Friday, November 23, 2012

The Young And The Restless

Updated 12/7/12 8:04 am

Fox 29 reporter Jeff Cole filed an update segment earlier this evening (here). The Methacton School Board is next scheduled to meet later today, at 7:30 pm.

It's doubtful that even much-revered Methacton Community Theater could conjure up the kind of drama our school district has been generating in recent months and years, but you can bet that anything for which they produce and sell tickets is a work of fiction.

Unfortunately, truth is often stranger than fiction at our local school district, which serves both Lower Providence and Worcester Townships. Between the news in August that a 43 year old teacher (Sean McCullough) has been having an inappropriate relationship with a 17 year old student, to the prom drinking incident a couple years ago, to the controversy over the need for and costs of the turf fields and lights, to the former school board member going after a resident and/or his camera (depending whose version of that incident you believe) in a public meeting, you have to wonder what the next chapter at Methacton will bring.  

By now you've probably seen or heard about the Fox 29 investigative report (here) about controversial Methacton superintendent Timothy Quinn and their allegations that Quinn and a colleague, former English teacher Diane Barrie, have been conducting an extramarital relationship at work, on taxpayer-paid time, using taxpayer-paid equipment (cellphones, computers etc). The story also mentions pervasive rumours I've been hearing ever since Quinn landed here about past similar behavior during his tenure with at least one and potentially two other school districts, information at least one Worcester resident tried to no avail to bring to the school board's attention at the time. More information is available here.

It's unclear exactly how the story came to light. Did one of the betrayed spouses trip over the digital evidence and make sure it found the light of day, hoping for revenge or to gain leverage in an eventual divorce proceeding? (Since the Fox investigation began, I have confirmed that both couples have filed to dissolve their marriage; the Barries filed in late October of this year). Or did a disgruntled school district employee out the couple? The reporter had copies of emails evidencing intimate conversations between the two, and presumably only a small circle of people would have had access to any place those conversations could have been viewed.  Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things, but the source of the emails could put the allegations into perspective and lend to - or detract from - the credibility of the story. 

While cheating on one's spouse in the workplace is hardly a new phenomenon, neither is sending the occasional personal email from a work account, during the work day, and/or on employer-owned piece of equipment. You can discuss amongst yourselves whether or not evidence of an extramarital affair conducted by publicly paid employees on public time, using publicly paid for equipment, is worthy of scorn, especially when you consider that Quinn is alleged to have conducted himself similarly in past positions. I do know it's not behavior that a number of residents want to see from publicly paid employees during the days when their children and grandchildren are entrusted to their care, and it's certainly nothing that's considered setting a good example for our students to emulate in their adult lives. Arguably, those in public positions should conduct themselves according to a higher standard than most.

I do, however, believe there's a bigger issue here, one that Fox 29 reporter Jeff Cole seems to me to miss taking a deeper dive on, and that is, how and why exactly did Mrs. Barrie get the position she now holds?    

Now, I have met Mrs. Barrie. My son had her for English a few years back and she seems to be a nice lady. However, she has had a rapid and recent rise in title and salary.  She went from K-12 Reading/Title I and K-8 English/ILA Coordinator (after working at Arcola for 14 years as a 7th grade English teacher at Arcola) to being appointed to Acting Coordinator of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment on June 21, 2011 when the school board approved a change of status for her; the promotion was to be effective almost six months later, on December 12, 2011. With the promotion to acting coordinator, she was given an additional stipend of $2,500.

In April of this year, the school board approved a change of status from Acting Coordinator of Curriculum and Instruction to Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, the position she now holds. This promotion was effective June 18, 2012 and carries a salary of $103,500.  

My understanding is that Mrs. Barrie's promotion was intended to be a replacement of sorts for the retirement of assistant superintendent Jane Martin, who retired effective February 17, 2012 (her retirement was accepted at the May 24, 2011 school board meeting).

In this and her 'acting' position, she reports directly to Quinn...and therein lies the rub (no pun intended). Did she receive her promotion because of her apparent personal relationship with Quinn? Were other candidates discriminated against because they did not enjoy a similar relationship? Could this revelation impact the disposition and potential damages paid out in other pending cases against the school district? Methacton has at least one current lawsuit against them alleging discrimination (Lena Sampson v. Methacton School District, filed in July 2011); Ms. Sampson is a former acting principal at Arcola who alleges discrimination and harrassment by Quinn due to a disability (more here); there have been others.

I don't know if Methacton has a policy against their (single) employees dating each other, but in the nonpublic employee world, dating your boss or subordinates is pretty much universally prohibited, if for no other reason than it tends to give rise to sexual harrassment claims. If it's not prohibited outright, it's generally not considered a smart career move for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is what happens when you break up, although a surprising number of people meet their spouses in the workplace. For employees who are married to other people, well, I should think all of this would go without saying.

In the course of my political activities, I hear lots of complaints about Methacton School District in general and Quinn himself has not escaped criticism; I am aware that he's generally not well liked, and sources tell me there are even school board members that are not fond of him or stunts he's pulled recently.

A recent example given was that Quinn decided to appear before Lower Providence's Zoning Hearing Board alone, without counsel and apparently without authorization of the school board, back in June of this year, in case # Z12-02,  to seek variances for a 9' 9"x6' digital sign at Arcola, something that is not advisable given the hurdles one has to overcome to get a variance or other considerations approved and which are best navigated by an attorney. The ZHB denied the superintendent's request, and in September 2012 Quinn, allegedly without school board authorization, had school district counsel file an appeal against the Township in the Court of Common Pleas (docket #2012-24145, filed September 7, 2012). A search of school board minutes didn't turn up anything authorizing counsel to commence any court actions in this matter.

