As the settlement agreement came up for a vote, Lower Merion Board President Liz Rogan said she believed O’Neill Properties group had every right to develop on its property along the Schuylkill River, but in her observation of this process, the conflicting conditional use requirements and the group’s density presented an issue for her.
“We have an obligation as elected officials to make decisions in the best interest of the township,” Rogan said before the legal affairs vote. “No one wants additional litigation.”
The vote at the May 16 Board of Commissioners meeting was in regards to a more than two years of debate and discussion over the project by O’Neill, acting as Righter’s Ferry Associates, and the riverfront neighboring landlord opposition Penn Real Estate Group, acting as Bridgehead/Footbridge LLP, which resulted in failed attempts at a two- or three-party agreement.
This eventually landed the township and the two entities in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, where the developers appealed the township’s conditional use decision. Righters Ferry Associates is also seeking approval of the settlement agreement.
The appeals stem from a 2009 decision by the township’s conditional use approval for the apartment project under its M (Manufacturing) District ordinance, written to provide the township a sort of trade-off for the density of this kind of residential development.
In addition to the project’s settlement agreement, the board also voted on the preliminary plan at the May 16 meeting.
Delaying the inevitable, O’Neill Properties representative Kevin Kyle made a final plea to the board, hoping to encourage the board to reconsider the agreement over the long-disputed riverfront apartment plan.
Kyle told the board that approving the project would generate new tax revenue, improve the appearance of the township’s riverfront, build and maintain the Pencoyd Bridge connecting Lower Merion to Manayunk and as well as perform a clean up of the contamination of the brownfield site valued at about $2 million. Try as he did, Kyle’s eleventh hour appeal was unsuccessful in easing the concerns of the majority of board.
In an exclusive interview with the Main Line Times published May 15, Lower Merion resident and O’Neill Properties Group leader Brian O’Neill discussed the unanimous May 9 board decision to postpone entering any agreement or approving the preliminary plan. O’Neill listed several riverfront improvements that wouldn’t occur if his plan didn’t go forward, many of which were included in Kyle’s appeal to the township.
During the May 16 meeting’s public comment, Fred Fromhold, an attorney representing Bridgehead/Footbridge, noted that no revised agreement has been provided from the township at this point in time.
“It shouldn’t be that difficult for the township to enter an agreement,” Fromhold said.
Commissioner Scott Zelov expressed concern about delaying the issue, especially since the outcome in court could worsen the project’s plan and incur additional legal costs for the township.
“This is unlike any other land development process we’ve been through,” Zelov pointed out.
Board Vice President Paul McElhaney, who proposed the legal affairs committee motion at last week’s meeting, quickly commented to clarify there was still time for an agreement to happen.
“There are three little words [in the motion]: ‘at this time,’” McElhaney said. “The door is still open for the neighbors to sit down and resolve this in the coming weeks.”
Rogan added that the density of the project, including trail requirements, plaza requirements and compromises when combined with the reduction of 1.2 parking space per units, concerned her. The number of expected apartment units from O’Neill’s projected is at an estimated range of 450 to 580.
Commissioner George Manos, whose Ward 9 is affected by this plan, echoed Rogan’s concerns regarding the project’s density over the 13.8 acre parcel when he explained his opposing vote to the settlement agreement.
“To me, issues that have arisen in the preliminary plan outweigh the benefits and amenities of the project,” Manos added.
The board voted 8-1 to not consider a two- or three-party settlement agreement for the time being, with Zelov casting the lone opposing vote. Commissioners Jenny Brown and Lewis Gould were excused from the meeting, and Commissioners Philip Rosenzweig and Daniel Bernheim recused themselves from the matter because of connections their law firms had with O’Neill Properties.
The board also unanimously voted to deny the preliminary land development plan for O’Neill’s riverfront project.
No deadline for a new agreement was specific during the meeting, but according to an article in the Main Line Times on May 10, Building and Planning Director Bob Duncan told the board it needed to make decisions before the period of action expired May 31.
Other board news:
The board also voted unanimously to approve Police Superintendent Michael McGrath’s recommendation for the promotion of six sergeants and two lieutenants from the certified list of candidates established by the Civil Service Commission.
The officers to be promoted to lieutenant are Sgt. David Snyder, who’s been with the police department since 1984, most recently serving as patrol supervisor in the Operations Division, and Patrol and Traffic Safety Unit Supervisor Sgt. Gene Pasternak, who joined the department in 1993.
The six officers to be promoted to sergeant are Detective Thomas Luke of the Patrol and Investigations units, also one of the department’s certified polygraph operators; officer Michael Keenan, who was named Officer of the Year in 2008 and has advanced training in DUI detection and narcotics investigations; John Tucci, who’s been with the Lower Merion Police Department for 13 years and has training in crisis intervention; Richard Wayock, who’s served in the department for more than 20 years and is a member of the Honor Guard; Officer James Baitinger, who joined in 1998 and has advanced training in crisis intervention and has taken a variety of advanced criminal investigation courses; and Officer Charles Maier, who joined the department in 2005 and works as a Field Training Officer.
Additionally, the board voted 10-2 adopting an ordinance to increase the sewer rental fee from $3.82 to $4.51 per 1,000 gallons of water consumed.
The commissioners also unanimously approved the bid of more than $199,000 from Joseph E. Sucher and Sons, Inc. to begin the two-part summer road-repaving program in early June.