his remarks and delivery were classic George - minus the ever-present cigar - and it was obvious he was the favorite and most animated speaker of the evening. He brought down the house with his funny recollections of particular players and opposing coaches, relayed in his typical blunt, machine-gun, take-no-prisoners style. For a guy with, shall we say, small stature, he has such a huge presence and personality...you always knew he meant business, and you sure didn't want to mess with him. Most of all, he knew how to lead without being forceful. He knew how to make you want to follow him.  He's one of the reasons my family has continued to attend Methacton football games regularly, even to this day.

video

(above, he was speaking about how he doesn't 'do' technology like cellphones, and how, even though he isn't sure he deserves this honor, he'll take it anyway...!)

Perhaps his greatest trait, though, is that he can also poke fun at himself. During his remarks, I and others were literally wiping tears of laughter away. Alluding to the perception that his players got away with murder, George quipped,"Of course, the football players all got A's in my class. If you got a C, you had to have been a real jerk". The reality was, George made his class so interesting, so riveting, you couldn't help but do well.

Marinkov was replaced as football coach (rather unceremoniously, some believe), in 2007 when the school administration decided to go in another direction with a new football coach. It was a decision that was very devisive among the players, students and parents, generating a 'bring back George' movement. That experiment has been abandoned and as of this season, Coach is now back on the sidelines as an advisor to his successor, Paul Lepre, a former student. Somehow, to me, anyway, much is right in the Universe again.

Ironically, my son has had Coach as a substitute for a class here and there at the high school, and he, too, adores him and appreciates his style.

I ran into Mr. Marinkov at the high school one day a couple months ago when I was dropping off my son's working papers. He happened to come into the office while I was there. He walked over to me, knowing we knew each other somehow, but he couldn't recall my name (hey, it's only been 30 years!). We reconnected, and I told him how good it was to see him back on the gridiron, how much my husband had loved playing for him, and we talked about how well the team had been doing this year. He said "that's because the guys are being treated like the young men that they are".  Typical George...giving away the credit to the new head coach. However, football-wise, to me, things at Methacton look a lot like they did in 1980. And that's a good thing.

Any guy who can make a dry subject like Russian History interesting and the most looked-forward-to class of the day, AND coach winning teams, is a special person in my book. And I have to think that Coach could not have imagined he'd have made as big an impact on people off the field as on. Congratulations again, George. It's been our pleasure.

See more comments from George here:
http://www.timesherald.com/video/media-32078041/montgomery-county-coaches-hall-of-fame-2010/

Friday, November 19, 2010

"Lead, Follow, Or Get Out of the Way"

From the 'better late than never' department...My last post suggested that our BOS consider donating part or all of their pay back to the Township to help close our budget gap, especially since a couple of them have thrown staff layoffs on the table for consideration. I suggested that true leaders don't ask their employees to do things they themselves would not - in this case, they were being asked to find more ways to cut expenses out of the budget.

In that spirit, because I walk my own talk, at our Zoning Hearing Board meeting Tuesday night, I and another ZHB member donated our stipends back to the Township, with the condition that the funds be earmarked for the always chronically underfunded Parks & Rec budget. A third ZHB member later indicated he, too would follow suit.

I have to give kudos to supervisor Chris DiPaolo for apparently following our lead and my suggestion. I had to leave tonight's Board of Supervisors meeting early to pick my son up from an event at the high school, but I understand that after I left, Chris donated his stipend (I believe the entire amount) back to the Township's general fund. Although I still contend that these actions originate with true leaders, regardless of when or why he did it, I am truly glad that he did and that the Township will have a little more money to work with in 2011. That's something every resident can celebrate.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Last night I attended one of several 2011 budget review meetings held by our Township in their attempt to figure out how to close the expected gap in the General Fund between revenues and estimated expenditures. This meeting was unusual and by all accounts was something of a fire drill in that it was quickly put together and advertised, even though the budget process for this year is essentially over, with only 3 meetings left in 2010 in which to vote on its approval. The fact that it got to this point so late in the year is a direct result, in my opinion, of one of the supervisors not making the effort to stay informed all along, but I'll save that for another post.

It appeared after the budget workshops held earlier this year that the Board was in agreement as to where to make cuts and would work with staff over the next few months to further identify areas of potential savings and closely monitor expenditures (and in the meantime the hope is that some projects that may bear fruit will come to pass). However, my understanding is that last night's meeting was called at the request of supervisor Chris DiPaolo ostensibly to further explore whether additional cuts could be made or whether taxes need to be raised.

There’s a long backstory, but bottom line, we’ll be carrying a balance forward into 2011 in the General Fund of only about a quarter million dollars. That’s very little wiggle room.

As comparison, back in the day when there was heavy commercial & residential development, it was not unusual to have a couple of million in the General Fund to carry forward into the next year. Now, not only are we substantially built out in terms of residential development, but in this economy, there's precious little commercial development contributing any money into the coffers either.

All the supervisors have previously gone on record as stating that a tax increase for 2011 is not an option, particularly in the severe economic conditions we're experiencing (even a half mil increase in taxes would net approximately $800,000 for the Township). That leaves cuts, cuts beyond what has already been identified since mid-year, when the budgeting process began.

At last night's meeting, the township manager and staff walked the Board through various potential areas that could be cut, or cut further. While there was one big potential bright spot - the possibility of about $120,000 in savings due to a reworking of the employee healthcare contract - it's still not enough to close the gap.

Let me stop right here and make an observation. Frankly, since Chris called this last-minute meeting, you would think that perhaps he had some great idea(s) as to how to close the gap to share with the rest of the Board, the staff and the public, but apparently not. Not only did he seem to expect the township manager to lead the meeting, but also appeared to expect staff to come up with all the ideas. Shouldn’t this be coming from the top down?? Shouldn’t the staff be getting guidance from the BOS as to what are sacred cows and what budget line items the BOS is willing to get complaints about when cut? Putting the responsibility for avoiding a tax increase squarely on the staff isn’t fair to them – they are not elected to these positions. Leadership and direction is supposed to come from the top down.