In addition to his apparent pursuit of 'afternoon delight', Quinn has evidently forgotten that he works at the pleasure of the school board, who work at the pleasure of the voters who elected them, and all are ultimately answerable to those voters. Quinn has no business playing footsie on the clock or going rogue on legal matters and should be held accountable, not given pay raises and contract extensions.

Yet inexplicably, in 2010 the school board not only opened up the superintendent's three-year employment contract a year early and handed him a raise, but they also gave him another 2% raise in July of this year. He currently earns approximately $175,000 a year plus benefits and bonus; Ms. Barrie, as I mentioned above, earns $103,500 plus benefits. Not that Mrs. Barrie's behavior is excusable, but she is the subordinate employee here.  

Am I the only one who recalls the fateful and tragic personal relationship in the 1979-1980 timeframe at Upper Merion High School involving principal Jay Smith and teachers William Bradfield and Susan Reinert? Reinert wound up dead, her children have never been found, and Smith and Bradfield did time in the slammer. Books were written and movies were made about the case. If ever there was a textbook cautionary tale against love and romance in an educational institution, that was it.

The next time Methacton wants to hit you up for more tax dollars, think about what these people earn and what they're doing all day, and also consider how much it costs every time the school district incurs legal fees to defend itself when scandals arise (two, count 'em TWO special counsel law firms were hired by Methacton in November to handle whatever legal issues arise from 'affair gate'). My understanding is that normally, the superintendent would investigate the claims and special counsel would represent the school district. In this instance, since the superintendent himself is the subject of the controversy, a second firm must be retained to do the investigation piece. Information from the Methacton School Board's official press release on the matter appears here. 

Are Methacton taxpayers getting their money's worth? It seems to me that the student dress code is the last thing the school board should be concerned with at the moment. 

Start showing up at school board meetings, communicating with your school board, and tell them you prefer drama and scandals be left to thespians, not school administrators and employees who apparently are "acting" the role of professionals instead of taking their responsibilties seriously.   


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Something Stinks

Every great story has two critical elements:  the hero and the villain.  Our culture has become such that figuring out whom to root for in our modern tales barely requires breaking a sweat:  you always root for the underdog over the privileged elite, the poor over the rich, the nerd over the jock, and always, ALWAYS the environment over the developer.  In the story where the environment is in jeopardy, you always root for the environment.

Except when the environment isn’t really in jeopardy.  And the ones who are championing it may have motives that are more self-serving than altruistic.  When the Perkiomen Creek is the point of contention, environmentalism can be a convenient cover for NIMBYs and political gamesmanship.

 The story of the Lower Perkiomen Middle Interceptor may be such a story.  Up until recently, you’ve heard one side; the easy side: The side of the tireless champions of the environment fighting the nefarious forces of development, the romantic tale of the little guy standing fearlessly in front of the bulldozer.  A story where the heroes and villains are so obvious couldn’t possibly have another side, could it?

 Well, maybe.  Most of the articles published in local papers or online to date appear to have taken some individuals’ assertions at face value without researching them; I’ve found numerous documents that contradict those assertions. I leave it to you to decide whether there are good guys and bad guys in this story, or just differences of opinion and conflicting interests.

The middle portion of the sewer interceptor is part of a larger regional sewer upgrade project planned ten years ago by the Lower Perkiomen Valley Regional Sewer Authority (LPVRSA) (which I’ve written about previously, here).  The plans are slowly moving forward, but not without all the attendant mess and drama that comes with removing a stubborn blockage from a sewage pipe.

After the PA DEP approved the location of the middle interceptor on the LP side of the creek in 2004, the design plans were begun, although the Executive Summary of the original Act 537 plan* approved in February 2004 contained language indicating that the interceptor paralleling was to occur in “previously disturbed areas” – something that is not physically possible for any of the interceptor sections. The map included as part of the Act 537 plan showed a bold blue line indicating that the interceptor could be on either side of the creek. 

The issue has been heating up (backing up?) over the summer, with LP on the offensive in the press. You may have seen many of the articles and posts on Patch and in the Times Herald giving their perspective. As always, however, there are two sides to every story, and recently, LPVRSA (see their Fact sheet, here) and the other five individual member municipalities began to fight back to address the lopsided story being told by Lower Providence.  Two of the six member municipalities recently sent letters to their rate payers blaming Lower Providence for a rise in rates.

My interest in the subject at this time is driven by one thing: why hasn’t the press gone looking for other sides of the story? If I had questions that were going unasked and unanswered, surely others must be, too.  It’s a long story, with a lot of moving parts, but your public dollars are being spent and rates are going up accordingly. 

You decide if that expenditure is worth it or an exercise in vanity.

History of LPVRSA

LP has a contentious history as a member of LPVRSA. The regional authority as we know it today was created in 1986 as a replacement for the municipalities’ collaboration with the Montgomery County Sewer Authority. When LPVRSA was formed, Montgomery County was to stay involved until 2006, then exit and hand over control of the sewer system to LPVRSA. The system was already in a state of disrepair back then and in dire need of additional capacity. In order to get EDUs needed to expand the plant to serve the growing member communities, Upper Providence took the lead in getting the other members to cooperate in an effort to get the County to exit sooner – and the County wanted out as well.  Montgomery County turned the system over to LPVRSA completely in 2002.

