Tuesday, April 16, 2013

No Middle Ground: Setting The Record Straight On the Interceptor

A long-awaited voice has weighed in at last. As a result, perhaps some of the he-said, she-said nonsense surrounding the interceptor project will die down.
Last week the six members of the Lower Perkiomen Valley Regional Sewer Authority (LPVRSA) members voted 4-2 to move forward with plans to place the middle interceptor on the Lower Providence (LP) side of the Perkiomen, but not without a lot of last-minute hysteria, noise, and shell games, played out in the local press, from the usual suspects on the LP side.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not unsympathetic to LP’s plight and I respect them for trying to have a voice in the outcome. However, the thing has to go somewhere, and when the line is crossed into misleading the public because your logic and arguments are defective ("LP Contradicts Its Own Case Against Middle Intercepto Placement"), it's a problem.
Allow me to shed light on several blatant attempts to mislead readers into supporting LP’s position:
·        A letter from a Fred Kaczor which appeared on April 11, 2013 in both in the print and online versions of the Times Herald (here), and online at LP Patch (here), was particularly interesting. It attempted to portray Mr. Kaczor as an independent, unbiased engineer with no political agenda weighing in on the project and how, in his opinion, the interceptor should be on the UP side of the creek. And, in case you didn’t arrive at that conclusion on your own, a very helpful comment from Cathy Beyer, (she of the hand-wringing, harp-accompanied PowerPoint dog & pony show trotted around to every member municipality ad nauseam about how the interceptor just had to go on the LP side to ‘save the environment’, as if there were no similar environment on the other side of the creek) told you so: “finally an engineer perspective with no political objective, just concern for the environment. Just pure common sense”, she gushed in an online Patch post April 10.

In reality, Mr. Kaczor is anything but unbiased. He is an affected party with land along the LP side of the creek and is the sister-in-law of Cathy Beyer. Together both (with their spouses) were appellant plaintiffs in litigation against LPVRSA (which they lost... http://statecasefiles.justia.com/documents/pennsylvania/commonwealth-court/2681-c-d-2010.pdf?ts=1323908994)
No political agenda? Hardly.

·        The LP players hung their hats on their claim that the Army Corps of Engineers sided with them in their belief that the lateral must go on the UP side. Indeed, LP township manager Richard Gestrich, in a March 12, 2013 Letter to the Editor which appeared in the Times Herald (print and online versions, here) stated, in part:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps of Engineers”) indicated that it is not opposed to location of the disputed portion of the new Middle Interceptor in the same right-of-way and same trench as the existing 42” line that it replaces. Not only that, the Corps of Engineers indicated that the location of the new Middle Interceptor line in the same trench as the old line is actually the preferred location for the line…”.  and that “Furthermore, installation in the existing right-of-way and same trench [on the Upper Providence side] will lead to only temporary interference with the creek, a course which the Corps of Engineers recognized as being preferable to the permanent installation of major stream crossings”.  “With that issue resolved…”(emphasis added).
No, Mr. Gestrich, that issue has not been ‘resolved’ by the Army Corps of Engineers. On the contrary, they appear leery of being dragged into the middle of the dispute. An email dated April 15, 2013, from a Mr. Brian Bellacima, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District, Regulatory Branch to all the principal municipalities, legislators, and to LPVRSA contradicts Mr. Gestrich’s assertions. It read, simply:
To whom it may concern, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District, Regulatory Branch has made no permit decision on any of the alternatives associated with the project known as The Lower Perkiomen Valley Regional Sewer Authority, middle interceptor.

They could have used the same letter to offer a preference or officially take a position one way or the other, but chose not to.

I wonder when we can expect to see Mr. Gestrich issue a retraction of, or to at least attempt to walk back, the statements in his March 12 letter? If nothing else, Beyer and friends should be furious with Gestrich for appearing to have intentionally misled them on the USACE’s position, as they all now have egg on their faces.  

·        "How could LPVRSA do this when the solution is so obvious?" wailed a faux-confused Ms. Beyer in a post-decision comment on Patch.  Yes, I suppose the solution IS obvious when you are only hearing one side of the story.  If you don’t read the Times Herald, you are only getting one side of the story because Patch, particularly the LP version, has been engaged in some odd goings-on regarding the middle interceptor story.   

