Friday, August 17, 2012

Just Go To The Y-M-C-A!

The 80’s group Village People’s enthusiasm for the YMCA as expressed in their famous song isn’t exactly shared by some Lower Providence residents, as evidenced by comments from several residents at a recent public meeting and in an online petition regarding the proposed heath club/swimming facility in our Township.

As one of  West Norriton's Markley Farms’ longtime patrons, I was naturally disappointed when it closed its doors and ceased operation.  From the time I was about 12, we’d either get dropped off by my parents or ride our bikes over to swim on sweltering summer days. We’d stay as late as possible, usually til closing. Often it would be practically dark by the time my parents could drag us out of the pool, wrap us in towels, purple lips chattering, and take us home. I have many fond memories of the friends we made, the occasions we celebrated, the games of ‘Marco Polo’ we played, and the cute lifeguards we tried to impress.  Not only that, each summer was a family reunion of sorts as you’d see and interact with the same local families from the surrounding townships year after year.  It was truly a vibrant hub of the community, and is very much missed.

Markley's post close, 2012
Markley's, August 2012

I was even more disappointed when what I felt was the Freedom Valley YMCA’s solid plan for the Markley property, land already functioning as a recreational facility, was turned down by the West Norriton Township Supervisors, largely due to a few nearby residents’ objections – much of it NIMBY in nature. Unfortunately, that rendered it very unlikely that the Markley property will be used for anything other than residential development, which has its own traffic impacts, as well as additional impacts upon the community. I ran into co-owner Scott Markley in May, and he indicated that unless he can find someone who is interested in running the facility ‘as is’ for them, it will probably sit empty unless they can sell to a residential developer…and in this economy, nobody is building. That’s a shame, not only for the community that has lost the use of their wonderful pools and swim teams, but for West Norriton Township which is now generating less revenue from it as it sits empty, not selling memberships or snack bar food.

People in our and surrounding communities often bemoan the fact that there is so little for our kids to do (especially teens) other than hanging out at the mall, so I felt at the time that it would be fantastic if Lower Providence could figure out a way to bring the project here and make it viable for people of all ages to enjoy. Thus, I attended the presentation by George Marks of architects Kramer Marks outlining the YMCA’s proposal to place the project at the former General Washington Golf Club (now the Club at Shannondell) with great interest. 

Ironically, the YMCA originally took a look at Lower Providence in approximately 2010 in an effort to potentially build a full-scale facility here,and Township officials toured the Spring Ford facility at the time to get an idea of a typical operation. Ultimately, YMCA officials opted to try to locate at the Markely Farms facility when it became available. After being shot down by West Norriton earlier this year, they are again looking to LP for a solution.

The plan details appear on the Township’s website and have been well documented in the press already, so I won’t spell it out again here. In summary, the plan proposes to co-locate the new YMCA facility next to the existing Chadwick’s restaurant and pool facility already in existence and to keep 9 of the 18 holes of golf. The new facility would go on land which currently contains the other 9 holes of the golf course. It would include three outdoor and three indoor pools, two indoor basketball courts, a second-floor running track, a driving range, mini golf course, and room for additional indoor facilities and amenities. Between 500 and 600 parking spaces would accommodate those using the facilities.
Club at Shannondell, front 9
Club at Shannondell, front 9

The Township’s 2005 Open Space Master Plan for Zone E, within which this parcel falls, indicated a need for more recreational park space in this segment of the Township which has limited options for the placement of such a use. This plan would go a long way toward fulfilling that need as this section of the Township does not have a large community-type Township park.

Aggressive Timeline

During the presentation, George Marks indicated the Y's hope for an aggressive approval and construction timeline; they’d ideally want to begin construction in fall (approximately November) of this year, start to sell memberships beginning in January 2013, and open in fall of 2013. For this to happen, an unlikely ‘alignment of the planets’ would need to occur, in some cases concurrently, where possible, and occur quickly:

·        All land development approvals would have to be essentially fast-tracked, and since those approvals and any waiver requests they encompass would also need to include time-consuming traffic studies and stormwater runoff plan reviews – processes that can take months themselves – this alone could take months.

