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After rebuffs, a developer’s dream village lies in limbo

By Diane Mastrull

Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

 

May 8, 2001 - Third of three parts

                                                   

Like many suburban communities ringing Philadelphia, Lower Moreland started worrying about saving open space only after most of it was gone.

By 1999, more than 80 percent of the township had been built out. A half-dozen sizable tracts remained undeveloped, though probably not for long. With the green going fast, officials turned to the Natural Lands Trust for advice.

A nonprofit conservancy based in Delaware County, the trust had been preserving open land for four decades, often by buying development rights. In 1996, through a program called Growing Greener, it also had begun helping municipalities devise their own strategies.

In a relatively virginal exurb, early planning could ensure enough greenways, trails and nature preserves to mitigate the effects of future development on the landscape.

It was too late for that in Lower Moreland.

Even so, the trust came up with some feasible ideas for the township. Among them: change land-use ordinances to allow denser, village-style development, offset by carefully designed expanses of open space.

The report, which took six months and cost the township $500, landed in officials' laps last spring. No one could have been happier than developer Joe Duckworth .

What he wanted to build there - and what many Lower Morelanders seemed dead-set against - was just what the trust had prescribed. His proposed village of Woodmont would have closely packed homes, one to a quarter acre, and nearly 40 percent of the 42-acre tract would be kept as small parks and a nature preserve.

With the trust's "substantial credibility" behind the concept, he concluded, his opponents might be swayed.

Or not. Duckworth , it turned out, was a member of the trust's board of directors.

He had joined it in January 2000, at the invitation of a fellow member of the Chester County Planning Commission, of which Duckworth is chairman. At the time, the trust still was studying Lower Moreland's ordinances and preparing recommendations. He had been careful, he said later, to steer clear of the work and not to discuss Woodmont with the staff.

After submitting its report, the trust informed Lower Moreland officials of Duckworth 's position. The news did not sit well with William Hamburger, a township planning commissioner and staunch critic of Woodmont. The study, he said, should be discounted.

In July, township officials met to discuss what, if anything, to do with the study. To Duckworth 's surprise, they invited him to listen in.

The conversation quickly came down to, not conspiracy, but time and money: With open space all but gone, why expend effort on new ordinances?

By the trust's own estimates, researching and writing a conservation ordinance can take at least a year and cost up to $30,000. Of the 37 municipalities that have sought advice from Growing Greener, just five have followed through with new land-use regulations.

"The fact that we have so little [undeveloped land] left is all the more reason to protect it," said Emily Jane Lemole, a township commissioner.

Francis J. Devinney, another commissioner, said he did not like the notion of squeezing homes closer together. But it would be better, he said, to save green space by changing development patterns than by having the township buy it with tax money - a trend rippling through the region.

In recent elections in two dozen municipalities, voters approved tax increases for the purchase and preservation of open land. In Upper Makefield, Bucks County, the referendum was $15 million, the highest in the Philadelphia area.

"Even if [rewriting ordinances] costs us some money," Devinney said, "it couldn't cost as much as buying open space."

At the end of an hour, the possibility of a conservation ordinance was still alive. The commissioners dispatched township staff to do research. And, to Duckworth 's keen interest, they said they would consider outside proposals.

He left the meeting that night with a big job ahead.

Taking the laws into his own hands

Duckworth had plenty of material to draw upon.

In the three years since founding Arcadia Land Co., he had visited 20 walkable communities around the nation and collected copies of land-use laws under which some of them were built.

After two weeks of cutting and pasting, he had a three-page outline of an ordinance that he thought would accommodate a village in Lower Moreland.

A traditional neighborhood development, or TND, would require a tract of at least 35 acres, he wrote, with no less than 35 percent kept in perpetuity as open space. Lots would be a minimum of 6,000 square feet, or less than a quarter acre, and houses at least 10 feet apart. Alleys linking rear garages would be allowed, providing they were 12 feet wide and lit well.

In this theoretical community, single-family homes could coexist with apartments, as well as one store and an office, just what Woodmont would be.

After running his ordinance past a lawyer, an engineer and a planner, Duckworth submitted it to the township Aug. 30.

Then he waited. And waited. By mid-December, he was fuming. The silence, he said, "tells me they hope I'll go away."

It was time, he decided, to play hardball.

His 42 acres at Byberry and Heaton Roads hadn't earned him a penny since he bought the site in 1999.

"I do not argue that I am a charitable person," he said. "I'm trying to be a progressive for-profit."

To that end, Duckworth filed a "by-right plan," a proposal for a development that would require no zoning breaks or new ordinances. Intentionally uninspired, unabashedly ordinary, the by-right is a trump card that builders sometimes play to scare municipalities into giving them what they want.

Duckworth also considered it insurance. If the township approved the plan, he would have an easier time selling the property to another builder. And sell he would, he vowed, if he could not have his village.

