Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Executive Privilege

It should go without saying that we expect the elected officials we trust with our votes to put the interests of their communities as a whole over those of special interests, and certainly over their own interests. When they can't, they're supposed to step away from the issue. They're certainly not expected to insert themselves hip-deep into the middle of it. 

But that's what it would appear has happened after digging below the surface of a couple of recent Letters to the Editor published online and in print in The Times Herald (both appear below) pertaining to the vacant lot at the corner of Ridge Pike & Trooper Road, the former home of Norristown Ford. I am asked at least once a week as to what is going on there, and is any new business ever going to go there. Well, judging by what I have seen and heard, probably not for a very long time.

One of the letters to the editor was a complaint about our Township from a business hoping to expand here, and the other, a response from its new manager, Richard Gestrich. The rebuttal was interesting not for what it said, but more for what it didn't say; it omitted a significant detail. I'm giving Mr. Gestrich the benefit of the doubt here because, not only was he not the Township manager at the time this transpired, nor present for or a party to the conversations, but he wasn't even living in Pennsylvania at the time. In all likelihood, he was only provided with minimal details about discussions that occurred before he came to work for the Township in April.

The significant detail? This opportunity to add revenue and jobs in Lower Providence would appear to have been preempted by one of our supervisors who was apparently afflicted with a case of 'NIMBY' or, in other words, "Not In My Back Yard".

The original letter, a shortened version of which was printed in the Times Herald, was blistering in its criticism, particularly of the Township's solicitor, Michael Sheridan. While the letter primarily blasted Sheridan, it should be noted that Mr. Sheridan takes his direction from the Board of Supervisors.

I had the opportunity to speak with the original letter writer, Gary Euler of Euler Commercial Real Estate, the broker who tried to get a real estate deal completed in Lower Providence for his client, Bestline Equipment, to get more detail about what happened. As I suspected, Bestline was kept in the dark as to the identity of the main objector to their plans.

The subject property is the lot at the corner of Ridge Pike and Trooper Road, formerly the home of Norristown Ford. Except for a small piece occupied by the Sunoco gas station, this is all that sits at that corner, a gateway into the Township from West Norriton. The lot is zoned Highway Commercial, except for a strip to the rear of  approximately 36,000 square feet, which is zoned Residential. The property  also has the  Ridge Pike Business District overlay applied to it which would allow for the use that Bestline envisioned. It is a continuation of a non-conforming use. As long as the property is actively being sold or leased, the use is permitted. Bestline Equipment, a Harrisburg company in the business of equipment sales and rental, with six other locations in Pennsylvania, hoped to expand to a seventh by adding a facility in Lower Providence. They'd done their homework and felt the location and demographics were excellent in that we are a "vibrant community close to King of Prussia, where there is a strong need for these products and services".  While the asking price was a little bit north of what they wanted to spend, they felt strongly enough about the location that they elected to proceed. They reviewed the zoning ordinances concerning that property and its longstanding past use as a car dealership and repair facility, and felt the use they proposed was consistent, and thus permitted by the zoning ordinances. As the property was being placed under Agreement of Sale, in what is standard procedure in many communities, they arranged to meet with Township officials in an informal meeting to discuss their tentative plans and see what they needed to do to make them a reality. This all occurred just before Joe Dunbar, the former township manager, was fired in mid-December 2011.

Bestline- Shippensburg facility
Thus, when Bestline met with Township officials, Solicitor Sheridan and the interim township manager were present, along with  the director of community development, who oversees the planning and zoning efforts. Evidently none of the Township supervisors bothered to attend; had it been me, I would have wanted to be present any time a potential new business came calling to ensure that they felt welcome and wanted and to know we'd try to work with them if at all possible.  As the letter indicated, Euler and client Bestline found Sheridan's demeanor and conversation to be such that they understood him to be discouraging 
Bestline's acquisition of the property. Bestline felt from the outset that the unmistakable tone of that meeting was "we don't want you here, it ain't gonna happen, and you're fighting an uphill battle". Instead of being welcomed with open arms, or having the 'red carpet rolled out for them' as the Township has tried to make appear to be the case in their efforts to attract businesses here, Bestline distinctly felt the chill of a cold shoulder. Why is that? Why, in a poor economy, with few jobs and dwindling revenues (from which the Township is suffering enough to warrant calling a special budget review meeting just two days ago to consider budget cuts, layoffs, hiring freezes and the like), would any prudent municipality turn an expanding business away? In their own estimation, Bestline expected to add  30 to 40 new jobs I was told, 'these would not have been low-end jobs...they would have been things like mechanics, sales people, and administrative positions."  After the informal meeting, it took Sheridan almost a month to get a response letter to Bestline together, and when it was provided to Bestline (via their counsel, local attorney Ed Mullin, who was retained by Bestline because he had also represented WaWa when they were interested in the property not long ago), it came with a list of demands before their proposal would even be considered.  Bestline was told that there were 'three groups of neighbors' who objected to the plans, and whose demands were enumerated in the letter. The 'groups of neighbors' were never identified, but curiously, there ARE three families with the same last name whose properties border the Norristown Ford property. 

