UPPER GWYNEDD — A pair of lines in a county document approved last month have spurred a lengthy debate, and quite a few questions, for township officials.
Township residents grilled the board Monday night over a proposed project on Pennbrook Parkway that’s been on the drawing board for much of the year, and its recent inclusion in a county plan.
“Those things that are going on with that project, with the county, with applying for grants, that has nothing to do with this board’s approvals, which are land development-related,” said Township Manager Sandra Brookley Zadell.
Starting in March the township staff have given updates on the early stages of a project on Pennbrook Parkway, where an applicant has proposed expanding the township’s transit overlay district for a project that, at least in the early stages, has been described by staff as containing 44 housing units
Throughout that discussion, staff have said that only members of the township’s internal plan review committee have been part of those discussions, and no formal plan has been submitted for land development approval, while the applicant — named by staff during prior meetings as The Walters Group — has discussed applying for a zoning change first before any formal plan.
Those talks continued Monday night, with several residents noting, and querying, the board and staff on recent references to that project in a county document. On July 21 the Montgomery County commissioners adopted a 2022 update to their Housing Action Plan spelling out how roughly $11 million from several federal grant programs would be allocated to projects across the county, including two references to allocations totaling $1.3 million for a project listed as the “Cornerstone at Pennbrook Station” in Upper Gwynedd.
“Basically, the county seat is acting as a middleman between you, the board of commissioners of our township, and the federal government, which is bringing money from the government to us by using the Walters group,” said resident Carl Smith.
“The name ‘Cornerstone’ is interesting to me. That indicates a building block, a fundamental component to building a building. It’s the first thing you put in place. Is this the first thing that’s being put in place, and do we have more of these building blocks to look forward to?” he said.
Smith then asked if the commissioners or township endorsed “any grant application submitted to any funding source” by that developer, and board President Denise Hull said she or staff would reply to both questions, directly to Smith and in public at a subsequent meeting. Zadell then added that “the township has nothing to do with the name of the parcel, or of the development, and we are not in control of which projects come toward us.”
Linda Smith asked if the project would be considered “subsidized housing,” and Hull replied that no specific plan has been presented to the full board.
“They’ve given us preliminary ideas, we have sketch plans. We’re at the very introductory part. In this phase, things change all the time, so for us to comment on any specific of that plan is just premature,” Hull said.
Hull added that more specifics would be available once the ordinance is “more nailed down,” to which Linda Smith asked when that would happen, and Hull answered that it would be dependent on the developer.
“When and if it comes in front of the board, it’ll be advertised, the property will be posted, public notice will be provided, and I’m sure there’ll be announcements by the board. It has not been scheduled for a public hearing,” said solicitor Lauren Gallagher.
Resident Karen Verrillo asked for more information on the township’s comprehensive plan, which was updated in 2021, the surveys included in it, and how that plan set forth goals for future development. Commissioner Liz McNaney answered that the plan update started pre-COVIDand was meant to gather as much community feedback as possible and set goals for upcoming years, while she had heard little, and not seen any plans or the county information, about the Pennbrook project.
“What Carl said about ‘Cornerstone,’ I haven’t even heard that yet. That’s news to me,” she said.
“With the Walters group, I still don’t have all the answers. I know they went from 60 down to 44, and from what I read, I think they said they wanted four units to be affordable housing for people. Is that correct?” McNaney said, and Hull replied, “That’s why we shouldn’t really be talking much about it, because it’s very preliminary,” before McNaney added “There’s a chance that I might vote against it, too. I am learning with you.”
Zadell added that the report from the county about their housing priorities and funding decisions was separate and distinct from any action at the township level.
“We’re not the same organization, we’re a completely different governmental unit. So if the county is giving grants to an applicant, yes, we might write a letter of support. In this case, we did not,” Zadell said.
Fred Hencken asked if the board or staff knew why the Walters group had applied for the funding, and Zadell said she had “no idea why the applicant is applying to the county for funding, when they don’t have approval” from the township for any plans or the zoning change.
“That’s their prerogative, as the property owner, to do whatever they want with their property. And that’s all I can say. But it has nothing to do with the approvals that this board will render, or will not render,” she said.
Resident Roger Hammond said he didn’t understand “how one-point-something million dollars can be approved by anybody, without a written proposal, approved at the local level. That tells me that the county is pulling strings — which means politics — the state is pulling strings, or the federal government is pulling strings,” he said.
He and Gallagher then engaged in a back-and-forth, with the attorney reiterating that no formal plan has yet been proposed, and any decisions would be made after public discussions.
“If that application is to move forward, it requires several different approvals from this board. Right now, the only thing that has even been suggested is zoning amendments,” she said.
Tom Borneman asked again if the township knew why the project was included in the county plan update, and Zadell answered that the board has, in the past, applied to the county for funds for its own projects, but knew nothing about that specific application.
“We did not apply for any grants on behalf of the Walters Group. The board of commissioners did not authorize a letter of support on behalf of the Walters Group,” she said.
“I welcome you to submit an open records request, and I will gladly fill it for you very quickly, because I’m certain — unless some staff member did something here without telling me — that we did not do that,” Zadell said.
Borneman answered: “I just want to be clear … the people in this township do not want this.” McNaney countered, “They don’t want what? They don’t want affordable housing in Upper Gwynedd Township?” spurring another back-and-forth on definitions of “affordable.”
After the close of the hearing, Zadell gave a detailed presentation outlining the steps needed for any project going through the land development process versus any zoning change. Assistant Manager Megan Weaver filled in for planning and zoning officer Van Rieker, who was absent, to give a brief report on planning and zoning projects.
“I know we discussed this in detail tonight, but on Van’s report is the proposed zoning map and text amendment for 1500 Pennbrook Parkway, the proposal for approximately 44 dwelling units in the transit overlay district. And that draft is still being reviewed,” Weaver said.
Call some friends and exercise your 1st Amendment rights when the Upper Gwynedd’s commissioners next meet at 7 p.m. on Aug. 16 at the township administration building, 1 Parkside Place. For more information or meeting agendas and materials visit www.UpperGwynedd.org.