Online article comments submitted that did not support LP’s position have inexplicably never seen the light of day despite numerous attempts and several calls to their editor. A Letter to the Editor by UP supervisor Lisa Mossie about the project and why it should not be placed on the UP side of the creek was buried on LP Patch’s “More Blogs” page instead of on their landing page, as Ms. Beyer’s numerous letters and editorials are.   The fact that LPVRSA articles originally posted on LP Patch never made it to PV Patch is also concerning. Normally all these ‘Patches’ in a given locale share stories.

I get it that the Patch model is intended to be community-specific on issues, but if Patch is going to wade hip-deep into a regional dispute, they should be prepared to represent the views of all the affected communities so their readers can arrive at their own informed conclusions instead of being misled that there is only one ‘obvious’ answer.
Now that the Army Corps of Engineers actually has weighed in with their non-position, it will be interesting to see if the LP Board of Supervisors (and LP taxpayers) continue to engage in time and money-wasting tactics (legal fees!) to punish the other communities and LPVRSA for not siding with them. Watch for the claims that the Indian artifacts extend beyond where they originally said they did.

In addition, all the woes from the LP camp about alleged raw sewage leaking into the creek are undocumented and unproven; they are most likely untrue but have been used in order to create a sense of urgency to get LPVRSA to make a quick decision in LP’s favor, and/or to convince members of the public of same. Thus, it will be interesting to see how LP squares the circle of the "urgency" of stopping this supposed flow of raw sewage into the creek with any delays they try to impose.

Besides, if it were true, If they care so much about the creek, wouldn’t you think they’d want to ‘take one for the team’??

Monday, April 15, 2013

It's Good To Be The King!

Unless, you’re not.
When candidates for higher office bang on our doors or send us mail asking for our trust and our vote, we are always wary, wondering whether the person is seeking election out of an altruistic and sincere desire to give back to the community, or whether it’s to exploit the position for personal gain.

You don’t have to look far to find instances of judges, senators, commissioners and even the president abusing their power or using their elected positions to line their own pockets. Chicago has become famous for it, and Pennsylvania has had no shortage of candidates for this Hall of Shame…the ‘pay to play’ scandal involving some elected and PA Turnpike officials that broke last month comes to mind as the most recent example. In that vein we feel justified in being skeptical about elected officials in general.
When a prospective business came to Lower Providence last year to investigate opening a branch on the Norristown Ford property, they said they were met with delays, discouragement and an attempt by a mysterious and unnamed “group of neighbors” to extort concessions from them before their plans could proceed. Feeling unwelcomed, frustrated, and facing the prospect of an expensive and time-consuming approval process with what they viewed as having zero chance of success, they took the jobs and tax revenue they would have generated and settled elsewhere. (Read more here).
It didn’t make sense. I was puzzled as to why any township such as ours, with an eroding tax base and escalating costs, would not make a serious attempt to work with any interested business, instead of chasing them away.  
As is often the case, the clarity of hindsight allows seemingly illogical things to make sense.  What I learned recently illustrated that it’s bad enough that the interests of one family were put over the interests of the entire Township; what’s more egregious is that the interests elevated and given priority were those of an elected official who swore an oath to serve the best interests of the Township.
Supervisor Don Thomas, and members of his family, own property right next to the Norristown Ford property.  Those mysterious concerned neighbors making demands based upon informal plans that had never been advertised for public hearing have never been named, but the description of their location fits none other than the Thomas family. Only those on the inside of 100 Parklane Drive – staff, solicitor and the supervisors - would even have known that  such plans existed.  
The focus became clearer at the March 28, 2013 Zoning Hearing Board meeting, wherein this same supervisor presented his application for a plan to convert an existing garage on his property into four residential studio apartments, for a total of five residences at that location.  Now it’s apparent why the “group of neighbors” with all the alleged concerns about Bestline wanted Bestline, among other things, to provide an electrical line run to what appears to be the same building as that slated to be converted to residences, residential units which, presumably, would be much harder to rent out if a bustling commercial business were immediately adjacent.  
Curiously, Mr. Thomas’ position as a current supervisor wasn’t mentioned once during the hearing. Anyone watching the videotape at home would just think he’s a typical resident.  In addition, since his election, Don voted to appoint 4 out of the 5 sitting ZHB members. Isn’t this a conflict of interest? Couldn’t Mr. Thomas wait until he was out of office to pursue this?
According to the application (Z 13-01 Thomas application), Mr. Thomas was seeking:

Z 13-01 Donald & Denise Thomas – 19 N. Trooper Road, Norristown, PA 19403

The applicant is requesting a special exception in accordance with §143-150 for the proposed change of a non- conforming commercial use to four residential units, consisting of one (1) bedroom each, with kitchen facilities, living areas and common storage and §143-147 and proposes change in use is more restrictive.  The applicant is requesting a variance from §143-71 to permit one (1) parking space per unit rather than the required two (2) parking spaces per unit.  The Applicant is requesting an extension of the six (6) month expiration period to obtain all permits in accordance with §143-170.

