Whitemarsh’s Board of Supervisors Release Statement on Zoning Amendment Process

The Whitemarsh Board of Supervisors have released a statement in regards to the text amendment its adopted on October 25, 2018. The amendment, adopted as an ordinance, began as a bunch of small adjustments to the zoning code. After it was recommended by the Planning Commission to the Board of Supervisors, the Supervisors directed the Zoning Officer to add in additional conditional uses to the VC-4 zoning district. This included townhouses.

During a recent Planning Commission meeting that involved a sketch plan for a townhouse community proposed in the VC-4, the public and members of the Planning Commission questioned the process of how townhouses became a conditional use. Prior to October 25th, townhouses were not allowed in the VC-4 district.

In today’s statement, the Board of Supervisors states they will remove the 11 conditional uses from the VC-4 district and basically start the process for the text amendment over again.

Here is the statement:

June 6, 2019

The Board of Supervisors has had an opportunity to review the matter of the zoning change that was included in the housekeeping amendment adopted in October 2018. Housekeeping amendments occur every few years in an effort to make changes allowing for more clarity to definitions, consistency to zoning districts as well as general updates to the Zoning Code.

The parcels along Butler Pike and Skippack Pike were zoned VC‐4 in 2013, which included many of the uses from the other Village Commercial Districts (VC‐1, 2 and 3). In order to create consistency with the other VC Zoning Districts, the housekeeping amendment added the same 11 conditional uses to the VC‐4 District that were already permitted in the other VC Districts.

Because the uses were added to the ordinance after the ordinance was recommended for approval by the Township Planning Commission, the Township Solicitor was consulted and advised that the ordinance was not legally required to go back to the Township Planning Commission to review these uses in conjunction with the overall amendment.

The final version of the housekeeping amendment, which included the new uses in the VC‐4 zoning district, was sent to the County Planning Commission, which had no comment, and to the Law Library for public inspection. It was also advertised twice in the Times Herald newspaper in accordance with the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code and made available at the Township Building for public review. The public hearing for the housekeeping amendment was held on October 25, 2018.
The Board approved the amendment in its entirety at that meeting.

The Board and staff recognize that, while the process followed complied with law, there are improvements that can be made going forward. Those include sending all ordinance changes back to the Township Planning Commission, even if not required by law. All substantive changes to the Zoning Code will not be referred to as ‘housekeeping’ but rather Zoning Code Amendments.

Also, prior to the advertisement of a public hearing, the Board will review Zoning Amendments as a discussion item at a public meeting to provide additional opportunity for public engagement.

It is important to the Board that we continue to find more ways to engage the public above the legal requirements. Whether it is at a Township Planning Commission meeting, Board of Supervisors meeting or providing a written comment, we want the public involved in the process. That said, we have instructed staff and the Township Solicitor to draft a new ordinance removing the 11 conditional uses from the VC‐4 Zoning District and to send that ordinance back to the Township Planning Commission for its review and comment.

We, as a Board, appreciate all the public comments related to this matter and we will continue to listen to any issue pertaining to Whitemarsh Township.

Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors

In the transcript from the October 25th hearing, it must be noted that the changes made at the direction of the Board of Supervisors are not verbally stated. Zoning Officer Charlie Guttenplan, when describing the text amendment, states:

Most of the provisions in this housekeeping ordinance are tweaks to existing provisions. There’s one one or two exceptions which I will mention.

Neither exception he mentioned involved adding townhouses and other conditional uses. Since the Board of Supervisors directed him to make this change, they knew this major change existed and no board member made an effort to address it.

More troubling, Guttenplan doesn’t describe the ordinance accurately. In the transcript, Guttenplan states:

And on July 10, the planning commission did recommend that this version of the ordinance be considered for adoption.

After the recommendation by the Planning Commission, the Board of Supervisors directed Guttenplan to alter the ordinance and add the conditional uses. Solicitor Sean Kilkenny knew it wasn’t the same ordinance that was recommended and the members of the Board of Supervisors knew it wasn’t the same. No one challenged this incorrect testimony.

And what needs to be noted, on the day the Board of Supervisors release a statement about how they want to be transparent beyond what is required by law, they deny a right-to-know over attorney/client privilege which is totally discretionary on their part.

The timing of all of this needs to be considered too. During the summer of 2018 and leading up to the October 25th meeting, the townhouses proposed on the Abolition Hall property were a big local issue. On the very night they voted to approve the Abolition Hall townhouses and stating how they had reservations about it, but had to follow the law (because townhouses were a conditional use), they made it easier to build townhouses (by adding townhouses as a conditional use) in another zoning district (the VC-4 district).

Let us know what you think in the comments.

More to come.