To boil a very complex issue down to its simplest elements (the details of that conflict would require an entirely separate post), a conflict arose over allocation of EDUs between each member community and the valuation of each. At the very last meeting, where the signing to transfer power from the County to LPVRSA was to take place, Upper Providence and Lower Providence were the last two member communities to sign, and as it turned out, neither wanted to sign due to the EDU dispute. While a solution was negotiated at the time that got the two to sign, it is still a sore point with LP that carries over into the present time and is why, along with a dispute over how the Sewer Services Agreement is interpreted, LP has escrowed a portion of their payments for sewer treatment charges invoiced by LPVRSA since 2004 – representing the difference between what LP and LPVRSA believe they owe -- to the tune of approximately $300,000 a year, or $3 million to date, instead of paying that to LPVRSA.

In addition, more recently LP has locked horns with LPVRSA with struggles over Right To Know requests – in 2010 LP was sued by LPVRSA over their refusal to turn over relevant documents, and lost in court in a 2011 decision – and placement of the middle interceptor on the Lower Providence side along the creek.

Lower Providence Board of Supervisors joins forces with the Special Interests

LP’s Board of Supervisors intervened in the current middle interceptor dispute a couple of years ago, in April 2010, at the behest of a special interest group populated by some members of the Indianhead Watershed Association who live on the LP side of the creek. Arcola Road resident Cathy Beyer has been their unofficial spokesperson (the Association itself has taken a neutral stance since it has members on both sides of the creek) for several years in front of our BOS and in January 2012 was appointed to LP’s Sewer Authority.  
Ironically a few years back (2007-2008), Mrs. Beyer made a pitch to LP’s Parks & Recreation Board, asking for permission to operate a commercial business at the nearby bucolic creekside setting of Hoy Park. LP shot down her request because she didn’t want to assume setup costs nor pay LP Township anything. She apparently wasn’t averse to making money off a public property by bringing tourists and the noise and trash they bring with them to the same peaceful, beautiful environment whose disruption she is now so loudly protesting.

LP Township is advocating against the interceptor's placement on the LP side of the creek, which LPVRSA documents indicate is arguably the least expensive and disruptive option, in favor of placing it on the Upper Providence side.  Anything other than the first option below, using gravity, will require at least one pumping station. The most recent options and alternatives are listed below; LPVRSA is now soliciting updated construction cost estimates for each from two contractors for each option, several of which are newer ones:

  • Arcola 1 (East) -  The current gravity design which is routed through Lower Providence residents’ backyards for this section. This alternative involves 3,200 feet of 54” of sewer and 600 feet of inverted siphon stream crossings. This option is the least expensive.
  • Arcola 2 (West) – 3,600 feet of 54” gravity sewer on the Upper Providence side of the Perkiomen Creek, offset 30 feet from existing 42” interceptor.  This option costs considerably more because the 30’ offset requires cutting into the steep slope immediately next to the existing interceptor.
For both Arcola 1 and 2, LPVRSA will also examine the potential of using smaller pipes through simultaneous use of the existing 42” interceptor (slip-lined), moving the connection location of the Doe Run interceptor, or a combination of both (a 7th option). 

·         Arcola 3 (West) - 3,550 feet of gravity sewer installed in the same trench as the existing 42” sewer.

·         Arcola 4 (West) – Using the existing interceptor (slip-lined), and building a pump station located on the Upper Providence side of the Perkiomen, immediately downstream of the Arcola Road bridge.

·         Arcola 4e (East) – Using the existing interceptor (slip-lined), and building a 16 mgd pump station located on the Lower Providence side of the Perkiomen, immediately downstream of the Arcola Road bridge.

·         Arcola 5 (East) – Installing approximately 5,400 feet of 18” sewer in order to change the location where Upper Providence’s Doe Run Interceptor connects to the Perkiomen Creek Interceptor between manholes P52 and PN38. This alternative does not provide a complete solution for the provision of sewage conveyance but may serve to reduce the flows within the Perkiomen Creek Interceptor and allow use of smaller pipe sizes for the other alternatives.

They expect to issue a report in mid-November indicating the costs for each. Some will be more expensive due to anticipated construction difficulties such as placing new pipe in steep slope areas, and some will be less; slip-lining options don’t allow for additional needed capacity and are at best short-term solutions.

LPVRSA was going to use an independent engineer (rather than its own engineer) to analyze options and to solicit bid proposals, something DEP suggested, and LP supported, until LP Chairman Rick Brown flatly rejected all options which would involve anything going on the LP side of the creek, so it would be a waste of money for an independent engineer to study a set of alternatives that did not include LP options.

LP has been waging war in the press for months, throwing anything and everything possible at the issue in attempts to block or delay the construction, including:

·         Alleging that the wording in the original Act 537 plan means that the interceptor must be placed on the Upper Providence side of the river, when in actuality the wording is vague enough to be construed either way. An accompanying map shows a broad blue line traversing both sides of the creek, and plans agreed upon by all member communities as early as November 2004 have shown LP as the proposed location;

·         Threatening to sue LPVRSA for a declaratory judgment (which, although the Times Herald  has reported it has already been filed, it still has not been initiated by LP)

·         claiming an allegedly significant archeological find on the proposed site, which supposedly triggers a detailed study and excavation of the site, and signaled intent to petition to have the location added to the National Register of Historic Places; LP also claims that they would not have granted easements for the project had they known about the archeological finds sooner, but LPVRSA records indicate that LP was regularly updated on such developments between 2005 and 2009; the easements were granted in 2009.

·         threatening to try to have the easements granted to date vacated on the grounds that LP allegedly wasn’t informed about said archeological artifacts; and

·         dragging their feet on documentation required by state and federal officials. 