Among the areas the staff mentioned as potential areas for savings were things like eliminating televising the township meetings and printing the annual report; instead of having the county animal control officer remove dead animals from our roads, doing it ourselves; foregoing our annual donations to the fire department, ambulance squad, and library, Methacton's post prom, Visiting Nurses and Victims Services; and cancelling the annual senior citizen's dinner. Retiring our 2 K9 police dogs was another area offered up. It was obvious that staff worked long and hard and creatively came up with areas in which we could get by with less, or do without something entirely. Some of the proposed cuts were line items costing as little as $1000 a year.

(A big line item? Legal fees for the BOS and the Zoning Hearing Board. I've been saying for some time now that the alarming and expensive propensity of some members of the BOS to file legal challenges and appeals (particularly against it’s own Zoning Hearing Board's decisions) or hire 'special counsel', has led to a ridiculously high legal spend - which was reflected in the budget as a significant line item - for a municipality our size, and in a budget year such as what we are looking at, is especially distressing to me when one considers in what ways that money could be better spent. Don't get me wrong; some of the Township's legal expenses are legitimate, but in my opinion much of it is frivolous and instigated solely and vindictively to punish someone, make a point or help out a political friend, despite the slim likelihood of success on the merits. We simply cannot afford this nonsense any longer...but I digress).

Even after all this, Chris DiPaolo and Don Thomas made it clear that they expect staff to go back to the well yet again, and find another 5, 10 and 15% in cuts to present to them that could be made so that they can evaluate the impact if they enact those cuts - and if those cuts include staff reductions, so be it. Marie Altieri and Colleen Eckman were much less comfortable with the idea of staff reductions. And again, I think the staff should be getting their direction from the BOS and not the other way around.

Now, I understand that the BOS is trying everything they can to avoid raising taxes, and that is commendable. I wish our county and school district were so diligent, but they seem to find it quite easy to jack our taxes up regularly whenever they need more money. People are, even in this affluent area, losing their homes, experiencing long-term unemployment, and having their bills go up substantially. The last thing they need is to be taxed out of homes they are hanging onto by a thread.
  
However, I respectfully suggest that good leaders don't expect those who serve them to do things that they themselves will not do. One line item in the budget is the yearly stipends paid to each supervisor as token compensation for fulfilling their duties. None of our supervisors suggested that they themselves take a 5, 10, or 15% cut in their pay or, heaven forbid, forego the stipend altogether. Why is that?

As of 2005, when I was on the Board, said stipend amounted to $4000 per supervisor per year; it may be more than that now. Granted, it's not enough to support a family on and, if you are doing the job the way it should be done, it doesn't come close to fairly compensating you for all the hours you put in. However, to my knowledge, all the supervisors have regular paid employment that pays their bills or other long-term means of support.

If it were me, I'd forgo 100% of my stipend before even considering laying off so much as one police officer, public works, parks & rec or administration staffer, or asking them to work without the tools they need to do their jobs - especially since many of them have been doing the work of 2 or 3 people for a couple of years now. We're extremely fortunate to have such talented, dedicated and resourceful employees, and to punish them with layoffs when they've been taking it on the chin already - and are being asked to squeeze their belts some more - would be a real travesty. At a minimum, I'd cut my own stipend 15% before asking them for anything.

How about it, BOS?  Especially those of you who are suggesting that staff reductions should be considered, and who went on ad nauseam about how much you're personally aware of how our residents are suffering, what better opportunity to show us that you 'feel our pain' and that we're not the only ones who have to tighten our belts?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Open Season

When you went to the polls this past Tuesday in either of the two townships served by Methacton School District, you were greeted by a sign that read as follows, courtesy of our local Democrat party:

First, aside from the obvious factual error - there are really five positions up for election in 2011, not four - the sign claimed that 'school board member is a non-partisan position'.  Really? Maybe it should be, but the truth is that they are elected positions, and the only way to get elected as a school board member is to petition to get on the ballot for one party or the other (or, as some do, cross-file and run under the banners of both parties, a process that I think really should be disallowed for any elected position,since it muddies the water as to what a candidate's true ideology is).

In fact, at the website for PSBA, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (http://www.psba.org/parents-public/board-candidates/how-to-run.asp), Federal employees are reminded that they are subject to the Hatch Act and barred from running for 'partisan elective office' such as for school board.  

This is not a homogenous position, nor should it be. I think we deserve to understand the political and fiscal philosophy that drives a potential school board member who is controlling a $91 million dollar budget made up of your federal, state and local tax dollars. Personally, recognizing that while we all want the best for our students,  I prefer to see fiscal conservatives in the seats who understand that we want the best education and resources we can afford, not someone who thinks this is still 2005 and every household in the district has unlimited affluence.

Now, if the Democrats are truly open to considering ANY qualified candidate, and endorsing them without requiring them to switch party affiliation, I'm all for it. In the past, there were qualified Republicans who were rebuffed by their own party in favor of  candidates who were Democrats until immediately prior to filing their petitions to run as Republicans, and who were clearly favored over the known fiscally conservative proclivities of the authentic Republican candidates because the former Democrats were believed to be more likely to push through approval and spending to build the new 5-6 school, which they ultimately did. Folks, that project alone is costing so much money that we will won't even begin to start paying down principal until 2018. That's 5 years AFTER my sophomore student graduates.
I certainly hope this isn't the case in these recessionary times, but perhaps those Republican candidates - some of whom are still interested in running - will find more support from the other side of the table than they got (or may get) from their own. I know our side doesn't exactly have people leaping out of the woodwork to take on the free-spending legacy left to us by some members of the current and immediate past school boards, and I have to believe this newfound openness to outsiders by the Democrats is at least in part driven by a similar lack of viable candidates on their side as well.

Whoever runs in 2011, candidates are needed who are not afraid to make some tough decisions over the next several years.The 2012 budget is already shaping up to have serious gaps, and increasing taxes at a time of high unemployment is not the answer. Difficult choices will have to be made about more services to be cut, and no matter what is done, people will be unhappy. Both parties should look to find candidates with the backbone to do it and the stomach for dealing with the grief it will cause.

By the way, if you're thinking of throwing your hat into the ring on either side of the ticket, you may never have less competition. Although you may find yourself running as a Republican endorsed by Democrats!

