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Lower Merion adopts long-contested rezoning ordinance

The emotionally charged special Board of Commissioners meeting on Wed. Dec. 14, resulted in the adoption of the City Avenue rezoning ordinance.

The culmination of a four-year process ended at the Wed., Dec. 14 Lower Merion Board of Commissioners special meeting, after the board passed the controversial City Avenue rezoning ordinance, which created two zoning districts along the City Avenue corridor of Bala Cynywd.

Township Building and Planning Director Bob Duncan presented the ordinance before the commissioners and public deliberated over lingering concerns and amendments  before ultimately passing the ordinance, along with an effective date of April 30, 2012.

A handful of the more than 50-member audience shared a myriad of pro-and anti-ordinance views and concerns.

Differing views

The first resident to approach the podium for public comment was Lower Merion resident Lita Cohen, who previously served on the Lower Merion board of commissioners and was previously a 148th district Republican representative. Cohen, who's lived in Lower Merion since 1953, said concerns and objections over the ordinance and potential redevelopment are the same she heard during the debate over the Roberts estate, presently the Fairmount located in Bala Cynwyd.

"Many, many years ago, we heard about all the problems that would happen if we developed and built the Fairmount, Sutton Terrance, 191, and heaven forbid, the Bala Cynwyd Shopping Center," Cohen said. "The projects have worked. I don't think there's a resident of any of those apartment buildings who would object to the fact that those buildings exist now."

Cohen added that she believed the region was on a downslide with office spaces relocating to other nearby townships, and feared it would affect township money and property values if redevelopment doesn't happen.

"We're talking dollars, we're talking taxes, we're talking safety," Cohen said.

Bala Cynwyd resident and commercial property owner Susan McKee read aloud her letter of support for the ordinance.

McKee said she was concerned about the community's retail needs.

"We have to get our retail needs met elsewhere because no comprehensive or cohesive use of space is made available," McKee said.

McKee added that she thought the ordinance was a comprehensive plan that offered solutions.

Strident ordinance supporters aside, residents opposing the ordinance still overwhelmed the public comment portion of the meeting, especially those concerned about redevelopment's impact on traffic.

Several members of The Neighborhood Club of Bala Cynwyd spoke at the meeting, including Amara Briggs, treasurer of the Neighborhood Club. Briggs  said she was speaking for herself, but that many of her opinions and concerns were consistent with those of numerous club members.

"Traffic today, as it is on City Avenue, is intolerable and my concern in this ordinance is that there's insufficient funding to address the traffic issues that exist today," Briggs said.

The Club's President John Grugan also expressed his opposition to the ordinance until a specific measure is put in place to "address traffic shortfalls happening now, and when redevelopment occurs."

Bala Cynwyd resident Richard Kaufman blamed the ordinance's passing on the votes in the 2011 election that failed to unseat a handful of commissioners in favor of the ordinance.

"Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his novel, 'Cat's Cradle,' that 'In this world, you get what you pay for,' and citizens of Lower Merion and Bala Cynwyd, specifically, are getting what they paid for tonight," Kaufman said. "The citizens of Lower Merion are being taught a clear lesson that elections have consequences."

Adopting the ordinance

Commissioners Steven Lindner, Jenny Brown and Board Vice President Paul McElhaney were absent from the meeting.

Commissioner Brian McGuire, Ward 13, motioned to adopt amendments to the ordinance to ease concerns of the Neighborhood Club and residents of apartment complexes on or near the areas that in the potential rezoning districts.

Traffic wasn't the only concern of the club and nearby residents. The residents also expressed unease with the ordinance's indoor entertainment centers, and the fact that buffers aren't offered if the center is also of residential use.

Board President Liz Rogan and Duncan said the problem with amending the ordinance would alter it from the way it was advertised, and would require a new public hearing process.

McGuire's motion tied 5 to 5, which meant it failed.

Commissioners Scott Zelov, Brian Gordon and Cheryl Gelber attempted to address public concerns via holding off on approving the ordinance until an official rezoning map or comprehensive plan was organized.

Commissioner Phil Rosenzweig said that although he respected concerns by residents and the Neighborhood Club, the time to act on the ordinance was now and the township has to move forward.

"A common vision and negotiation leads to the same place we've been led to a hundred times – nothing happening," Rosenzweig said. "If you incorporate everybody's thoughts and feelings and comments and experiences relating to traffic…you get nothing."

Commissioner Lewis Gould of Ward 11 wasn't shy in disagreeing with Rosenzweig and any action on the ordinance in general.

"We probably are more close to getting right now, than we have ever been in the pass," Gould said. "Despite the best of intentions of fixing this up between now and April 30, I think I still stray on the side of having it more right than it is right now."

Nevertheless, the ordinance passed 6 to 4.

Rogan and Duncan added that because of the adoption of the effective date, April 30, 2012, which also passed with a 6 to 4 vote, further amendments could be added before the ordinance and redevelopment are enacted.

All amendments would be due along with the final version of the ordinance on April 30.