·        The Township would need to draft, hold a public hearing on, and vote to approve some sort of zoning district overlay on the property to permit the use in the first place (or, pass a text amendment creating a new zoning district to be applied to the property, which may give rise to claims of spot zoning or an ordinance validity challenge),  AND

·         A township open space/purchase agreement with Montgomery County in the mid 1990's to purchase the golf course provided $1.1 million from the County as an open space contribution toward the total $3M purchase price. To move forward with the YMCA, the Township would have to either return the county's open space money, or find or create another suitably sized and/or valued Lower Providence open space parcel to swap in place of that open space.

In 2005, LP asked the county for  permission to remove 3.78 acres of the property from the county open space deed restriction (part of the 97 acres) to permit construction of the new pool and restaurant. This was approved but conditioned upon LP's acquisition of and deed restricting as open space, a 19-acre property along the Perkiomen Creek near Collegeville.

The 19-acre purchase and open space designation was executed before the Commissioners’ approval which allowed a change in the 3.78-acre open space deed restriction. LP then entered into a leasehold agreement with Audubon Land Development (ALD) to build the facilities there today plus, as Phase II, an additional 50,000 square foot banquet facility which has yet to be constructed. The value of all those buildings was in the $21 million range and those buildings are owned by the Township.  One option would be for the Township to possibly let ALD off the hook for Phase II and instead allow them to repay a portion of the money owed on the municipal bond.

Club at Shannondell, abutting Egypt Rd


While other local media reported that there were 30-40 people in the audience to hear this presentation, that’s not entirely accurate.  The YMCA pitch was shoehorned in on the night of the month normally reserved for Zoning Hearing Board meetings, and that evening’s ZHB meeting was pushed back an hour to make room for the Y to come in. There were four hearings scheduled to be heard by the Zoning Hearing Board. Of the 30-40 people in the audience, most of the people were either applicants with ZHB hearings on the agenda or their attorneys. I counted 10-12 people – including myself - who were there specifically to hear the Y’s proposal.

While only a dozen or so township residents came to the informational meeting specifically to hear the plan (and the rest of the approximately 26,000 residents did not), a petition opposed to the project has sprung up online. As of today, 3 weeks after the presentation, only 41 “residents” (some appeared to be from Norristown, Limerick and Upper Providence) have digitally signed it, and judging by comments on the petition and to other online articles, objections center around the location, expected traffic impact,  and concerns about the loss of open space. Again, LP currently has approximately 26,000 residents….you do the math as to what percentage actually oppose the plan.

One topic expressed by those objecting is that they love the project in concept but not the location. Sites in the corporate center bordered by Trooper, Audubon & Rittenhouse Roads (Park Pointe at Lower Providence) have been suggested as alternative locations, and at the meeting a couple individuals suggested the long-empty former Commodore Semiconductor site (which is being remediated for hazardous wastes and TCE, hardly a site I’d want children playing on…). In any event any development on that site must be cleared by DEP, another government agency not exactly famous for moving quickly, if the site is even anywhere near to being repurposed). 

While I agree that there are numerous empty lots or vacant buildings there, there is not enough space in common ownership to make such a purchase easily feasible (to the extent it even IS feasible). Not to mention, the money the Y has set aside is for project engineering and construction, and doesn’t include having to make a costly land purchase on top of those costs. 

No outcry from LP Concerned Citizens/Friends of Lower Providence

The chain of events revealed at the July 26 public meeting was that YMCA officials came to Audubon Land Development with their proposal, and together they reached agreement in principle enough to approach the Township about the possibility of their support in making this happen. So, at this point, no one has any idea what our supervisors individually or collectively think or whether any of them support it.  And, so far, neither of the above community groups – both of whom have officers who are largely BOS Chairman Rick Brown cronies – have officially weighed in. FLP has been largely dormant since CVS was built 6 or 7 years ago and LPCC, originally founded back in the 80’s by Rick Brown  – after many years of dormancy, was recently revived to fight the American Revolution Center and other issues.

I was particularly interested to see that some of the very same people – several of whom have recently been appointed to township boards by the current Board of Supervisors and thus may want to sit out public comment - who were so opposed to CVS/Commerce Bank back in 2005, and the American Revolution Center circa 2008, in no small part due to perceived traffic issues and the potential impact on Audubon roads and intersections, completely mute when it came time to voice opinions on this project. Some of them were in the audience that evening, or conspicuous by their absence. Hopefully these minions aren’t merely waiting for their puppetmaster to determine which way the public wind is blowing before taking a position, but if they ultimately come out supporting it, I wonder how they will justify doing a 180 degree flip in order to support the very same things they’ve fought relative to past projects in virtually the same area.

