Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Throwing the First Pitch

A universal part of the human experience is to experience loss, sorrow and grief. Often we cope by trying to make something positive come out of it.  We may establish some form of lasting tribute to memorialize the passing of someone who meant the world to us by making donations to worthy charitable organizations, or perhaps establish a scholarship fund.  It allows us to soothe our heartache, pay it forward in the name of someone special, and the fortunate recipients to benefit as well. But, no matter how we honor the deceased’s memory, we frequently wish we could do more.

Imagine if you will the ability to make such a gesture, but on a grander scale, benefiting an entire community – and imagine, too, what it might be like to have the good fortune to receive such an honor. 

Township officials might find themselves in that enviable 
position after they gathered last week together with officials from J.P. Mascaro, Inc. and their donor entity, MB Investments, in a public meeting to hear informal plans for the proposed construction of donated ball fields on a parcel of land long coveted by LPT as a potential acquisition for park space. 

Mascaro, a long-time community partner, just may have topped themselves with this proposal. They offered the generous donation, with an estimated completion cost to them of approximately $1 million ((excluding the value of the land itself, which would be leased to LPT for $1 per year), as their way of honoring the memory of late Mascaro family member Frank A. Mascaro, who passed away in 2013. J.P. Mascaro is headquartered in Lower Providence Township.

An audience of about 40 adjacent residents and community
members listened, along with township supervisors*, to the pitch detailing the conceptual plan made by William Fox, general counsel for the organization. Fox was joined by Pasquale “Pat” Mascaro, Jr and John Marsh, their in-house engineer, who provided specifics and answered questions about the plan.  

The parcel in question had been on LPT’s radar for some time. Back in 2003 Montco voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum for a $150 million tax increase dedicated to open space acquisition and conservation. Fresh on the heels of that action, in 2005 LPT revised its Open Space Plan – I chaired the Open Space Committee at the time and oversaw its compilation and development - to identify inventory, assess needs gaps and decide priorities for the acquisition, development and investment in open and park space within the Township.

Number 2 on the list of priority potential targets identified in 
the Open Space Plan was the 38-acre parcel at 2759 Woodland Avenue, not far from Woodland Elementary School and sandwiched between Miami and Lauman Avenues, also known as the “Downes property”.  This property is in Zone D of the Plan, an area of the Township recognized as having a deficit of usable open space, trails and park space compared to the rest of the municipality.  

While LPT was never able to realize the acquisition of the land themselves (the December 2009 sale price to Mascaro was $2.2 million, well out of the Township’s reach), they now can discuss the possibility of the next best thing: having the construction of usable ball fields and amenities fully accomplished at no cost to taxpayers and leased to the Township for the nominal fee of $1 per year, and having the land protected for a long period of time - all the while having the property remain on the tax rolls.  We will still be able to collect tax revenue on a public municipal use. Only about ten acres of the total 38 comprising the parcel would be used per the proposed plan. The remainder would be left as is and all existing structures would remain.

Per a May 7, 2015 letter to LPT, when the property was 
purchased in 2009 the Downes family and Mascaro mutually agreed to the placement of a 25-year deed restriction on the property mandating that it not be developed for “at least” that initial 25 years [see letter, here]. Athough six years into that moratorium as of 2015, the company indicated it would enter into a 20 to 25 year lease agreement with the Township when the facilities are complete so technically, the fields will be restricted for far longer. In addition,  Fox told me subsequent to the meeting, from a practical standpoint, the company has no interest in dishonoring Frank Mascaro’s name by not honoring those terms, tearing down the fields, or by trying to develop the property anytime soon, if ever. As Fox pointed out, the company owns numerous other properties in other locations and does not need to monetize this one. 

5/14 Childress field dedication/photo courtesy JP Mascaro
This project, being completed 
by essentially the same team who brought the handsome new Robert Childress Memorial Field to life at Methacton High School, is estimated to take 3-6 months to complete. 

According to supervisor Patrick Duffy, this project featuring 
three ball fields (one tournament-grade), will potentially provide for multi-player families in the Methacton Baseball league what those playing for Audubon Recreation Association (ARA) already have   several fields in close proximity to each other. Currently, ARA has 7 fields in one location and with these fields, Methacton will have 5 fields within walking distance – 2 at Woodland and 3 here. Currently, Methacton baseball parents have to traverse 7 fields scattered between Eagleville and Woodland Elementary schools, and at Heebner Field in Worcester. Parents with more than one child playing baseball and softball at a time have to figure out how to bend the time-space continuum to attend more than one game for multiple offspring. 

The tournament field is planned to have lighting for night use to give teams more flexibility for games and practices, but Fox told me if the project is given the green light by the Township they will build the project whether or not lights are approved with it.