One is sitting supervisor Don Thomas, no stranger to special privilege (see here). The second is his parents, who live directly behind him, and the third is his brother and sister-in-law, who live immediately to the north of Don Thomas. I believe it is Don Thomas to whom Mr. Euler references as having had 'too much to say' and was 'allowed to unduly influence the sale' in his letter above. Were THESE the 'three groups of neighbors' who took issue with Bestline's plans? These homes and this property are within the boundaries of my own voting district, for which I am an elected Republican committeewoman. Both last fall and this spring, I spent a considerable amount of time knocking on residents' doors in my district, dropping candidate literature, campaigning in my own race, or obtaining petition signatures for various candidates to get on the ballot this spring, and NOT ONE resident  EVER mentioned ANYTHING about this project or their objections to it. Not even one resident from the neighborhoods directly behind the Thomas properties or within walking distance of it mentioned it. Not ONE. If there's an issue bubbling up, I hear about it. I find it very difficult to believe that it would not have surfaced if there were in fact three legitimate 'groups of neighbors' opposed enough to have come up with a list of demands, especially since a couple of other, far less substantial issues, did surface during that time period.  Also, since no official plans were ever submitted for formal review at this very preliminary stage, there was no notice to neighbors of adjacent properties required. Thus, unless the township reached out in some other way to them, which they were not required to do at that stage, no neighbors would ever have known about it. Don Thomas, however as a supervisor, would know about it.

Bestline - Harrisburg
The list of demands included things that are typically the purview of the Zoning Hearing Board and the Planning Commission to determine, if the plans even meet the criteria for review by those bodies. Bestline felt that the use they contemplated was substantially the same as what it had been used for over past decades and thus was a 'by right', or already permitted, use and that they did not need to go before the ZHB or PC; the Township tried to convince them otherwise.  It should be noted that both those boards are made up of a majority of members who are cronies of and appointed by the current supervisors, thus ensuring that any money and effort spent in pursuing that avenue would only end up wasting time and burning cash for the applicant without offering, in my opinion, a fair shot at a different outcome.  One demand made of Bestline was to submit an exhaustive list of equipment they carry and the gross weight of each, which they provided. Mr. Euler stated that the former business, Norristown Ford, carried dump trucks, and that nothing Bestline carries is bigger than that. Curiously, several of the demands smacked of self-interest. The mysterious 'three groups of neighbors' wanted:  
  • the running of electrical service from Trooper Road back to an accessory structure on one of the adjacent properties, identified as a 'barn'; there are several sheds and garages among the Thomas properties. 
  • 'lighting to the rear of your property apparently shines onto their property [sic] and they would like that corrected'
  • 'they want all equipment, repair and maintenance to be inside' (a zoning issue, not subject  to resident preference)
  • 'What they are asking is that the entire residential strip be left open as open space, the macadem removed, and a buffer installed in that area, with the balance of the ground to become part of the township park that is to the northwest of the property' (Brant Park). Bestline viewed this as an attempt at 'extortion'. (This is ironic to me, because it's my understanding from a former supervisor that the elder Mr. Thomas, and possibly his sons, initially fought against this park being installed, but now is apparently looking to expand it and bring it down more toward their own properties).  
Bestline - Hatboro
My opinion is that it appears that ONLY the Thomases, including Supervisor Don Thomas, simply did not want this business alongside their property, although apparently Norristown Ford was there before they were. Ultimately Bestline realized that they, along with other "unwanted" businesses the Township is already in litigation with, would be fighting a long, prohibitively expensive and time-consuming battle and in that period of time they could be up and running in a community that DID want them, so they elected to move on and look elsewhere. They ultimately wound up pursuing a site in Chester County.  Bestline is not the first business to take a look at that property. My understanding is that WaWa was previously interested, and that another entity, reportedly a supermarket chain, is considering it now, but I have to wonder if any business will ever be located there again as long as Mr. Thomas has any power to keep the lot empty. Mr. Euler told me that he supposed he would be dismissed as just some broker with sour grapes about not getting a deal done and losing a commission, but he said that what compelled him to write a scathing Letter to the Editor, which he'd never done before, was that 'in the 30+ years I've been in business and having dealt with numerous municipalities over that time, this was by far the worst experience I've ever had with one. I just don't understand why we could not work something out". 
Bestline - Muncy