LPVRSA’s position
Robert Feio, LPVRSA chairman and former supervisor in Upper Providence Township, says that they are “a cooperative, working board. We implement requirements we are told to implement. We are responsible for supporting economic development of the region and environmental protection of the region.”  He estimated that approximately 35% of the 65,000 rate paying customers across the 6 member municipalities are from LP.

LPVRSA takes issue with LP’s proclivity to ‘sue first and ask questions later’ and for having an ‘our way or the highway’ attitude toward the other members. Given the various ways LP has tried to derail the project, that attitude apparently also includes a ‘pay for the interceptor the way we want it done, or pay dearly in legal fees” mentality.

Earlier this year, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) indicated that it wants all of the member townships of LPVRSA – Lower Providence, Upper Providence, Skippack, Trappe, Collegeville and Perkiomenville -- to update their 537* plans, in part to clear up any confusion as to the placement of the middle interceptor. My understanding of the update process is that it also includes each municipality’s engineer collecting the flow numbers based on current zoning and submits them to LPVRSA, who gathers the data from the member municipalities and analyzes it for inclusion in the overall plan.

While LP continues to request that LPVRSA explore other options, LPVRSA says that they have, not once, but twice (the second review at a cost of over $6,500 to LPVRSA) and have arrived at a consensus with the other five members as to which alternative is least costly and ensures the safe operation and stability of the system well into the future.

LPVRSA’s analysis makes it clear that what they call the "gravity option" (ie placement of the interceptor on the LP side of the river without a pump station) is cheaper than the plan LP originally preferred, the "LP Arcola Road alternative" and it includes $100,000 earmarked for a site archeological excavation which, by the way, would proceed at the same time as the middle interceptor project. They can go around the existing wall on the site (or under it). The pump station is noisy, disruptive and more expensive to build and operate. LPVRSA estimates the cost of the LP-preferred option would cost an additional $7.5 million in construction costs and approximately $150,000 more in annual operating costs. Without giving a specific percentage, it expected ratepayer bills to “significantly increase” as a result of the additional costs if that option were to move forward.

Among the alternatives looked at in the second review of options were the placement of four pump station options, and two additional gravity options on the UP side of the creek. The study concluded that pump station options would add anywhere from $8M to $33M to construction costs (to be passed on to ratepayers via their monthly bills)  and gravity options would add between $3M to $4M to the middle interceptor project costs, which is why they selected the gravity option on the LP side.  The placement of any pump station would be on the Upper Providence side of the creek and impact at least one resident directly. That resident, Frank and Patricia Stiefel, already have pipeline on their property and the addition of a pump station and main may require the condemnation of this resident’s home, built in 1930 and handed down through family. Officials in Upper Providence are aware that the Stiefels are vehemently opposed to this option; calls to their residence to speak to them were unreturned.

LPVRSA maintains that it actually makes more environmental and archeological sense to go with the gravity option, too, as the impact along the creek is less than with the other options. They indicated that they would time construction so as not to interfere with prime recreational periods when the waterway is in use.  

I'm told the “LP Arcola Road alternative” option was the previous option of choice for LP, which involved TWO creek crossings and a pump station on the LP side of the creek.

LP claims DEP has recommended this option, whereas LPVRSA stated in its “FAQs on the Perkiomen Interceptor” that DEP walked the site and approved the location of the middle interceptor as it was designed by LPVRSA’s engineer back in 2004 but has not endorsed any particular option. LP is hanging its hat on the original plan (with the vague language and broad blue line on the map)  which DEP was asked to approve  before LPVRSA spent considerable money to design it. 

LPVRSA feels that if they’re going to do a pump station (something no engineer so far has come out in support of), it may as well go on the UP side and run it next to the County bike trail, which would be less expensive and less environmentally invasive than the Arcola Road option. I believe that LP knows this, of course, which is why offering the Arcola Road alternative as an option is disingenuous, at best. 

Earlier this year, Upper Providence proposed coming down their side of the creek an extra 200 feet to avoid an alleged sacred Indian artifacts site, but LP’s response was that the Army Corp of Engineers wouldn’t go for it because of the steep slope. UP’s response was ‘let’s find out’. If the Indian site can be bypassed, there should be no objection, right? Suddenly tactics were switched again and LP comes up with a ‘bog turtle defense’.   

Incidently, the same tactic – an alleged bog turtle sighting - was attempted by opponents of the construction of the pharmaceutical plants in Upper Providence a few years back. They were proven false as the habitat was not one required by that species. My understanding is that this is commonly attempted as turtles are easy to catch and don’t go far once relocated. I’m not saying Ms. Beyer would do that – at least, I hope not – but on this issue, in that area, we’ve more or less ‘been there, done that’. 

In July Skippack proposed that LPVRSA provide $1 million in funds to mitigate the land disturbance in LP caused by the installation of the interceptor across the back yards of the 15 LP residents who’d be affected. So far, LP has not indicated if they are receptive to that offer.

Unable to sustain support for a pump station, the Arcola Road pump station option seems to have fallen out of the favor of LP.  They now favor a “gravity option” called the “Doe Run” option which LPVRSA insists would not only still require a pump station but would not provide the necessary increase in capacity, thereby kicking the can down the road for about 5 years.   

Where are we now? The Three-pronged Assault

The Legal Assault 

A big part of the current impasse appears to be the wording of the original Act 537 plan which has been interpreted by five of the six member municipalities to mean the interceptor will go on the Lower Providence side of the Perkiomen Creek, but which LP has interpreted to mean it will run alongside the existing interceptor, on the Upper Providence side. However, that option is physically impossible due to the steep slopes on the Upper Providence side – LPVRSA insists there is literally no room to place another pipe there alongside the existing one.