In his by-right, row upon monotonous row of houses covered the tract, with just six acres of open space carved into small parcels around the borders.

Gone were the interior pocket parks and the nature preserve. Gone were the alleys and rear-facing garages. Gone was the community store. Gone, more or less, was Woodmont.

Flame still flickers, but just barely

At a public meeting in January, 10 months after first pitching Woodmont to the Lower Moreland planning commissioners, Duckworth was back before them. In the audience were about three dozen residents, half as many as had earlier turned out to protest his village.

This time, there was no evangelical fervor in his voice. Even standing to speak seemed too great an effort. He was there to present "an inferior plan," he said flatly, "but [one] which is permitted by your ordinances."

A schematic of an ordinary development sat on an easel at the front of the meeting room. Red dots signifying houses were sprinkled across a pale green background like a galloping case of measles.

"I just want to reiterate," he said before continuing, "I'd prefer to do a village."

If Duckworth had hoped that the blandness of his by-right plan would push the crowd to the same conclusion, it didn't.

Planning Commissioner William Hamburger happily noted that the community market, a focal point in Duckworth 's village, had disappeared. It would have been a magnet, Hamburger said, for hooligans and cars.

What criticisms were raised of the by-right plan were minimal, having to do mostly with the patches of green space that had survived the redesign.

One swath, 2 1/2 acres near the entrance, struck the township's planning consultant, Walter Evans, as too sloping. Commission Chairman Paul Synnestvedt thought it ill-placed; it might, he said, attract children from neighboring developments, who would be crossing busy roads to get there.

Helen Kessel didn't like that one bit. A resident of a small development abutting Duckworth 's tract, she made it clear: "I don't want to hear the noise of children playing basketball till 10 o'clock at night. We live in a quiet, rural neighborhood."

Duckworth sat rooted to his front-row seat, his stare fixed above the heads of the officials. He answered audience questions tersely, usually without standing or even turning.

Sometimes he didn't answer at all.

Agreeing that his by-right plan was less than inspired, three residents asked Duckworth to use his "visionary" talents, as one put it, to design a more interesting, if still conventional development.

"Deviate from this plan," urged architect Vincent Rivera, a member of Montgomery County's planning commission. "Do something more creative."

After two hours, the meeting adjourned with nothing decided. In that, Duckworth managed to find a thread of hope.

"The village is not dead," he said, packing up, "until the commissioners tell me it's dead."

A fresh start in another county

A shovel of dirt has yet to be turned at Byberry and Heaton Roads. But elsewhere in Lower Moreland, bulldozers are revving their engines.

In the 14 months that Joe Duckworth has fought the battle of Woodmont, three other developments - all compliant with current ordinances - have been proposed in the township.

One already has been approved: a K. Hovnanian project of 80 townhouses on 15 acres along Philmont Avenue, on the city border. In the commissioners' pipeline are a separate Hovnanian proposal, for 100 single-family homes, and a Toll Brothers plan for 57 townhouses.

All told, they would consume about 100 acres in the heavily developed southeastern end.

The bulk of the remaining open land is on the west side, where there is no sewer system.

"It seems preposterous it would ever be developed," said Alison Rudolf, the township manager. "But you don't know what's going to happen in 10 or 15 years."

That is why Lower Moreland officials will meet tonight to talk again about conservation ordinances and the Natural Lands Trust report, now a year old.

"Our concern," Synnestvedt said, "is that we do our very best to protect the environment while allowing these developers their right to develop."

Duckworth , meanwhile, has taken his mission to Lancaster County. There, on 440 acres of farmland in Manor Township, he wants to build a TND rivaling the Kentlands in Maryland in size and complexity.

The village of Fairsted, requiring 15 years to complete, would have more than 1,400 homes, 200,000 square feet of retail space, a school, a library, a post office, and 100 open acres. Township officials were so supportive that they rezoned the site to accommodate it.

Yet Fairsted also is at an impasse, having had the ground yanked out from beneath it.

In March, Armstrong World Industries announced that it was going to cancel its agreement to sell the tract to Duckworth ; the tiling manufacturer cited its bankruptcy reorganization as the reason. The matter is still up in the air.

Just like his village of Woodmont. Although Lower Moreland officials will meet May 24 to again consider his by-right proposal, they have scheduled no hearing on his TND plan.

"The benefit of no longer being a Young Turk is that you do have patience," he said recently, though noting that the well is not bottomless. "I'm going to be a bulldog, and indomitable, to make these things happen. I'm too proud to not succeed."

In Lower Moreland, he said, he had not expected an overnight conversion. But with time, "I thought all would understand how the village was superior . . . I had this delusion they would like the idea of open space."

He has learned this, he said: "The process of changing minds is neither easy nor swift."

 ŠPhiladelphia Inquirer 2001 

 

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