- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

WEST CONSHOHOCKEN, Pa. If you travel any road here far enough, and usually not that far, you will see a new building, new house, or some piece of land somewhere in the process of being converted into either of the above.

For Mary Rumford, 47, it means $500,000 homes popping up like dandelions around her family home in Whitemarsh. The woods are gone, she says, "and there won't be a blade of grass left."

For Michael Soppick, 77, it means security men from the newly built Tower Bridge building trying to bully him off the Schuylkill River's edge, where he has fed ducks and geese for years. The weather-worn maintenance man has held his ground so far, but he worries what will happen when construction on the building upriver gets done.

But for crane operator Fred Law, 52, who is constructing that building, it means jobs. He remembers long-gone spots for hunting pheasant and fishing spots made treacherous by debris left in the river, but "you've got that everywhere," he says.

And for real estate broker Terry L. Derstine, it means another sale.

Montgomery County's growing pains are ones that many other counties in Pennsylvania would die for. Some in this suburb of Philadelphia say it is just good growth. But most residents say it has gone too far. Farms are disappearing, spacious tracts are being subdivided and traffic can be a headache on even the smallest country roads.

"What we really want to find is that delicate balance between property rights and the community's interest to see its quality of life improving," says Pennsylvania state Sen. James Gerlach of Pottstown. "You can't take away someone's right to develop their land the way they want to, unless it butts up against the community's strong interest to assure its quality of life."

While Republicans, who dominate county politics, and Democrats alike agree there is a problem, the issue will still be a point of contention in the run-up to this fall's elections.

Changing landscapes

At first, affluent Montgomery County's problems do not seem drastic at most an annoyance any other suburban area must bear. It is not immediately apparent what is wrong with more mansions and more industry.

But it is the scale and persistence of the area's haphazard development that is alarming.

Once, upscale homes followed the Southeast Pennsylvania Main Line from Philadelphia into Montgomery County. Factories and blue-collar neighborhoods hugged the Schuylkill River while huge estates peered from the bluffs above. After World War II, 56 percent of the county's acreage was tilled by farmers.

Many of the country homes, factories and working-class neighborhoods remain. But from Lower Merion to Upper Salford, tract mansions, town houses, strip malls and corporate compounds have now filled in much of the once-pastoral landscape.

In Plymouth, traffic backs up for blocks on Germantown Pike's one southeast-bound lane, which, inexplicably, is used as an exit for two major interstates. And to the east in Whitemarsh, a group of homes, a factory and farmland form a strange triad along the highway.

Century-old homes flank Sumneytown Pike as it winds through the old Mennonite farming communities of northern Montgomery County. But just west of Harleysville, a block off the pike, is Bella Vista, a half-mile asphalt loop ringed by about 40 new three-story houses, each with its own two-car garage.

In the Bella Vista development, there are sidewalks, but it is not clear where anyone would use them to go.

East of Harleysville is yet another farm with a sign saying "Sold. Zoned [multi-use] commercial and residential."

"People moved out here because of the quality of life, the open spaces, the quality of the parks and education," says Karen Friedman, a former television news reporter from Philadelphia running as a Democrat for the 61st state representative district.

Her campaign fliers say she will control development by "maintaining and enlarging open space, putting residents on an equal footing with developers, [and] easing traffic gridlock."

Her Republican opponent, Kate Harper, a lawyer and vice chairman of Lower Gwynedd Township, says she has been working to help communities control sprawl for the last decade and believes its causes are as deep-rooted as the history of the state itself.

A good idea gone awry

Montgomery County's dual role as a bedroom community for Philadelphia and home to its own industry formerly manufacturing, now largely medical and financial has spurred astronomic growth. When the rest of Pennsylvania was watching its children leave, Montgomery County saw double-digit immigration, much of it from Philadelphia. As a result, its population has more than doubled since World War II.

At the same time, the state has allowed municipal governments, not the counties, to set their own zoning. That freedom, however, has come with a cost.

Under Pennsylvania state law, each township must provide a reasonable amount of space for every possible form of zoning for everything from farms and family homes to the heaviest of industry and megamalls.