The DEP, rumored to be under pressure from Senator John Rafferty (in turn under pressure from his neighbors in the Cathy Beyer contingent), recognized a loophole that calls for adequate time for public comment on any 537 planning.  Given the dispute on placement of the middle interceptor and given that LP planned on exploiting the public comment provision to block construction of the interceptor, the DEP recommended that 537 planning be updated, thereby allowing for adequate time for public comment.  

For the sake of efficiency of time and expense, LPVRSA volunteered to take the lead in updating the 537; if each agreed, the supervisors or council of each member municipality had to vote to permit that via resolution. To date, each of the members has – except Lower Providence.  

Lower Providence did not want the municipalities to authorize LPVRSA to do this; they wanted each of the 6 member townships to plan on their own. While this arguably makes no economic or logistical sense, for Lower Providence, it would appear to really be about trying to retain some control over the process, because they are at odds with the rest of the members over where the interceptor should go.  

I'm guessing that for LP, the motive for slowing down the 537 plan update and opposing LPVRSA-led planning it that is removes one avenue for potential lawsuit – a lawsuit which they’ve already threatened—which lies in the allegedly "unclear" verbiage in the existing plan about the interceptor running "parallel" to an existing line---they know that LPVRSA will update the plan to make this verbiage as specific as it needs to be.

The Emotional Assault

Enter Cathy Beyer. In May this year, she and several of her family members attended a Board of Supervisors meeting in Upper Providence; on the UP agenda was the vote to authorize the LPVRSA to take the lead in coordinating  the aforementioned DEP recommended 537 planning.  Desperate to delay by any means necessary, Beyer resorted to tears, hinting conspiracy by telling the UP Board that there were alternatives to LPVRSA’s recommended interceptor that they had not been made aware of and would they please delay the vote until they attended a special meeting about the interceptor hosted by Lower Providence?  The Upper Providence board agreed to put off the vote, but only until their next meeting two weeks later. 

At that meeting, I’m told that Lower Providence Board of Supervisors' chairman, Rick Brown, trotted out standard strong-arm tactics - the 'iron fist in velvet gloves' approach - to try to force a favorable decision for LP. While I can respect them trying to get their own way, his tactics left something to be desired; Brown apparently thought the other members were all so ignorant of the process and the issues that LP could just BS their way through it. Needless to say, this attitude and tactics were ineffective at best and went over like a lead balloon. 

At a July DEP meeting, LP tried to get State Rep. Mike Vereb and State Senator John Rafferty involved to help move the stalemate toward resolution, but in early August, LPVRSA asked them to ‘butt out’.  
The Historical Assault

Seeing the handwriting on the wall and preemptively looking for another roadblock, Brown, a mere two days after Beyer's sobfest in Upper Providence, signaled intent to put Operation Priceless Indian Artifacts into action by proposing that the area where allegedly (and, conveniently) some arrowheads were found along LP's side of the riverbed be submitted for consideration to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.

If there isn't such a thing as "historical terrorism', perhaps there should be. People have been turning up Indian arrowheads for years on both sides of the Perkiomen Creek; I'm told they were found when the original interceptor was installed.  The Phase II archeological study/Phase II work plan for the site recommended recovery of the artifacts for ultimate public display, NOT to preserve the site on which they were found.  My understanding from the study recommendations is that there is no value in preserving the artifacts intact where they are.  

LP claims that they would never have granted the easements they did for this project had they known that artifacts had been discovered, yet LPVRSA claims that LP’s representative on LPVRSA was aware of  the Archaeological Survey Reports dated June 23, 2005, February 2009 and July 2009 and presumably their contents. LP granted the easements on August 24, 2009. Current LP Board chair Rick Brown made the motion to authorize signing the easements over.  
Where do we go from here?

At this juncture, LP holds almost all the cards and there is no incentive for them to play nicely. There is no deadline to complete the 537, and if LP doesn’t update theirs on their own or allow LPVRSA to do it for them, all that will happen is that DEP will cap new hookups to the sewer system below a certain point – a point that will affect all LPVRSA members except for LP (because 80% of the flow enters below the point where LP hooks into the system) and stop all future development in those communities.

LP could elect to exit LPVRSA and just be a paying customer, but that would make no sense, because then they’d have no voice on a board that can have an impact on their community.  

Selecting one of the more costly options, and/or stopping the addition of new residents and businesses to the system by the other 5 member communities, will certainly result in increased rates for all 65,000 ratepayers.  

Of course, not acting is an option too, but not without consequence. If nothing is done and the hydraulics go beyond capacity and overload (there are already problems with infiltration due to the age of the system), DEP will issue a “Corrective Action Plan” (CAP) and a “Corrective Management Plan” (CMP) whereby LPVRSA would have to enter into a consent agreement with DEP and they then take responsibility for selecting and driving a solution…and that may be one that LP likes even less. 
While the LP Board of Supervisors has waged their battle against the middle interceptor within the confines of their political power in both the courtroom and the media, Cathy Beyer has led an all-out assault on the integrity of LPVRSA and the character of the LPVRSA Board members in traditional and social media.  Using blatant emotional appeals, heavy-handed syrupy online slide shows and shameless character smears, Cathy Beyer implies that construction of the middle interceptor is motivated by the evil intentions of the LPVRSA board who would love nothing more than to assault the environment for their own personal pleasure.

Is it possible that Lower Providence Township and Cathy Beyer, et al just care about the environment so much that they will resort to anything to win?  Is it possible that LPVRSA and those that work for it are as evil as they have been portrayed? 

