Philip Seltzer has been dead for a decade. But the real estate developer has become an unlikely component in an ongoing debate over traffic congestion in a Montgomery County township.
An agreement Seltzer signed in 1954 with Henry Lee Willet, then president of Upper Dublin Township's board of commissioners, has become the backdrop for concerns raised by some residents about plans for a new library in the Fort Washington Office Park, the modern equivalent of the visionary industrial park Seltzer built at the zenith of his career.
Homeowners on Highland Avenue and Camp Hill Road, streets surrounding the library's future home, are wielding the agreement against aspects of the proposal that suggest building a driveway from the library onto Highland, or potentially allowing turns onto Camp Hill from a road within the park.
Both concepts, it would seem, are prohibited by the nearly 70-year-old document, which promises to keep traffic from the park off of township streets. And with a few exceptions, the agreement has been upheld ever since. Camp Hill has been especially protected, with a 1999 ordinance prohibiting turns onto the street that piggybacks on the Seltzer agreement.
But township officials are unsure how binding a document whose authors are long gone is. They say the impact on congestion in the area will be minimal, and posit that the library will be a major addition for the township. And at a board of commissioners meeting scheduled for Aug. 14, they plan to propose solutions that are sensitive to both sides of the divide.
"The people on Highland Avenue already feel burdened by too much traffic, but there is a lot of traffic on a lot of roads in the township," said Paul Leonard, the township manager. "We don't think that they're uniquely burdened, and we want to integrate this building into the community."
Leonard pointed out that the township library, which opens at 9:30 a.m. at its current location on Loch Alsh Avenue, won't add any cars to the morning rush hour.
"Is it more traffic? Yes. Is it an amount that's unbearable? By no means," Leonard said. "I'm not minimizing their complaints or concerns, and we will try to address them. But at the same time, the challenge is to make this available for the entire community."
The township bought the new library building, located inside the office park at 520 Virginia Ave., in November for just over $5 million. Leonard affectionately calls it "the house that Rorer built," referring to the French pharmaceutical giant that initially occupied it.
During a recent walk-through of the 65,400-square-foot building, Leonard described his colleagues' plan for their purchase. Where workers once sat sequestered in cubicles, Leonard envisions an open library space, with room for multimedia materials. A corporate presentation room, complete with plush seating, can be re-purposed for live performances or special events organized by the library's board. And leftover space can be easily converted into rental property or township offices, he said.
But objections from nearby residents don't involve upgrading the library's space.
"Building a library isn't that bad, but we can't ensure that that will always be the use," said Steve Stoughton, a resident of Camp Hill Road. "Basically, it comes down to whether the board of commissioners is willing to break this agreement."
Stoughton has long been a crusader against allowing access from the office park to the surrounding community. He filed suit against Parec Associates in 2010 when they sold a building in the office park to the Mar Thoma Church Philadelphia and requested to build a driveway onto Camp Hill. He later relented, settling the legal challenge out of court. Stoughton now considers the church "a good neighbor," and said its presence on the street has caused little disruption.
But it's the exception, not the rule, he argues.
"The precedents are set, and the precedents have been agreed to," he said. "The township played by the rules, Seltzer played by the rules, and now we have commissioners considering not playing by the rules."
Seltzer's fabled agreement allows for "adequate access" for the industrial park to and from nearby Township Line Road. It further stipulates that no other access to the park "from any other Township street or highway shall be constructed or opened."
And although residents cling to that language, as well as a closing paragraph that promises the agreement shall be carried out by the signers' heirs and successors, township solicitor Gilbert High doubts that the agreement can forever control development in the township.
Ira Tackel, the president of the township's board of commissioners, agrees. And he pointed out that the current proposal is not to divert industrial or office traffic into the neighborhoods, but rather to direct township residents into the park.
"I'm pretty sure if this board or a future board said with good reason that this has been enforced for 60 years," he said, "and that it's outlived its usefulness, simply because things have changed a lot in that time, I think the board would be in good footing."
Township traffic engineer Jack Smyth has estimated that the library will generate an additional 250 trips in the area during the afternoon rush hour, 125 entering and exiting the library. To help ease access, he's provided a series of suggestions.
Arguably the one that presents the fewest logistical hurdles is to put in a new driveway on Highland on land the township owns. Alternatives include pursuing an easement onto a property next door, or going through the state to install a traffic light on Camp Hill Road. The latter suggestion is now the subject of a traffic study by the township, Smyth said.
When Terri Mellor bought her house on Camp Hill in the 1980s, the realtor showed her the Seltzer agreement. It was "a major selling point" for her, helping to finalize the decision. And two years ago, when the township temporarily diverted office park traffic onto Camp Hill and Highland, she understood why local leaders pushed for it so many decades ago: A deluge of traffic keeping a steady flow in front of her driveway during the afternoon rush hour.
"Rorer had 500 employees who didn't have any issues coming out of the driveway and going right or left onto commercial streets," Mellor said.