Monday, October 25, 2010

The 411 on stop422tolls

Driving around town over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed red & white signs among this fall's crop of campaign signs, promoting a website (www.stop422tolls.com). This website is solidly against the idea of tolling Route 422 to raise money for the Commonwealth, and hopes to defeat the re-election hopes of the only elected official to come out in favor of it, Paul Drucker, the freshman Democrat state congressman (House) for the 157th district. But what's behind the movement? 

Put together by a group of residents from Audubon (Montgomery County) and Chester County, the effort is also championed by the Valley Forge Patriots. These are folks frustrated by current traffic congestion in the area and are strongly against any efforts to toll 422, which they view as adding to existing traffic problems in addition to objecting to the uncertainty surrounding what would be done with any tolls collected. In addition, other local elected officials have also come out against tolling 422, including Mike Vereb, John Rafferty, and Rep. Tom Quigley (Pottstown). Mike Vereb is on record as stating tolling of 422 is "a reckless idea" and that he is 'vehemently opposed to it".

As background - over the summer, representatives from the  Montgomery County Planning Commission, Chester County Planning Commission and the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission presented their 422 Corridor Master Plan outreach program to various local municipalities. A new transit line, as well as tolls on Route 422 may be in the area’s future (albeit probably not in the immediate future). A possible rail line is seen as an option to provide an alternative to traveling by car — extending transit service beyond Norristown along an already-existing rail line.

The aim of the 422 Corridor Master Plan is to provide a comprehensive approach to planning development in the 24 corridor municipalities in Chester, Montgomery and Berks counties. An important element of the master plan is how to handle growth, development and the ever-increasing traffic on 422. The plan suggests the widening and maintenance of 422 in addition to ramp and interchange improvements, and according to Leo Bagley, assistant director of the Montgomery County Planning Commission, any funds raised by tolling would have to go first toward maintaining 422 and secondarily fund a rail line.


The county planning commissions took the 422 plan ‘on the road’ to each of the municipalities and asked elected officials and residents to provide comments. Township supervisors were asked to consider adopting a resolution endorsing the master plan’s principles and strategies. Getting the municipalities to work together in partnership with the county planning commissions was the goal of the road trip. Lower Providence heard the pitch at their June 17, 2010 meeting, with Board of Supervisors chairman Rick Brown stating that they (the Township) would try to adopt a resolution supporting the 422 master plan as soon as possible. Supervisor Chris DiPaolo motioned to adopt it at the July 1, 2010 meeting and the motion passed unanimously. (By contrast, two supervisors in Limerick Township went on record before they voted to endorse the plan on July 20 as being specifically opposed to any option to toll on 422).


 It is my understanding that the tolling of 422 is still considered a possibility to help offset the major land developments costs contained in the 422 Corridor Master Plan, although Drucker and others have suggested that the proceeds from tolls would go to fund the creation of the proposed 62-mile Schuylkill Valley Metro rail line, which thus far SEPTA has been unable to move forward. 

But seriously, though, when's the last time any government entity collected money which was supposed to be a 'dedicated funding source' (for whatever purpose) and actually used it for that? I have little to no faith it would happen in this scenario either. And ESPECIALLY when it comes to Harrisburg; I don't trust them to spend taxpayer money where it says it will. One need only remember the gaming legislation that allegedly was going to go towards funding property tax relief — well, guess what, folks, that money is being used for sports stadiums, to build college campuses, etc. And nothing has changed in property tax world. 

While Drucker has taken pains lately to flip his position and walk his earlier comments back, he was an early and vocal supporter of tolling 422, for whatever reason the funds would be collected. In an April Times Herald interview, he admitted he was not fully acquainted with some of the issues, but said the tolling of Route 422 to pay for the Schuylkill Valley Metro transportation project, was "a good idea".


Then, in May, he was thus quoted in the Times Herald "“I believe a light rail line to alleviate traffic on 422 has the potential to benefit our region, and I believe it can be funded in such a way that local residents don’t get stuck with the bill". Ahem....anyone who lives in a community surrounding the 422 corridor is going to get stuck with something, be it paying a toll for the privilege of sitting in traffic longer once ON 422, or being stuck with the cost of repairing wear & tear to local roads from the traffic driven off 422  by cars trying to avoid paying a toll.  And, as Rep. Vereb noted in a September 22 speech, "it would take catastrophic amounts of money to make it [a rail line] happen and would be a catastrophic waste".

In my opinion, tolling on 422 would be a horrible turn of events for Lower Providence. Any improvements that have been made in traffic flow (intersection improvements, traffic light coordination etc) - particularly in the Audubon area - over the past few years would evaporate as hundreds, if not thousands, of additional cars flood local roadways to escape tolls and idling cars sitting on 422. Many of those roads are roads that we LP taxpayers are on the hook for maintaining, and we just borrowed money to repair and upgrade - improvements that have to last the ten years it will take to pay off the loan. 

If you live in any of the areas of Lower Providence that are represented by Rep. Drucker (most of Audubon, Shannondell, and the area of Trooper surrounding Woodland Elementary School), I urge you to vote for his opponentWarren Kampf, Nov. 2 for state rep. And if you know anyone in any of the areas of LP or Chester County that are represented by Rep. Drucker, I suggest calling them, making sure they know where he stands on the toll issue, and asking them to be sure to get to the polls that day to vote him out. The best scenario? Join together at the polls, and make sure Mr. Drucker has to get on a toll road home after packing up his office when he's voted out on November 2.















Thursday, October 14, 2010

Not Your "Average Joe"

At the October 7 Board of Supervisors meeting, the supervisors came to final agreement on a new contract for our township manager, Joe Dunbar. Supervisors Chris DiPaolo and Don Thomas were appointed back in March of this year to conduct negotiations with Joe, but it is my understanding that it took them until August to even begin the process. 

Conscious of the financial limitations that the Township and its residents are facing, Joe offered to take no increase for 2011 and, as reported in the Times Herald, asked for a three-year contract with no additional benefits. I was a supervisor when Joe's original five-year contract, which expired Sept. 1, was negotiated. The original contract had a provision for accrued comp time above 90 hours per pay period, to be payable only upon termination, resignation, or retirement. Otherwise, it would go unpaid. This is a fairly standard option in employment agreements for executive personnel.