Or is it more possible that the LP Board found a relatively easy issue to champion as “defender of the environment”, via a resident willing to play useful pawn, that would earn them the undying love and political support from a certain constituency even beyond those that live on the creek while providing them a nice opaque cover for gaining political payback against enemies of the past?  

Is it possible that the emotional histrionics on display are motivated more by a “not in my backyard” mentality of someone who once wanted to capitalize on that bucolic asset for her own personal monetary gain?   

Is it possible that these people may be motivated by something other than a pure love of the environment or a reverence for history? 

Is it possible that the men and women of the LPVRSA are not evil mustachioed enviro-pirates, but ordinary people looking for the best solutions to a thorny problem?  
Is it possible that the only winners in this battle have been the lawyers for both sides, whose legal fees SO FAR have been placed somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars?

I leave it to you to decide whether we live in a storyland---or the real world. 


The emotional assault continued this past Thursday evening, Oct. 18, in yet another pitch which appeared to be staged and facilitated by LP for the cameras taping the meeting for broadcast to LP residents in LP’s and/or Beyer’s continuing apparent quest to win in the court of public opinion. Ms. Beyer and her sister, Mary Kaczor, again appeared before our Board of Supervisors to give their propaganda version of the timeline and history of events in this matter as depicted on a PowerPoint presentation replete with harp music playing in the background. 

Also in attendance at the meeting were two of Upper Providence Township’s three supervisors, and their engineer, as well as a handful of residents from Upper Providence.  

While an online article by the LP Patch about this meeting appeared to ‘walk back’ the severity of some of these comments, the fact is that many bold accusations were made and character assassinations tossed around, some of which may be actionable by those individuals Ms. Beyer and her sister, Mary Kaczor, negatively spoke about.  

Among the assertions were that the Attorney General should investigate LPVRSA; however, LP Township minutes of July 1, 2010 contain a statement by Ms. Beyer that “The residents in opposition have contacted the Attorney General’s Office, who is investigating this matter”. Since nothing has ever come to light about such an investigation, I can only conclude without  looking into it further that either nothing of note was found, or the AG’s office declined to investigate.

Also asserted at the Oct. 18 presentation were that Beyer and Kaczor lost their legal fight against the condemnation of their property due to a technicality instead of the merits of the case.   Ms. Beyer stated her belief in a possible conspiracy between her attorney, whom she maintains is a former associate of LPVRSA’s counsel, and LPVRSA. However a review of the docket in those cases revealed that they were not ruled in their favor in two separate 2010 decisions (merged for appellate review) because, “…in light of Condemnees’ failure to provide the trial court with any legal authority to support their apparent contention that the Declarations [of condemnation] must comport with either a current or proposed Act 537 Plan, the undersigned is not persuaded of any adverse impact which such a Plan might have upon the validity of the Condemnor’s Declarations” and “As demonstrated, the Authority [LPVRSA] fulfilled its statutory obligations and any contention by the Condemnees that the Declarations do not comport with current Act 537 Plan is insufficient to negate the legality of those Declarations.” The decision and order of the trial court was affirmed on appeal in 2011.  In other words, she lost on the merits. If she should have plead anything else in her filings, she did not despite ample opportunity to amend her pleadings.

Ms. Beyer also made note of the fact that she’d received her condemnation notice two days before Christmas, 2009, which is true. LPVRSA admits on reflection that the timing of the notices was not ideal, but Ms. Beyer had been contacted several times prior to the condemnation notice, and plans for the middle interceptor were public knowledge to the residents since approximately June 2005 when a letter was sent to affected residents on Arcola Road, including Beyer, indicating that the proposed interceptor was being planned and that it “may not be on the same side of the creek as the existing interceptor.” 

One prior notice, a Notice of Intent to Enter Property (for surveying and studies to be conducted), was sent by LPVRSA on December 2, 2008 via certified mail and signed for by Ms. Beyer on 12/3/08. She did not respond.

A second notice requesting easements for the middle interceptor and offering a fixed amount of compensation for the easement was mailed to Ms. Beyer (and other affected residents) in July  2009. The letter indicated if the resident had questions, to please call, and I’m told Ms. Beyer did. At her request a meeting was set up and LPVRSA representatives met with her on August 29, 2009. They walked the property, and Ms. Beyer indicated her concern about a possibly historically significant wall and LPVRSA maintains they told her they could avoid it by going around it; however that would require an additional easement. According to LPVRSA, Ms. Beyer then indicated she would want additional compensation, so LPVRSA told her to get an appraisal for the additional easement so they could determine a fair amount. LPVRSA never heard from her after that, so the December “Christmas condemnation letter” followed.  

Additionally, a letter to the editor of the Times Herald appeared last week from Ms. Beyer about this issue. She signed it as though she were representing the Perkiomen Watershed Conservancy; however, someone affiliated with that group who wanted to remain anonymous told me that they were “not happy about the letter, and steps will be taken to assure that it is clear that she does not represent them” and this individual also presumed that she would be hearing from their attorney. Soon afterward a disclaimer from them appeared under the online version of the letter.  I’m not authorized to speak for them either, but my impression is that the Conservancy would not take a position opposing the sewer line because in the larger picture it will improve water quality by eliminating sources of untreated sewage entering the watershed. 

In summary, it would appear that Beyer and LP are engaging in a “kitchen sink offense” … throwing anything and everything at the issue to create confusion, sympathy, anger, etc, and I personally believe most of it is pure BS on the part of yet another NIMBY faction whose legal concerns LP is only too happy to take up. Remember that when tough budget cuts are being made and/or your taxes are increased in a few weeks when LP's 2013 budget is finalized.
In Ms. Beyer’s own words, words with which I couldn’t agree more: something stinks, and it’s not necessarily sewage.



