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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I feel for anyone who feels something is nor fair but is being done to them anyway but at least its just beautiful trees and natural vegatation and not disease ridden sewer going right thru their back yards and taking all their tress. Good luck