This new contract they came up with was a bit different. What's perplexing to me is this: why would Chris, who I understand was the lead negotiator, present a contract to his fellow Board members that calls for a payout of the comp time now, especially in these tight economic times?

Chris ultimately voted against the final version of the contract he negotiated. Now, I may be biased, since I've negotiated all kinds of contracts with all kinds of entities as a large part of my job for more than fifteen  years, but for Chris to arrive at a set of terms and conditions that he felt comfortable enough presenting to the Board and having their solicitor put in writing, only to then turn around and vote against it, makes it patently obvious to me that either Chris isn't a very good negotiator or he's running for re-election next year and wanted to be seen as not voting for any expenditures.  Or, quite possibly, both. 

He's quoted in the paper, citing the contract's provisions as 'too expensive'.  Was he intentionally trying to overstate the value of the contract to bolster his position? Maybe Chris can explain his logic at the next BOS meeting, but it seems like posturing to me.

I happen to think Joe is worth every penny in his contract. He's very effective, a proactive, big picture thinker who's also good with detail, and a class act who knows how to get the best out of staff. Ultimately, the buck stops with him when something goes wrong and he accepts responsibility, as a good manager should, whenever there's a problem. He has earned the loyalty and respect of staff as a result. He's also earned the respect of local municipal officials, business leaders and governmental agencies. As an example, earlier this year, Joe was the recipient of the "Excellence in Public Service" award from the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. Montco Chamber of Commerce Spring 2010 newsletter

I can personally attest to the fact that the Township gets much more from Joe than just what he's obligated to do. During my time as a supervisor, it was obvious to me that he goes above and beyond on a regular basis. It wasn't unusual to get a phone call from him at night, early in the morning or on weekends.

I'm glad he'll be with us for another three years. He'll have served longer than any other Lower Providence Township manager, and longevity and stability can go a long way toward a municipality maintaining a favorable credit/bond rating. But, in my eyes, that's the least of the reasons his position with the Township is a good thing. Kudos to the BOS for getting the deal done, with or without Chris on board.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

One Man’s Retention Basin Is Another Man’s Treasure

On Sept. 2, 2010 the residents of Peacock Lane, a smaller development off of Park Avenue about halfway between Trooper and Audubon, were surprised to find notices stuffed in their doors notifying them that the retention basin in their development was next in line to be "naturalized", and that this project would essentially begin immediately. Earth-moving equipment arrived that day as well, dropped off behind several residents' homes,  and work was slated to begin on Friday, Sept. 3, before the long holiday weekend.
 
Naturalization 101 (from Breckenridge Blvd)
 As luck would have it, there was a Board of Supervisors meeting that evening, and the residents of Peacock Lane showed up in force to protest not only the last-minute, informal way in which they were notified, but the project itself. They wanted to opt out. But why? Retention basins and what happens to them are not normally the stuff of contention and drama.

This particular basin is unusual in that it is in the very front of the development. Also, several homes encircle it, abut it and have clear views off their front porch or back yard patio. It's park-like open space, and picturesque. As resident Mary Byrnes characterized it, "it's the heart of our community". Several residents spoke about how they sit on their patios or front porches and enjoy the peaceful view.

Peacock Drive basin 'as is' today
 Many of you live in subdivisions which have detention or retention basins for controlled handling of stormwater runoff. In the past, these basins have usually been fenced in, and left as plain grass which is mowed regularly, either by the subdivision homeowner’s association, by a neighboring resident, or Lower Providence Township.

You may not know, but approximately seventeen years ago, Lower Providence embarked on a mission to naturalize all of the approximately 26 stormwater basins within its borders. In recent years, municipalities have been pressured by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and watershed conservancy agencies to retrofit these basins to comply with and reflect updated standards, goals and methodologies. Goals include reducing soil erosion and maintenance, and improved handling of stormwater runoff.

Of course, there’s a cost to do this, but  some of these agencies provide grant money to help defray the cost of retrofiting and naturalizing the basins.  The basin on Peacock is one of 8 remaining in the Township to be done, and part (just over $5,000) of a grant totalling almost $19,000 was specifically allocated to be used on the Peacock basin. Grant guidelines dictate that half that amount be used toward shade trees.

What does it mean to 'naturalize' or 'retrofit' a retention basin? It certainly sounds wonderful. Naturalized basins are stormwater control facilities that are planted with native vegetation rather than maintained as mown lawn. The vegetation is allowed to grow wild, for the most part. Retrofitting includes the removal of low-flow concrete channels, removal of invasive species, and the planting of native trees, bushes and grasses. Generally speaking, it has a 'wilder', less maintained appearance. Normally, that's not a problem, as most basins are built toward the back of a development or are otherwise not right up against any homeowner's residence.

At first, the residents got a chilly reception. When they complained about lack of proper notice, and notifying them via a paper slip that could easily fall out of a door, blow away, or otherwise be missed, and the fact that the project was slated to begin immediately prior to a major holiday weekend, Supervisor Rick Brown at first admonished the residents that this is not a new program, they have notified residents of it via the newsletter and website and that ‘you have to take some responsibility to be aware and inform yourselves". He also mentioned (in what seemed to me to be a condescending tone), that ‘we’ve won awards for this’ with the underlying message that this is something they should want to be the lucky recipients of.

However, the residents were persistent, passionate and articulate as one by one they voiced their opposition. They were opposed to the loss of the parklike setting, and fear that naturalizing will provide a safe haven for rodents, mosquitos and ticks, as well as lower property values. Eventually, the Board agreed to revisit the issue. And, to their credit, the Township did. A meeting was held between representatives of the Township, the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy and the residents. Four options were presented to residents. They were:
  • The Township could return the grant money and continue to maintain the basin as is;
  • The residents could buy the basin land;
  • The residents could enter into an agreement with the Township to maintain the basin themselves; or
  • The Township could move ahead with the current plan to utilize the grant money to naturalize the basin.
Peacock Drive, additional view
Obviously, the residents prefer the first option, but the Board fears that will set a bad precedent going forward, and any time you return grant money, you essentially go to the back of line in the future. The Township doesn't want to jeopardize future potential grant awards for any Township project from any funding agency.

Unfortunately there isn't a lot of time to figure out which way to go ... the expense receipts for the cost of the project must be turned into the granting agency by the end of November for reimbursement and to finalize the grant, and the end of planting season is fast approaching. 

