Controversial plan for new houses on flood-prone Tookany Creek is moving forward in Cheltenham
Cheltenham commissioners gave preliminary approval Wednesday for eight new houses on five wooded acres along Church Road in the Elkins Park section of the township.
The 5-2 vote, with Commissioners Ann Rappoport and Irv Brockington opposed, was taken during a virtual meeting attended by more than 120 people.
Commissioner Mitchell Zygmund-Felt and other officials said final approval would require developer Zvi Bloom to meet some conditions, including storm-water management and tree replacement on the five-acre property at 222 Church Road.
“The zoning is by right, so the issue is not whether or not this property will be developed,” township solicitor Edward Diasio said. “All the due diligence has taken place and the [developer] has agreed to comply.”
The seven commissioners “have seen and heard every email, text, and phone [message],” Diasio said. “None have been ignored.”
These kinds of assurances have failed to satisfy opponents of a project that many in the Montgomery County suburb say will inevitably add to the frequency and intensity of flooding along the creek.
They cite a technical analysis submitted by project opponent David C. Bernstein that questions whether a proposed runoff control system variously described in development documents as a rain garden, retention basin, and infiltration basin will be effective or even feasible given the site’s size and incline.
Before the vote, 11 people, including downstream neighbors, spoke against the proposal. Some expressed frustration about the township imposing a user fee to pay for township-wide storm-water control projects late last year and now considering approval of the Church Road development.
“Two days before Earth Day [the board] is discussing whether the township is going to approve a development that’s clearly … destructive to the environment,” said Zoe Slutzky, who grew up immediately downstream from 222 Church.
Her mother, Joan Ockman, said the “vague and unachievable stipulations” made by the township are inadequate given “the complexity and fragility of the landscape” along Church Road and in the Tookany flood plain.
Betsy Conway, who lives on Church Road, questioned the developer’s proposal to make up for some of the trees that will be cut down to clear space for the houses by planting new trees elsewhere, which “does nothing” to reduce runoff into the creek from the site itself.
And township resident Sidney Kahn told the board he is concerned that the construction project itself will be damaging to the environment.
“Cheltenham ... is backtracking and ignoring our own principles” in approving 222 Church, Kahn said.
Rappoport said that while she is confident that the township “will make sure” that Cheltenham’s Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance is followed, her “no” vote was to protest “the weaknesses I see” in that ordinance and others.
“Our zoning, watershed, and [land development regulations] are not currently adequate,” said Rappoport, adding, “They don’t protect all of our people and properties.”
Zygmund-Felt said the land development ordinance could need amending. But he and other township officials expressed confidence that requiring the developer to conform to the provisions of the ordinance, and to the conditions attached to the approval, would not only control — but reduce — runoff into the creek from the 222 Church property.
Commissioner Brad Pransky asked arborist John Rockwell Hosbach Jr., whose review called on the developer to provide more trees and other vegetation on more places at the site, about the impact of those and other recommendations.
“It’s a degraded woodland that has less than 15 years before it ultimately fails,” Hosbach said. “My recommendations will actually improve the ecosystem.”
And Roger Phillips, the engineer whose review of the plan made more than two dozen recommendations, told the commissioners that requiring the developer to adhere to the land development ordinance should reduce the amount of storm water that currently flows into the Tookany from 222 Church.