Bestline - Towanda

Thursday, June 7, 2012

All Points Bulletin

Hold on to your penny jars! It would appear there’s a bank robber or robbers on the loose in our community.

This morning at 11:30 am the third bank robbery in our area in less than 3 weeks occurred at the Citizens’ Bank in Audubon.  Details are still forthcoming;  a description of today’s suspect will be issued later this afternoon, but the getaway vehicle was described as a blue or black Kia. (more information was published @ 4:30 pm today by the Times Herald; find it here).

Update 8:30 pm: At tonight's Board of Supervisors' meeting, Police Chief Bud Carroll reported that the investigation is moving forward quickly and they believe they will have good news to report soon. He also revealed that by sheer happenstance, a Township employee going about his or her normal job duties - I was told by a separate source it was a young Parks & Rec employee - happened to witness the suspect after the robbery and obtained very good information that can be used to make an apprehension.

 And the latest, arrests, posted June 8, here and June 12, here).  Nice work by our police department and other law enforcement officials.
On May 21, the Ambler Savings Bank at Germantown Pike and Route 363 - just over Lower Providence's border with Worcester Township - was robbed just after 10 am, and on May 15, at 9:25 am the PNC Bank at 1111 Pawlings Road in Audubon was also robbed.
The descriptions of the robber in the May 15 and 21 incidents are very similar.

In the May 15 incident, the robber was described as a white male, 5'10" to 6' tall, with a medium build and light colored facial hair. He was wearing a green hooded sweatshirt, a red shirt, gray cargo pants and a ball cap.

As to the May 21 incident, the suspect was described as a white male, 25 to 30 years old, between 5' 5" and 6' tall, with light-colored facial hair, but no mustache. He was wearing a red hat with a gold emblem on the brim, dark colored pants, black shoes and a hooded sweatshirt. Surveillance photographs show the man wearing a grey sweatshirt with black stripes and a black & white skull inside a shield emblem on the front. The words "Death Rock" appear over the skull.
While the perpetrator in the May robberies did not display a weapon, until whoever this person or persons is caught, please be extra-aware of your surroundings as you’re conducting your business in (our outside) any of our local banks, especially ones like the three that have been hit so far that are very close to major thoroughfares where it’s easy to disappear quickly.
Many years ago, when I was living in Phoenix, AZ, I happened to be in a bank branch as it was being robbed just after it opened for business. I was the only person who got an accurate description of the robber (verified later by videotape), which helped law enforcement find a suspect quickly, less than a mile away as he escaped on foot. It was quite an experience, but not one I’d care to repeat, as it involved being locked in the bank for hours with other customers while the FBI and local police conducted their investigation.
The robber had been acting a little strange outside the branch as we waited for it to open, seemed nervous, pacing, was wearing a red bandana over his hair, and had a band-aid across his nose as if to intentionally flatten it. I couldn't put my finger on it, but he just didn't 'fit' with the other customers. I kept my eye on him, noting what he was wearing, how tall he was, hair color, etc. I actually saw him hand the note to the teller out of the corner of my eye, so I realized quickly my intuition was right. Fortunately he didn’t display a weapon either, and didn’t harm anyone. I have to believe in all three of these robberies in our community, someone, somewhere, may have seen something that seemed 'off'. If so, please report it!
Anyway, to quote that old cop series, Hill Street Blues, “Be careful out there”, and here’s hoping our law enforcement officers find this guy quickly. And you can help: anyone with a tip or information that may help is asked to call the Lower Providence Police Dept. at 610-539-5900 or the Pennsylvania State Police Skippack Barracks at 610-584-1250.

Thanks to Norristown Patch for some of the information in this article.