Purchasing the land is not a preferred option. One resident I spoke to, Chris Spletzer, said he felt that there 'is really no good outcome here'...that the residents don't wish to assume the costs of maintenance and liability for the piping and land, which would be difficult to manage, given that there is no homeowners' association, and if residents move away or, especially in the scenario of a maintenance agreement, future residents may be unwilling or unable continue to make payments to the Township or to repair/upgrade the stormwater system. Additionally, since the land is valued above $1,500, it would have to be bid out, a process that takes time.

The Township has agreed to work with the residents to get their input on a planting plan as far as buffering, number, size, and species of trees and shrubs, and agreed to forego requiring a fence around the basin at this time. Still, as Mr. Spletzer said, he's spent many hours of time on this in phone calls, meetings and research, and in the end has no control over this.

A naturalized basin on Breckenridge Blvd in Trooper
 Going forward, the Township might want to consider picking up the phone to ask the residents who will be impacted by similar projects about their feelings on the 'improvements' prior to applying for grant money to change something they may very well be happy with 'as is', and providing more formal and timely notification about the impending noise and disruption such a project would cause.  Just because a governmental agency feels it knows best whether something is desireable or good for us, doesn't mean it necessarily is. The opinion of the people who have to live with it should have high priority.  Had that happened here, the residents wouldn't have to swallow a project they abhor so the rest of the Township doesn't suffer in the future.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Art Of The Steal, Lower Providence Style

This past Friday afternoon I was invited to accompany several current and former township officials to witness the ceremonial transfer of the 78 acres of land owned by philanthropist Gerry  Lenfest as it was officially exchanged for a small swatch (.87 acres) of land at 3rd and Chestnut in Philadelphia, slated to be the new home of the American Revolution Center (ARC). As chairman of our Zoning Hearing Board in 2008-2009, I presided over the many evenings of hearings on this project, examined over a hundred exhibits, and heard many hours of testimony for and against it, during two validity challenges to the Living History Overlay District. In the end, I came away convinced that the ordinance was valid, and that the project belonged here...next to Valley Forge National Historical Park.

As many of you know, the 78 acres of land - formerly property of the St. Gabriel's Protectorate before being sold to Mr. Lenfest - was originally envisioned as the future home of the ARC. It seemed the most logical place - next to the very location where the Revolutionary troops endured the harsh winter at Valley Forge, and the very land where our struggle for freedom from tyranny in England is what most Americans consider symbolic of our determination and resolve to win.

I am genuinely glad that the ARC will finally be built - somewhere, as new generations of Americans desperately need to be reacquainted with the story of what drove our beginnings as a nation. Surveys show that the vast majority of Americans don't have a basic knowledge of historical facts about the American Revolution, the fundamentals about what drove us to seek independence, the sacrifices made to obtain it, and the creation of our founding documents and their application to current events.

Those of us who supported this project always said that, for us, it was truly about the project and our belief in its worthiness, wherever it would go. And, our fiduciary duty to do what was best for the majority of Lower Providence residents. We were, of course, proud that our township was considered as the best possible home for it and excited about the opportunities it would bring to our area.

Supervisor Rick Brown, initially in favor of the project, even saying at one point that he'd 'fall on his sword' for it, later flipped his position, publicly fighting it, and working with nearby residents to defeat it. Former supervisor Craig Dininny, originally against it, ended up supporting it. Interestingly, these two changes of opinion occurred practically at the same time. It was almost as if the the minute Craig supported it, Rick decided to fight it. Anyone who's ever doubted that some people make politics personal should consider this fact. But that is an entire separate blog post (or two). Anyway, that's water under the bridge.



While it was a beautiful and solemn ceremony, held at the Independence Visitor Center, complete with a color guard, costumed Revolutionary reenactors (including George Washington), and a moving rendition of our national anthem by The American Boy Choir,  it felt more like a funeral to me. Beautiful, respectful, dignified...and a sad ending to what would have been a significant, game-changing development in the history of our township. I and many others invested much blood, sweat and tears in a project we sincerely believed would be economically and culturally advantageous to Lower Providence, only to have the the truth about it remanufactured and spun to some people's political advantage. Only to have the project ultimately snapped up by Philadelphia and Governor Ed Rendell, who never misses an opportunity to do what's economically and culturally advantageous for the City of Brotherly Love.
   
I, at least, came away realizing that this project, having become more and more of a struggle to get across the finish line (in no small part to the opposition conjured up by Rick & Co., including current supervisor Colleen Eckman), created a situation that it did not take an opportunist like our esteemed Democrat governor long to work to his advantage and that of his Democrat friends in Philly.

As we sat there in the audience, listening to the speakers - from Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, to Mayor Nutter, on up to Fast Eddie himself - regurgitate much of what we already know about this endeavor, it was unsettling to hear the disclosure of some things we didn't know about. Things like how it came to the Governor's attention that this project was at an impasse, and how driven he was, once seeing that the people of Lower Providence apparently didn't know what was good for them, to snag it for Philadelphia...to the point that he got up early on a Sunday morning to go tooling around town - in his sweats, no less -  with an aide and Mr. Lenfest, checking out buildings in the tourist areas of Philly, searching for something, anything, that might be appealing to the folks at ARC and that would also benefit tax-dollar starved Philadelphia.

(If I recall correctly, the timeline of when this occurred would have been about the same time last year Pennsylvania had an overdue approved state budget...but it would seem this was at the top of the Governor's priorities).

Obviously, he succeeded, and that chapter of the story of the ARC is closed. While we do have 78 more acres of preserved park space in our inventory, we lost out on a significant opportunity for jobs (during construction and in running the project), revenue from tourists, and taxes. Yes, infrastructure improvements would have to be made, and the ARC pledged money for that. Additional concerns would have been addressed during the land development process.

Ironically, the land swap also accomplished the removal of the land at 3rd and Chestnut from federal protection, archeological and otherwise. Given its proximity to other significant Philadelphia landmarks, that fact alone should be somewhat alarming. However, I digress.