As a resident who lives in LP and drives past this location at least twice a day, I had questions for the applicant, as did other residents in attendance.
My concerns (as well as those of residents along Brant Road behind the subject property) included the intensity of use, too many proposed residents very close to an already-congested intersection, possible left turns by residents onto North Trooper Road, impact on property values, and parking issues, which were discussed extensively.  The Brant Road folks in particular wanted assurances that visitors or residents’ second cars wouldn’t be parking in front of their homes which have access to the back of the Thomas properties. 
Curiously, one argument advanced by Mr. Thomas as a reason his application should be green-lighted  was that this is “ ‘affordable housing’ for our community, and while that may or may not be a thing to be commended, Lower Providence already has a considerable inventory of affordable housing. We are home to three apartment complexes and three mobile home parks, in addition to an assortment of town and carriage homes. In fact, the Thomas family owns numerous rental properties in the area, including the Sunnyside Mobile Home Park on Ridge Pike.  One of the Brant Road neighbors, realtor Mary Van Trieste, testified that placement of such rental housing is known to lower surrounding property values, not raise them. 
Alas, contrary to longstanding past practice by our ZHB of allowing any concerned resident to question or comment during a ZHB hearing, I was not permitted to question Mr. Thomas about much of anything (the owner of the Norristown Ford lot had also given me written permission to ask questions about the project on his behalf, as he did not know about the hearing and was out of town, but that was not permitted either).   You can view the hearing (here).  

Prime among the questions I had went toward clarifying another puzzling discrepancy (see story, here), which was “Exactly what business ARE you running out of that location?”  It’s a valid question of an applicant for zoning relief since the number and types of uses on a given property are relevant when considering granting relief.
As I reported previously, Mr. Thomas holds a current township ‘business license’ for the ‘business’ he allegedly runs out of his home/subject of the application. The license is in the name of Earl Thomas Heating Oil Co.,  (2013 business license) yet that was supposedly the business sold to Jay Gress in 2010 and by whom Mr. Thomas is now employed.  Mr. Thomas’ own 2009 campaign material stated that he’d sold his business, in order to persuade voters as to why he now had the time to do the job of supervisor.
My belief is that there is no business use there now and hasn’t been since at least 2009 or 2010, but that he continued to pull this license to keep active the claim that he is exempt from complying with the Township’s trash code as it allows him to select his own hauler instead of – as all other Township residents must - using the Township’s contracted trash company.  At the hearing it was made clear to Mr. Thomas that if his application were approved (and it was later that evening), the nonconforming use that permitted the business will go away and along with it, the trash privilege.
ZHB member and perennial political retread Tom Borai was openly hostile and rude to me and others in this public forum, letting his emotions get the best of him. Apparently he doesn’t like that I write this blog and accused me of being there to cause a three-ring circus.  I guess he’s all for transparency as long as he’s the guy holding the flashlight.
Typically, an applicant asks for more than what they want, knowing it will be negotiated down or that the ZHB will approve something more reasonable, and it gives one wiggle room. However, those same 4 people that Mr. Thomas appointed (Nancy McFarland, Tom Borai, Joyce Clueley, Bob Hardt) approved his application in toto, with minor conditions; Eric Frey voted against granting the application.  Personally, I would have expected, based on past experience and practice, for the ZHB to have approved perhaps 2 additional residential units, which would also negate the need for the requested variance on parking, but Mr. Thomas got every single thing he asked for.  
About that campaign mailer I retrieved from storage? On it Mr. Thomas claims that, not only was he now better able to serve “with my business sold (emphasis added) and my children grown ….” But that he “will represent you with honesty, fairness and dignity”.  Based on my observations, that may well be true, as long as he can protect his own business interests and personally profit at the expense of a business entity whose presence here would have benefitted all LP residents.

Mel Brooks couldn't have said it any better. It’s good to be the king.
from "History of the World Part I", 1981