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


Pat Nogar said...

Thanks for this Janice. I'm appalled that a multi-unit residence will be allowed at that intersection and that the Norristown Ford site will continue to go vacant. I've said for years that LP has no vision for this township and this proves it.

TommyR said...

Always a pleasure to read your stuff my friend. You are all that!

Gregg said...

I was wondering what the unreadable sign in his yard was for ? Now i am informed and really don't think his garage is a place to dump apartments. The traffics always an issue,but what about sewer and additional runoff ? Typical good old boy games in LP. What i call a Brown Special!

Beth said...

Great piece, Janice. Please keep telling the truth about the corrupt nature of LP