But it was classic Ed Rendell, a Rendell we saw before at work in what's been called a theft of another cultural project in Montgomery County, The Barnes Museum. This subject, and Rendell's role in it, was documented in the 2009 film, 'The Art Of The Steal'.*
  
In case you're not familiar with that saga, the late Albert Barnes (1872-1951) amassed a collection in the early 20th century that makes even the Louvre envious. Barnes was an American art collector, a little-known medical scientist who had an eye for modern art. He used the money he made from his work to acquire paintings by unknown painters that no one else wanted. At the time, they were quite attainable. So, the doctor-scientist begin amassing a collection of these artworks sensing a value and aesthetic in them that most in the art world dismissed.

Today, these unknowns are household names: Czanne, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Monet, Manet, and Van Gogh, and their work is what we now call "impressionism" and "post-impressionism". In the current art market, the collection is worth far more than he ever could have paid for them at the time he acquired most of them, reportedly between $25-35 billion dollars. In all likelihood, not even the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art could afford to buy the entire collection at market value.

Mr. Barnes' will stipulated explicitly that the collection remain at the Barnes house in Montgomery County, that the home become an educational institution, and that the collection be used to school art students. "The Art of the Steal" chronicles the myriad lawsuits and wheeling & dealing that destroyed the integrity of one man's unique vision of his art and collection. According to the documentary, the paintings will be moved into a museum for the tourist crowd in Philadelphia rather than maintaining Barnes' wishes for an art school.

And I bet you can't guess who was a driving force for engineering that

The only advocate for the collection's relocation who appeared on camera is Gov. Ed Rendell, who spoke at length about the advantages for Philadelphia, saying it was a "no-brainer". Never once in the interview does the Governor say he's doing it in the best interest of the wishes of Barnes. The message is that he's doing what's in the best interests of Philadelphia and his political future. 

While they're not the only ones to blame for the loss of the ARC, I hope that Republicans Rick, Colleen and the rest of the 'not in my backyard' contingent are proud of themselves, if for nothing else than that they aided and abetted our Democrat, tax & spend governor in absconding with yet another valuable project that will certainly create revenue for Philly but do absolutely nothing to create jobs or put money back into Lower Providence or Montgomery County. At least Rick and Colleen had the common sense not to attend the ceremony since for them  it wasn't about the project at all. Smart move.

As someone named Barbara posted in response to an online article announcing the exchange said, "This should have been a magnificent Center in Valley Forge, built on private property purchased for the purpose. In Valley Forge, it would have created many jobs both in construction now and, later, in running it. Instead, it will be a little and cramped addition to an already built up area, creating minimal jobs now and probably into the future as well. It will also be just one more place in Philadelphia for people to go with nowhere to park. Shame on everyone for allowing a few selfish landowners to keep the original plans from becoming reality."


Amen Barbara.

*Facts and some references/phrasing for portions of this post were retrieved from an imdb review of the film.




Friday, September 10, 2010

Fun with Fees

All parents know the start of school means there’s some ‘homework’ for us parents, too. I’m referring to the blizzard of contact, medical, permission, and other forms and a curriculum/class rules page for each class (for those of us with kids in middle to high school range) to review and fill out. And then there are the packets of Home & School information, which in recent years they have (thankfully) begun sending out via mail in advance of the first day of school, to reduce the chances they’ll be lost or forgotten.

Included in my ‘homework’ was an explanation about the newly implemented student activity fee and a form to complete and include with your check. The student activity fee is supposed to help offset the cost of providing athletic and other after-school programs to students.

The fee is set at $50 per family. Now, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that families who have, say, three children involved in after-school activities versus people like me, who have one, are essentially paying a lower per-child rate. The rate for that family breaks out at about $16 per kid, versus mine, who’s costing the full $50.

What was the school board thinking? How did they arrive at this figure? Isn’t the impact of a family of three kids on costs to provide after-school services more significant than one, and shouldn’t that cost be borne fairly by those families whose impact is greater? In other words, shouldn’t the family of three be paying $150? Or, should the family of one be paying $16?

Whatever that actual offset point is that the school board was trying to arrive at, they have clearly not assessed it fairly. I personally know of several parents who have contacted Methacton to complain about this, but from what I’m hearing it was treated in a dismissive manner to the parents as a minor issue. I have to wonder how many parents did what I did, which is to blow through the packet of papers, sign where necessary, write checks where necessary, and move on. I didn’t catch that the fee was per family, not per child. I have to believe if more parents realized this, there might be more phone calls to the school district.

And by the way, ‘fee’ does not include transportation. Your student who stays after school to participate in activities has no ride home. There are no more ‘late buses’; that was one of the budget cuts the school district implemented. Transportation is on you to arrange and pay for, if necessary.

There seems to be no logic at work here, but then again, this is the same school board that built a school many residents in both Lower Providence and Worcester believe we did not need, and renegotiated the superintendant’s contract early to give him a healthy raise and bonus, at the same time allowing the teacher’s contract to languish for a couple of years without resolution.


Monday, August 23, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

All good things must come to an end, and summer is no exception. As much as I enjoy the kids being home and all of us having a few less things on the ‘to do’ list (not to mention nagging about homework, which we can all do without) I do appreciate when it’s time for them to go back, if for no other reason than I get to reclaim my house from all the teenagers running in and out, and it stays clean longer. 

Methacton’s doors reopen on September 7 – but for how long? The number one question I’ve been hearing in recent weeks is not IF we’re going to have to deal with a strike, but when, and for how long? Already many of the kids are eagerly looking forward to a little extended time off.

An update posted at the end of July on the school district website explains where the school district believes the process is at the moment and the timeline of events in play going forward. If both parties go through the steps in the maximum time allotted for each, MEA, if no progress is made and they so choose, could potentially go on strike approximately September 22, but I think it’s safe to say anything after mid-September is a real possibility.

If they do, collective bargaining law (Act 1992-88) dictates that a first strike must end if 180 days of school cannot be completed by June 15, or the last day of school as designated on the instructional calendar, whichever is later. Following the first teacher strike, the Board and MEA would be required to submit to mandatory nonbinding arbitration. Following the mandatory non-binding arbitration process, which could take place over as little as 65 calendar days but usually lasts much longer (and during which the public gets ten days to comment on the ‘final best’ contract offers) a second strike could occur. The second strike must end when 180 days of school cannot be completed by June 30.