While technically as the lessee LPT would be responsible for maintenance of the property, as a practical matter LPT typically makes field maintenance a term of any lease agreement with any athletic organization that leases fields from the Township. In that scenario (which is done with all our various athletic leagues who use our fields today) the Township isn’t using its resources since sports organizations have a captive army of volunteers willing to help take care of the fields they play on.

Currently there are approximately 16 ball fields available within Township boundaries, 12 of which are either owned or leased by the Township, and as I can personally attest from the years my son and his friends played for ARA and other leagues, it was always very difficult for coaches to find available field for practices in particular – especially if we had a rainy spell – as makeup games piled up and occupied open, correctly sized fields.  It was not uncommon to have to trek up to Heebner Field in Worcester Township or use West Norriton facilities, if they were even available. With two very active and large baseball leagues here, ARA and Methacton Baseball Association, there is definitely a need for more baseball fields. This project would go a long way toward closing that gap.

However, comments from residents attending the presentation indicated that not all may view this as a positive for the community. 

From her backyard adjoining the planned facility, all that 
Lauman Avenue resident Lynette Leong could think about was how she’d purchased her property so she could see the constellations at night and wild animals during the day, and now primary among her concerns wondered whether Mascaro, in developing the plan, had considered the environmental impacts on things like well water, and that they are encroaching on wildlife habitat. 

Fox replied that as far as any environmental concerns, DEP sets the requirements and standards for this type of development and they have to comply. Whatever the standards are under the Township zoning ordinance for this type of project, they'd also have to comply. He added, "This might sound a little harsh to you, as it relates to your concern about development on the property, I can see that you would prefer the property to remain just as it is, but as the owner of the property, whether it’s a little league field by right or houses by right (and we’ve restricted that), the property owner also has certain rights to use his or her property in a manner that’s consistent with the Township’s zoning ordinance which, as a whole, is designed to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare, and not put uses next to you that are offensive or contrary to good planning.  I don’t know that anything I could say here could make you feel comfortable that that property’s going to remain the same because if this project is approved, it will not remain the same. I will say that we are going to try to make it as aesthetically pleasing as possible and it will certainly be far, far less offensive than it could have been if there were other types of developments on this property which the zoning will allow. We are trying to be sensitive to all the neighbors’ concerns. We may not be able to address everyone’s concerns 100%..."

He pointed out that the Township’s zoning ordinance reflects 
this Board's and prior supervisors’ determination this is an appropriate use in a residential area. 

Other concerns expressed by residents in attendance included the typical: stormwater runoff, construction dust, buffering (much of the property already has a significant tree line buffer), noise, traffic, parking and potential impact on adjacent property values. Supervisor Duffy and Fox both indicated many of these practical concerns are, per the Municipalities Planning Code, addressed further along in the process after a formal plan is filed with the Township for review during the land development process.   Part of the process entails both the Township’s and the County’s planning commissions having the opportunity to review and comment on the plan, offering their feedback and suggestions for incorporation into the final approved plan. 
For things such as noise, lights, vandalism - there are ordinances in place that can be enforced as a matter of policing the area like we do in our other parks. In addition the Township can impose conditions on the use and any lights. 

When it comes to property values, I have lived adjacent to an LPT park (featuring  two ball parks, two tot lots, a basketball court, picnic pavilion and jogging trail) for many years,  and can relate that our experience has been that properties such as ours abutting the park command a higher asking price (and we are far less buffered than homeowners next to this parcel are / will be). Buyers appreciate the amenities and the fact that the land is protected and devoid of other neighbor’s backyards facing your own.  

And that experience is borne out elsewhere, according to local residential realtor Patti Tabor, who has moved many LP properties over the years. 

“Houses backing to a park or open 
space generally draw a higher sale price. The concerns for many are with the parking situation. Take Warrior Field for example. The parking is inadequate and creates an issue on Landis Mill Road. That does not help property values. The moral of the story is...If they're going to do it, do it right”.

Evidently, Supervisor Colleen Eckman recognized just this scenario, as one of her comments was that ‘it looks like we might need to add some parking beyond what’s noted on the plan". Ms. Eckman, a candidate for township supervisor this November on the Republican ballot, appeared to be opposed to the idea of lights for the tournament field judging by her other comments and questions.

The last resident to speak, John Larcinese from Hollywood Lane (and a Public Works employee of the Township who would likely wind up mowing this facility), mentioned how well the lit field at Redtail works in that neighborhood, that he supports the project even though it is very close to his home, and that he felt the approximately $4000 annual maintenance cost versus a state-of-the-art $1 million facility equaled a win/win for the community. 

Seems like a no-brainer for LPT and a fitting tribute for the Mascaro family as well. Hopefully, LPT will see fit to play ball.

*For informal 'staff solicitor' meetings, generally only 2 supervisors attend so as not to have a quorum. However, four of the supervisors attended this meeting - two in an official capacity and two who did not participate. Supervisor Jill Zimmerman was not present.