*The Act 537 Program
On January 24, 1966, the Pennsylvania Sewage Facilities Act (Act 537, as amended) was enacted to correct existing sewage disposal problems and prevent future problems. To meet this objective, the Act requires proper planning in all types of sewage disposal situations. Local municipalities are largely responsible for administering the Act 537 sewage facilities program. To assist local municipalities in fulfilling this responsibility, the DEP provides technical assistance, financial assistance, and oversight.

The Planning Process Municipalities are required to develop and implement comprehensive official plans that provide for the resolution of existing sewage disposal problems, provide for the future sewage disposal needs of new land development; and provide for future sewage disposal needs of the municipality. This official plan is sometimes called the "base" plan or the "Act 537 plan." When a new land development project is proposed, municipalities are required to revise their official plan (unless the project is exempt from planning).

Friday, September 28, 2012

Planning On The Y

Looking to get a feel for what Lower Providence Township officials might be thinking, Freedom Valley YMCA officials got a real workout when they presented optional sketch plans to LP’s Planning Commission, an advisory board to the Board of Supervisors, at an informal meeting September 26. At issue: does the Planning Commission think this project is a good use of the land at this location?

Sketch plan review is an optional step for applicants and is not subject to an approval process at this juncture.

In addition to the Planning Commission (PC) members, Lower Providence Supervisors Colleen Eckman and Jill Zimmerman were in attendance, as was Supervisors’ liaison to the Planning Commission, Jason Sorgini. Architect George Marks from Kramer Marks and engineer Tim Woodrow of Woodrow & Associates presented on behalf of the YMCA.
I've written about this subject before; the link is here.
Before anything can move forward in Lower Providence, the YMCA is concurrently trying to get a determination from the Montgomery County Commissioners as to whether they will lift a deed restriction on the property stemming from money provided to the Township for the initial purchase of the land in 1994, and what they will accept in exchange in order to be made whole for the funds they provided. They may want other open space in lieu of that which would be built on at the Club at Shannondell location, a full or partial cash repayment, or a combination. If they want alternate open space, Lower Providence needs to determine what and where those potential properties are. No meeting with County officials has yet been scheduled.

The YMCA indicated that they believe the County is taking the request seriously, but if the County isn’t interested in lifting the deed restriction, or suitable compensation cannot be worked out, the YMCA cannot move forward at this location.

As the applicant explained the project, they again noted that the initial phase calls for an 85,000 square foot building, with a 6,000 to 7,000 square foot lobby, and a large gym. In a Phase II, the total square footage could go up to 120,000, and include the addition of 3 indoor pools and slide, program space, indoor track of 1/10 or 1/12 mile, 3 outdoor pools, and a 12,000 to 14,000 square foot wellness center. If the County, Township and PennDOT approvals go as hoped, which would take about six months, the facility could potentially open sometime in mid-2014.

The pool currently on the property next to Chadwick’s restaurant would remain as they serve different customers than those served by the YMCA.

The operating agreement for the current Club at Shannondell facility would need to be modified to reflect the changes should the plan obtain all approvals.  While the YMCA would operate their facility under one operating agreement, Audubon Land Development (ALD) would continue to manage the Club at Shannondell’s remaining 9 holes of golf, the Chadwick’s restaurant, and swimming pool under a second operating agreement. Undetermined at this time is which entity (ALD, the YMCA, or a third party) would manage the operation of the driving range, miniature golf course and batting cages proposed for a third, separate operating lease.

PC Member Kristina O’Donnell asked what benefit there is to ALD to allow the change to their operating lease. The YMCA responded that you would have to ask them, but that the YMCA would not be presenting to the Township without their cooperation. ALD representatives were not present at this meeting, but the YMCA indicated that ALD was taking a back seat in this matter as the YMCA had come to them with the project and the idea of modifying the lease, so ALD, understanding that they have to go through a process to modify the lease if the project meets with Township approval, was letting YMCA officials take the lead for now.They are letting the YMCA drive the process until such point as a clear picture on the project’s viability and the Township’s position can be ascertained.

The revised plan now shows access to the property via an extended Crawford Road which will cut through the property and provide public access between Rittenhouse Road and Egypt Road, a solution which is expected to alleviate current cut-through traffic on Thrush and Lantern Lanes. ALD is doing a comprehensive traffic study which will encompass Crawford & Rittenhouse Roads, Rittenhouse & Egypt, Shannondell Drive to Park & Egypt, and Trooper Road to Park Avenue. YMCA engineer Tim Woodrow indicated during PC questioning whether the road would be public or private that the YMCA’s initial thought is to make it a public street, but if the Township thinks otherwise they are open to keeping it private.

Many of the Planning Commission members’ comments and questions, as well as those of residents, were reported in other publications (see links below), so I’m not going to repeat them all here. 

When asked what operating hours were envisioned for the driving range, mini golf and batting cages, YMCA responded that their primary hours when they are most in demand are in the evening, so they’d need to be lit, but the plans show these amenities located in the middle of the site so there is minimal impact on residents. Any lighting must comply with Township lighting standards. The busiest hours for the YMCA facility would be from 5-9 am and 5-9 am.
There was some discussion around parking. The current parking count of 674 spaces anticipates a total buildout of 120,000 square which is consistent with what other Y's in the region's needs have been. It’s approximately.400 or 500 feet from Egypt Road to where the parking area begins.