The so-called Curative Amendment was designed to prevent towns from using zoning to keep out low-income housing. Instead, it is often used as a tool by developers against towns.

Local lawmakers say developers sometimes use the Curative Amendment to blackmail towns, threatening to force one type of development into the area so that the town will accept another.

"Time after time after time, it happens," state Sen. Richard Tilghman of Conshohocken says. "It's a baseball bat occasionally used against municipal government."

Making matters worse, Mr. Tilghman and others say, Pennsylvania's townships rely almost exclusively on property taxes for revenue. And while the township board of supervisors may not want yet another corporate compound, leaving former farmland as open space is a drain on the tax base.

But Terry Derstine says some are making too much of the county's problems. Certainly traffic is a pain, the real estate broker says, but some of the solutions to such problems can be extreme and ill-thought out.

He sold a farm east of Harleysville first zoned to require any builder to put shops on the first floor and apartments upstairs.

That makes sense for the densely packed streets of Norristown, or any of the other towns skirting Philadelphia, but the requirement seems a little extreme for a former cornfield 15 miles from the city line, Mr. Derstine says.

Instead, the developer negotiated with the township to build free-standing homes and stores, which will be better for sales and the city, Mr. Derstine says.

Mr. Derstine and others say much of the debate is being fueled by people who, having built their own new homes, want to shut the gates to more development.

Some point to Whitpain Township for proof of this drawbridge mentality.

There, St. Helena's Church has been considering selling to developers 39 acres of woods and open space behind its church and nunnery. But on April 18, the Board of Supervisors told its attorney to draw up an ordinance condemning the land to take over the property.

According to the Times Herald, board President Leigh Narducci said that they will not necessarily condemn the property, but they could if the church refused to sell to them.

The town may use the area for trails, leave the woods as a nature preserve, or it may chop down the woods for ball fields or playgrounds.

"We are not prepared to define our plans yet, but it will certainly be more open than the developer's plans," Mr. Narducci told the Times Herald.

A few solutions

"I am not saying growth is bad," says Mr. Gerlach from his Senate district office in Ludwig's Corner. "I just want to make sure that communities can deal with growth."

Mr. Gerlach is the author of legislation that would revise the Curative Amendment and make other changes that would allow communities to form regional alliances to control development.

For example, towns with a regional zoning agreement would be allowed to zone for different types of development anywhere within the region, rather than being forced to find room within each township for every type of development.

The bill has passed the Pennsylvania Senate and is likely to be passed by the House.

In fact, it is Mr. Gerlach's bill that Mr. Tilghman says he backs as one of the key land-use solutions for his midcounty state Senate district.

Lynn Yeakel, the Democrat running against Mr. Tilghman, says she likes the bill but counters that Mr. Tilghman is too late in trying to find solutions.

"He has been there 30 years. He can talk about this all he wants, but where is the leadership," says Mrs. Yeakel, talking over coffee at the Villanova Diner.

"We are both right on the issue," Ms. Friedman says of her opponent for the 61st state representative district, Mrs. Harper. But Ms. Friedman notes that of two contributions Mrs. Harper has received this year, one came from a Realtors PAC.

"People are sick of politics as usual," Ms. Friedman says. "Pennsylvania has had a Republican governor, Republican House and Republican Senate," but no progress has been made on dealing with overdevelopment.

Mrs. Harper responds that Ms. Friedman "doesn't understand the situation."

Pennsylvania townships are notoriously possessive of their independence, and voters are just as fiercely protective of their property rights.

Mrs. Harper says an ideal example is the proposed Schuylkill River Greenway, a nascent idea that is in the squishy "dialogue" phase with hopes of creating a "shared vision."

The hope is that as the effort continues, residents in the 16 communities involved will realize the Greenway can be more than just a bicycle trail or "open space" corridor, but an integral part of a regional plan to make better use of the river, rebuild abandoned neighborhoods and control the use of undeveloped land.

Mrs. Harper, speaking of both the Greenway project and Mr. Gerlach's land-use legislation, says, "It has taken a long time, and it wasn't easy to do."

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