Residents of Cheltenham Township are worried that a proposal to build eight houses on five wooded acres along Church Road will worsen flooding of the picturesque but problematic Tookany Creek.
A grassroots organization called Save 222 Church opposes extending a street, creating a cul-de-sac, and felling trees to construct the single-family homes adjacent to a steep slope in the township’s Elkins Park section.
Opponents also contend that Cheltenham’s Board of Commissioners — set to vote Wednesday on the proposal — is flouting the township’s Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance, ignoring its Sustainability Plan, and bowing to pressure from a Queens, N.Y., developer.
“They’re scared stiff” of lawsuits, longtime Elkins Park resident Joan Ockman said during an interview, citing remarks Cheltenham officials made April 6 at a public meeting. Her home stands on a sharp bend in the creek just downstream from the proposed development, which can be built “by right” under current zoning, according to the township.
“Does being able to build something ‘by right’ mean you also have the right to harm downstream property owners?” Ockman said. “That’s inconceivable to me.”
In Cheltenham, as in many older suburbs ringing Philadelphia, access to mass transit, a robust real estate market, and the scarcity of available land have boosted demand for infill residential development and redevelopment of commercial strips. But the prospect of losing woodlands and other open spaces is controversial, particularly as more frequent extreme weather makes climate change a local issue.
“I understand all the questions and complaints. I’ve gotten over 120 e-mails and texts about 222 Church, probably five positive and the rest in opposition,” said Mitchell Zygmund-Felt, one of the seven township commissioners. “We have to live under our zoning and land development ordinances.”
“We’re not afraid of litigation,” he said. “But we won’t incur significant fees for legal services that are going to be unsuccessful.”
In the last decade, Cheltenham has lost court battles against the Enclave at Kerlin Farm and Laverock-Falcon Hill, both age-restricted communities. Township residents also pushed back against a Wawa now under construction on South Easton Road and the transformation of the closed Ashbourne Country Club into a development of single-family homes and townhouses called Ashbourne Meadows.
But in Cheltenham Township’s latest not-in-our-backyard controversy, even the neighbor who sold 222 Church is opposed to the development.
“I never spoke to anyone but Realtors. I wish I had thought about the prospect that someone might buy it for development,” David C. Bernstein, who still maintains a Church Road home near 222, said Monday.
Bernstein, a successful entrepreneur, has hired experts to perform a technical review of the development plan. One of his attorneys submitted a 13-page letter to the township, with 15 pages of exhibits, enumerating 68 specific technical, procedural, and environmental issues.
Bernstein also said his team is researching whether deed restrictions imposed by a previous owner limit development of 222 Church.
Some opponents of this latest infill development note that the Board of Commissioners last December approved a user fee on property owners to help pay for stormwater management across the township.
If Cheltenham is indeed “highly susceptible to flood events,” as the “Stormwater Matters” page on the township website states, critics ask why Cheltenham seems ready to green-light a project that will likely increase runoff into the creek.
They also question whether the stormwater retention basin proposed by the developer is large enough, or even a feasible approach to collecting and controlling runoff, particularly given what they characterize as inadequate plans for tree replacement at 222 Church.
“To put eight homes in that delicate little spot will create a very tenuous situation,” said Eileen Rudnick, who also lives downstream from 222 Church. “Destruction of the environment, the lessening of green space, and flooding are all getting worse.”
When news about the proposal broke late last year, “Stop the 222 Church Project” lawn signs soon began popping up along Church Road and downstream streets. Residents along the creek said that while nuisance floods have been a fact of life for decades, consequential flooding has become more frequent along the Tookany.
Contentious municipal meetings also have became more frequent since the controversy erupted; a Change.org petition titled “Stop the Destruction of Our Neighborhood” has so far attracted about 1,400 signatures. And some social media posts about the project have verged on “slanderous” or have been overtly anti-Semitic, Zygmund-Felt said.
Zvi Bloom, owner and developer of 222 Church, also is involved in transforming a former synagogue property on High School Road in Elkins Park into a Yeshiva and has purchased about a dozen other homes in the neighborhood.
“We are open to anyone who wants to come in and invest in Elkins Park,” Zygmund-Felt said. “We hope the Orthodox community will want to be part of this community.”
Bloom did not respond to requests for comment. Christine Pionzio, a lawyer for his development group, said she had met with neighbors (”it became obvious … that the proposal was not popular at all”) as well as township officials and independent advisory commissions.
“We can comply with all [the arborist’s] comments and recommendations [such as] clearing out the underbrush and trying to create an environment where the forest can thrive,” said Pionzio, who also cited the unanimous approval of the project by the Cheltenham Township Planning Commission, an advisory body.
Commission member Rhonda Isser said the approval was conditional, based on the applicant adding more of a buffer, as well as additional trees.
The Montgomery County Planning Commission, another advisory body, also concluded after a review in December that the 222 Church plan is consistent with the comprehensive plans of the county and township.
But opponents have questioned both decisions over possible conflicts of interest: The chairman of the county commission is architect Steven Kline, who has been engaged by Bloom and whose business partner, Thomas Cross, is the chairman of the township planning commission. Another member of the county commission, engineer Robert E. Blue, also is a consultant on 222 Church. Cross and Blue did not respond to requests for comment. Isser said Cross abstained from voting on the resolution in support of 222 Church.
In an interview, Kline said reviews of local plans are done by the commission staff, not by board members. He described accusations about conflicts of interest “unfounded, and not accurate.”
The Tookany is the major waterway among the 19 miles of streams within Cheltenham Township. About 1,058 properties lie along its banks; about two-thirds of the creek’s main stem lies downstream of 222 Church. The creek flows into Philadelphia, where it becomes the Tacony Creek and ultimately empties into the Delaware River.
“It’s not our place to oppose development. That’s a local (government) determination in Pennsylvania,” said Julie Slavet, executive director of the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership Inc.
“But our main concern is that the township require the developer to do the best management practices for green stormwater infrastructure — so that this particular development doesn’t make runoff and (stream) impairment worsen,” she said.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood damage feasibility study has proposed building six detention basins along the creek in Cheltenham at a cost of nearly $10 million.
“This is an absolute gem of a community … and [a developer] wants to take a beautiful wooded area and destroy it?” said Crystal Foell, who lives along the creek downstream from the project site.
“I understand it is private property,” she said. “But when development impacts a community that’s known for taking care of the environment, it is shocking to me that the township would agree to something so radically different from what the community stands for.”
Ockman, who has lived on the Tookany since 1990, is also worried about the future.
“During Hurricane Ida, you couldn’t see land at all from the house. It was like sitting in a lake, and it was crazy and scary as can be,” she said. “The commissioners have a duty to protect the citizens, and the neighborhood.”