One who did speak out against the project as proposed was Tom Borai, current vice chair of the Zoning Hearing Board. It is not inconceivable that if the Township elects to move forward and places an overlay district on the property, it may be challenged in a validity hearing at some point by residents who object to the project, a hearing which would take place in front of the Zoning Hearing Board. Given Mr. Borai’s past outspoken viewpoint – mostly directed at me relative to the American Revolution Center – that sitting board members shouldn’t express any viewpoint on issues that have not yet, but may, in the future, come in front of them via a hearing for which an impartial decision would have to be rendered – I was surprised to see him publicly come out against it at this meeting (part of his comments can be found here). Perhaps with Tom it’s “do as I say, not as I do”.

Budget Woes May Drive Need for Increased Revenues From This Property / History of the Property 

Late last year I attended the 2012 budget review & planning meetings wherein it was revealed that even though this property brings in $100,000 a year to the Township in the form of lease payments, the Board wanted to explore ways to potentially obtain more funds from it somehow. 

At a recent Lower Providence Republican Committee meeting I attended, Colleen Eckman (a Republican committeewoman as well as a current supervisor)  mentioned, essentially, that this property costs the township $250,000 a year but only brings in $100,000 - that the debt service on the bond exeeds the money that the Township receives from the Club at Shannondell, so there’s a $150,000 deficit.  She was basing this on an assertion that the municipal bond used for the project was bundled with other things such as road repairs.  However, that's not entirely true. I'm not blaming Ms. Eckman; I suspect she's not getting the whole nine yards from those who know it.

And local news sources reported that the property currently pays in $50,000 a year to the Township, which is incorrect. Per the Township's own 2012 budget, the annual lease payment is $100,000.

In actuality, there were two bond issues pertaining to this property. The first, in 1994, when the property was originally acquired by the Township (supervisors at the time were Brown, Ralston, McFarland, Fornal and Gaugler, along with solicitor Dick Sheehan), also included funds for the library and road improvements. The millage (for tax collection) was never adjusted to cover the entire bond issue and the property, with its golf course in poor condition and original, aging buildings needing constant repair (including an ice rink that leaked coolant so much it was frequently closed to the public), consistently lost money for the Township.  

Later, in approximately 2004, the Township (under a completely different set of Township supervisors) issued a second bond regarding the property, for capital improvements to the golf course facility. Those improvements included construction of the golf course, club house, pro shop etc. and entered into an operating lease with Lower Providence Recreational Partners ("LPRP") to manage the facililty and pay the Township $100,000 in annual rent.

Originally, this second financing was done as a municipal bond issue,. At the time of this financing, current LP BOS solicitor (and solicitor of the Municipal Authority at the time) Mike Sheridan, as Municipal Authority Solicitor, advised the BOS at the time that because of the bond class used, applicable laws dictated how much money the Township could legally derive in revenue (ie accept in rent payments) in order to maintain tax-exempt status of the bond, so the LP could not accept more than $100,000 in rent payments or else they would be in default of the bond terms and the bond investors could file claims against the Township.

In the 2009-2010 time frame the Township refinanced this second bond into a loan with the Delaware Valley Investment Trust, thus removing the limitations on how much rent could be accepted.
Bottom line, the bond/loan for capital improvements at the Club at Shannondell was not bundled with anything else and the lease payments made by Lower Providence Recreation Partners was never intended to finance the 1994 bond issue. 

Now, in 2012,this difference in what the property brings into the Township financially versus the total cost of the 2 bonds (one of which has since been repackaged as a loan) has effectively become a 'can kicked down the road' in time. This first bond could and should have been paid off long ago, but is instead now coming out of the General Fund and is a significant reason why we are talking about potentially laying employees off, not replacing departing employees, and making the across-the-board budget cuts discussed and approved at the June 25, 2012 special budget meeting [details here].

Understandably, the Township's  desire to explore ways to increase the amount of money earned from the property is likely the only reason the Township is even entertaining discussions with the YMCA - in an effort to raise money for the Township without having to resort to raising taxes on residents in the worst recession since the Great Depression.