Attempts to contact Methacton Education Association president Diana Kernop for a status update or comment on their position were not returned.

The next Methacton School Board meeting is scheduled for tomorrow night, August 24 at 8 pm in the Arcola auditorium. As I’m sure the subject will come up, you might want to attend to get the most recent information or to ask questions.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Over The River and Through the Woods, To The Interceptor Project We Go

Unless you live along riverfront property, you may not have heard much, if anything, about something called the ‘Interceptor’. No, we’re not outfitting our police department with the snazzy new 2012 souped-up Ford Crown Vic street-legal hotrod of the same name (that I know of, anyway). This is something a little less glamorous.


Bottom line, it’s a sewer project. A complex, multi-municipal, three-part sewer project, and the third and final phase of the project is what has Lower Providence in a twist. Even though it's been in the works for almost ten years, and two of the three sections are either done or underway now, neighbors near the planned  'middle' portion just recently started showing up and protesting it, even though a number of them had been asked to sign releases for easements to facilitate construction some time ago, and many had already executed them. Why are they protesting now?

To make a fair assessment, I like to hear both sides of an issue and to date, the Lower Perkiomen Valley Regional Sewer Authority (LPVRSA) has been virtually silent in the press as to why they’ve chosen to complete this project in the way it's proposed. My understanding is that they don't intend to stay that way. I was able to get them to sit down and talk with me recently so I could try to understand and convey their position.

Begun almost ten years ago in 2001, LPVRSA, which comprises Lower Providence, Upper Providence, Skippack and Perkiomen Townships and the boroughs of Collegeville and Trappe, began plans to build a second sewer line (interceptor) in order to meet anticipated increases in the need for sewer capacity among the LPVRSA’s member communities. Increased need was attributed to known or expected growth in commercial and residential development, and expansions such as the prison in Eagleville, among the member communities.

The project, comprising three parts or segments (Upper, Lower and Middle) has moved along fairly quietly since 2001. The lower section has already been built, and the upper portion is being constructed now. That’s what all those pipes and excavation equipment that recently appeared at the Collegeville Inn’s parking lot are for – the section that runs from above Graterford down to the Collegeville Inn.

The middle and final section connecting the whole thing together – from the Collegeville Inn to the Arcola Road area near the former Proffit home (which LPVRSA now owns) - has been planned from the beginning. It’s going through the permitting process now, with construction expected to begin in 2013. Although our Township, across a couple of administrations, surely has known about this section and how it will run right through a portion of the riverbanks on the Lower Providence side (even though the existing section is on the Upper Providence side), there was never any fuss made about it until after the election last fall.

While affected residents now claim nobody told them that this project was coming, LPVRSA counters that all plans have been advertised over the years and there have been ample opportunities for public participation up to this point, from the time it was proposed right up through the permitting process, some of which is still underway. In 2005 property owners were notified about the impending archeological and engineering studies to be done in conjunction with permitting, and notified again in 2008 when application was being made for $16 million in H2O PA grant funding ($2.5 million of which was awarded and used toward construction costs on the upper portion of the project). I'm told occasionally someone would call and ask a few questions, but other than that, there was no public opposition to the project.

Originally, the plan was to build the new middle interceptor section alongside the existing aging interceptor pipes, which is located on the Upper Providence side of the river. However, according to LPVRSA, the notices the residents received as early as 2005 noted that the new interceptor might not be placed on the same side of the river as the existing one (translation: it might wind up on the LP side).

Starting in 2004, easements were obtained from adjacent residents for both the upper and lower portions via Declarations of Taking. In 2009 a different approach was taken in that LPVRSA decided to negotiate with property owners for easements to construct the middle portion. Certainly this could account for some recent opposition.

Also late last year, residents started showing up at township Board of Supervisors meetings and asking for help in fighting the project. They asked for alternatives; however, alternatives were looked at in 2003-2004 at Lower Providence's request. For various reasons – cost, practicality, physical limitations - all were rejected at that time.

For example, the residents say one alternative could be to place a pumping station on the Wyeth/Pfizer property in Upper Providence, instead of the middle interceptor, but there’s one small problem with that option – you don’t really need to pump water downhill. Gravity takes care of that nicely, for free. Earlier this year, Lower Providence again requested LPVRSA conduct another study to provide alternatives to the existing plan, and LPVRSA again complied. This second study, which was done at a cost of approximately $7500, was paid for by LPVRSA and  delivered to the Township August 2 for review and comment.

Among the five options looked at were the placement of a pumping station at 1st Avenue in Collegeville, a pump station at Yerkes Road in Upper Providence, a pumping station at Wyeth/Pfizer in Upper Providence, placing the interceptor along the trail on the Upper Providence side of the river, and the current plan to place the parallel middle interceptor on the Lower Providence side. An  open records request for a copy of the 2010 alternative study reveals that placement on the Lower Providence side is significantly less expensive than the other four options, with a minimum cost of $17.3 million and maximum of $19.3 million. The next least costly option was the Yerkes Road pump station, at an estimated minimum cost of $25 million and maximum of $28.9 million.

While you might say 'what's spending a little more money if it saves natural beauty and resources', the LPVRSA's first responsibility (as with any public utility) is to its ratepayers, and ratepayers want low cost. The first half of their mission statement is 'to anticipate the needs of the communities served and expand treament facilities when feasible; and ' to provide the best service to those municipalities and/or municipal authorities while maintaining the lowest possible rates through sound management, financial, and engineering practices".

LPVRSA maintains they determined that installing the new interceptor next to the existing one on the Upper Providence side isn't viable, partly because there isn’t enough room to put a new pipe in the same trench - the width of the right-of-way is simply not wide enough - and partly due to the steep slopes along that side of the river. To attempt to co-locate the pipes would require extensive excavation, disruption of the Perkiomen Trail,  incurring additional costs to purchase additional land, pay for the additional construction expenses (including the extensive excavation), and result in additional maintenance expenses.

It would also require construction of a permanent wall and a bypass wastewater pump during construction for 4-6 months, with 'significant risks' of a pump station outage during that time, resulting in a 'pollution event'.  Putting the middle portion on Lower Providence's side of the river was viewed by LPVRSA to be the least intrusive in terms of pollution and ecological disturbance, as well as being the most cost-effective for the ratepayers (that's any of us who connect to the public sewer system).