Sean Metrick, Montgmery County Planning Commission’s representative to LP was present and went over their review letter on the project. Mr. Metrick reiterated that in 1994 county helped LP buy the land to preserve as open space and the need to have the deed restriction released. The site has been used for active recreation since 1965. Now it's 'commercial' recreation. LP needs to decide if the added intensity is appropriate for the site.

Casey Moore of Traffic Planning & Design (TP&D) the Township’s traffic engineers, noted he's also a Township resident besides being the Township traffic consultant and is sensitive to the need to make all roads safe for residents. He will have TP&D’s letter with recommendations regarding the sketch plan to the Supervisors by next week.

 Public Comment

From the perspective of the approximately 30 residents in attendance, the comments and questions directed to the applicant and the Planning Commission reflected the same themes as those that arose at the initial July presentation: traffic, road improvements, intensity of use, stormwater runoff, and other aspects of the project that would be addressed later if the project makes it to the point of submitting formal plans for land development review.

About a dozen or so residents got up to speak about the project. Most loved the idea, but not in that location.  One, Kathie Eskie of Trooper, a current alternate member of LP’s Zoning Hearing Board (the second ZHB member to comment on the proposal thus far) and whose daughter Kristina O’Donnell fired many of the evening’s sharpest questions from the Planning Commission to the applicant, said that ‘It’s a wonderful project, but it’s in the wrong place…you lose the only big piece of property available to all residents…it’s not good financially, other small parcels that may be swapped will cost us to maintain and retrofit. Are there even any such parcels left?"

She added “We’re giving it to a commercial venture. The YMCA is a nonprofit but still a 'business". We were told the Township would get revenue of $40,000 and maybe more, but we'd use that up for services to support the facility and in upgrading the other sites. '

Ms. Eskie is close friends with supervisors Rick Brown and Don Thomas, who were not in attendance at this meeting.

Resident Joanna Nutley asked the applicant if there is a playground planned or racquetball. The YMCA responded that a playground is very likely, and would most likely be in the babysitting area; racquetball courts are not planned for this site. She also wanted to know if the formal designs would incorporate the Township’s new solar ordinance and the YMCA indicated that they will have to, but that they are not yet at that step. .

 Joe Niccolo of Crawford Road stated that he was the owner of one of two open space parcels that were scheduled to be purchased by LP last year with county matching funds, which the County withdrew for budget and political reasons. His parcel is located off of Crawford Road near the proposed YMCA facility. The deal never went through, so Mr. Nicolo mentioned that if LP ‘still needs to find some open space to trade, to consider his, as “it’s a good piece of property -  if there has to be a swap, it’s still available”. He said that he ‘felt disenfranchised’  when he and the Township had gone to the trouble of trying to have his 9 acre parcel left open and preserved as open space only to have it go nowhere.

Resident Steve Smeyne complained that ALD had “promised to extend Shannondell Boulevard to Park Avenue but that it never came to pass." While this is part of the overall plan for the retirement facility, a trigger to mandate the completion of the road involving a milestone number of units sold has not yet been reached. In the past, representatives of ALD have told me directly that while their intention is to honor the commitment if and when the milestone is reached, they remain flexible and open to other alternatives if they make more sense to the overall evolving Audubon area

Smeyne also said that the 9 holes to remain ‘will fail’ as they are a swamp when it rains. Residents Patrick Duffy and John Shumaker also gave this did resident Mark Million of Audubon. He said that his corporate golf league plays at Shannondell, as do other corporate leagues, and that the Club at Shannondell will lose that business if the current facility loses 9 holes. He noted they'd probably also lose other business such as the Methacton Post Prom fundraiser golf outing and possibly weekend golfers who don't want to keep playing the same 9 holes over and over. Million also noted that he felt that the 9 holes remaining would probably have to be redesigned or realigned. I would think that when the project undergoes stormwater review, the problem of 'wet' holes would likely be addressed then.
Other residents’ comments have been captured elsewhere, here (Patch) and  here  (Times Herald).
In a repeat of comments made at the initial July presentation of the project, several residents reiterated their belief that the project should be located within the former Valley Forge Corporate Center (between Rittenhouse and Trooper Roads) now known as Park Point at Lower Providence. However, there are several problems with that.
One, as Randi Elton, LP’s Community Development Director, explained, the Township has done a good job of marketing that site, which now only has 15% vacancy so, as she said ‘there isn’t much room down there’.  There are only 3 open parcels; 2 are empty buildings that just went to sheriff’s sale and one is the former Commodore Semiconductor (and Superfund site) located at 950 Rittenhouse Road. A representative of the site was on hand, Jake Hect, indicated he’d been working with the Township to develop and market this 14-acre site, which he said would require EPA approval before it could be sold and reused. The Y has previously indicated its feasibility studies indicated a need for parcels between 15-20 acres. A 1992 EPA report about the site can be found here. ( ).
However, even if there is a large enough, viable parcel available within Park Point, when I spoke with architect George Marks after the presentation, I confirmed that the YMCA simply doesn’t have funds to both purchase AND construct the facilities. They have funds set aside for construction, but they are looking to lease precisely because to purchase land in any location would cost money they just don’t have.  So, this is a dead issue unless someone is ponying up the money for them to purchase land someplace.
Next week at their October 4 meeting, the Board of Supervisors is expected to take a vote on whether to formally request the County consider revisiting the open space agreement with LP and lifting the deed restriction.
Overall, the YMCA has a lot to bring to the community, but they clearly have at least one significant hurdle to overcome before they can proceed. It should be interesting to see where the supervisors line up with respect to this project at next week's BOS meeting.