Lower Providence officials feel that the majority of the extra capacity that will be added will primarily benefit the other member communities. Lower Providence is largely built out, and with the economy putting most new commercial and residential construction at a standstill (and, frankly, a BOS that arguably seems to discourage any new development at all), that’s probably a reasonable viewpoint. LPVRSA admits that as things stand today, that is true. However, it won’t stay that way forever. Additional capacity will eventually be needed by Lower Providence, too, especially once the new prison addition comes online. Lower Providence officials dispute that, but it stands to reason that if you add more facilities and increase the population, the usage will rise. I have to believe that the opening of Skyview next to Arcola Middle School will also increase our usage.

In any event, the entire system needed to be upgraded to eliminate known weaknesses in the existing 40-year old system resulting in 'inflow and infiltration" - stream water leaking into, and sewage leaking out of, the existing interceptor pipes - so in that respect, it does benefit Lower Providence now, if for no other reason than to maintain the safety and low pollution levels of the river.

Naturally, the residents are upset that this work will disturb the natural beauty, animals, resources, vegetation and recreation in the area. Also, there is the possibility that there are archaeological finds that could be disturbed. LPVRSA says a review of digging in and disturbing such areas is a part of the permitting and review processes and is done in conjunction with the rest of the application. If there is any reason found by DEP not to continue with the project for archeological reasons, it will surface at that point in the process.

Now, I've spent some time with some of the residents who are fighting the interceptor along the creek, and they seem like sincere, nice folks. I sure wouldn’t want this in my backyard either, and they are doing what they feel they must. No matter what side of the river it ends up on, it's going to involve a certain amount of noise and disruption. It does seem strange that there is such  angst about it now, years after notice has been given, easements signed away, and the project has been under way for some time - after many of them already signed off on it.

For now, the pressure is off the Township and its residents. A technical mistake on the regional Act 537 plan LPVRSA submitted to the Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) - an aggregate of all the member communities' 537 plans, put into one plan at DEP's request - appears to LPVRSA to have been blown up into more than it really is – some say by Lower Providence officials – and has held up the issue of the permit for this section. While LPVRSA intends to file a corrected plan/application, the project can’t move forward until that’s resolved. Lower Providence's Board of Supervisors is doing its best to listen to the affected residents and advocate on their behalf, but at the end of the day there isn't a lot that is ultimately within the BOS' control.

In the meantime, I've learned, and sources have confirmed, that LPVRSA has filed a Right To Know request with Lower Providence for records which would presumably illuminate to what extent, if any, Lower Providence officials have stirred up resistance to undermine the long-established plans at the eleventh hour. Lower Providence Township has filed a reciprocal request for LPVRSA's records seeking documents pertaining to the development and analysis of the options, and how and why the option selected and submitted to DEP for review and approval was determined.

At the July LPVRSA meeting it was revealed that there had been recent, significant vandalism discovered at one of the meter pits located in Collegeville. Due to the nature of the damage and specific equipment required to produce it, it was felt that it was not random or committed by kids, but rather done by 'people who knew what they were doing'. A report was filed with the police and with Dept. of Homeland Security. Hopefully, it is unrelated to this controversy.

Where’s Rep. Mike Vereb when you need him? Now that he’s fresh off his success working out a compromise for Norristown School District and their stadium, perhaps he can work his magic here before it escalates any further. And I'm sure Sen. John Rafferty could be of help as well.  I think both sides have valid points and are willing to listen, and my hope is that they will be able to work together to mitigate the concerns of all parties without escalating it into yet another expensive legal battle. It's a classic case of 'the needs of the few versus the needs of the many". 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Meter is (Still) Running, or How to Lose Open Space Without Really Trying

A few weeks ago, at the June 17 Board of Supervisors' meeting, new Supervisor Colleen Eckman lamented over having to release from agreement to purchase two open space properties the Township was trying to obtain. Part of the problem was that funding promised by the County had not come through, even though we had set aside the matching funds to purchase the parcels. Due to the well-publicized County's budget woes, they were unable to fulfill their part of the funding package and left the Township hanging.

I feel for Ms. Eckman. Unfortunately I believe it will be the first of many times over her term in office that the BOS will have to forego something they would like to do (and/or promised voters they would do) due to lack of available funds.

Earlier this year I mentioned that the BOS coalition led by Rick Brown elected to attempt to intervene in a zoning decision on behalf of a resident, and were rebuffed by the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. Undeterred, they pressed on, continuing to fight their uphill battle with your tax dollars by filing an appeal in the Commonwealth Court.

To date, in the first six months of this year, this little goose chase has cost Lower Providence taxpayers an additional $21,324.13 (and counting) in attorneys’ fees (the BOS and ZHB's solicitors, combined)  frivolously spent in pursuing an effort that is essentially one resident’s personal crusade, and which, if they were to win, would benefit absolutely no one other than legal counsel. At this rate, they are on pace to wind up the year at around a $45,000 spend for just this one case.

When will someone start to connect the dots and see that there is a cost to repaying apparent political favors with taxpayer money, and a cost to creating an inhospitable climate for viable commercial development and projects,  projects that bring tax dollars and jobs? Obviously there must be a balance; one extreme or the other doesn't work. Projects and the money they put into the township's coffers could have gone a long way toward providing us with the balance of the funds to purchase the properties without Montgomery County’s help. To  make good on vague campaign promises of being in favor of open space (aren't we all?), our BOS is going to have to become a lot more resourceful - and realistic - than they have demonstrated thus far and figure out how to accomplish this goal without being largely dependent upon other people's money.

Obviously, $45,000 by itself doesn't buy much, but as with anything else, if you watch the small dollars, the big ones take care of themselves.  At least we get our deposit back.

Now that those open space parcels have been released (although the Township is amending the purchase agreement to give us a right of first refusal should another buyer come along), I wonder who will buy them, and what they will put there. Last year, another prime piece of open space, the Downes farm on Woodland Avenue, became available. When I worked on updating the Open Space Plan in 2005, this property was viewed as a high acquisition priority. We were fortunate in that Pat Mascaro purchased the property and has pledged to preserve it, but we can't hope and pray that a benevolent benefactor comes to the rescue every time open space becomes available.