Author Topic: Suggestions for Dealing with Planning/Zoning Fast-tracking Apartment Building  (Read 629 times)

Indio

  • Bristles
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  • Posts: 314
Looking for advice and suggestions about how to challenge, what appears to be an inevitable, planning and zoning approval.

The suburban community I live in is on the border of two states, with a river serving as a natural divider for most of the state line. This year the town experienced reduced tax income because of large property lots being sold to non-profits, which will no longer pay property taxes.  As a result, the town is looking for new ways to make up this lost revenue without raising taxes so new development projects are being pushed through quickly without impact studies or reviews.

Here's my issue:

A proposed 120 unit, 4 story apartment building has been proposed to be built over an existing, paved parking lot, in a flood plain, and behind/next door to an office building. The 140,000 sq ft office building has an occupancy level of 15-25% so the owners  are exploring ways to generate revenue because they aren't attracting tenants. The parking lot regularly floods because it is located 20 ft from a river/tidal bay, with a 6 ft tide impact, so the building plans include elevating the structure/apartments to allow for parking underneath the building and comply with federal flood guidelines. The emergency evacuation plan involves sending all area residents to two buildings.

The river has had several environmental studies, most recently 2014, indicating that it has high levels of pollutants and needs to be remediated. Both states' environmental protection agency have agreed that this is a problem. Despite the pollution, an endangered turtle species lives about 1/4 mile upstream in brackish waters. Increased human activity next to this river, will directly impact the environment. Wetlands dept has already given their approval for the project to move forward, which is ironic because they have been very hard on homeowners that build rain gardens or make any changes within 50ft of wetlands area.

The community has a sewage treatment plant that regularly overflows into the river and beaches, if there is more than 1 inch of rain, and 120 units with 2 bedrooms in the building, will put increased load on this plant. The builder offerred to install a sewage treatment solution, but for some reason, it was deemed unnecessary. Additionally, the builder is allocating 10 units for use as moderately priced housing, which is much needed and appeals to the town who wants it allocated for town employees.

During rush hour, traffic in the area is becoming a major headache on the main commerical road. School start times recently changed to hit right in the middle of rush hour so now there are school buses and kids in this high traffic volume area. The Commissioner of public works has openly stated that they are not able to do anything to help with traffic since they have already changed the traffic light timing and that hasn't improved the situation. To avoid the traffic congestion and get to the nearby major roadways or train stations, cars typically take shortcuts through residential area.

The local elementary schools are at full capacity, every available space is used as a classroom, and has been sited by the state for having a racial imbalance. The town's response may be to redistrict and bus kids to schools in other parts of town, but this has been ongoing for more than 10 yrs and of course, is not a popular solution with parents.

While the town is affluent, the community where the apartment building is sited is not and the traffic corridor is becoming increasingly congested and impacting quality of life for residents.

We are a small group of residents, who are trying to stop this project. We have started petitions, spoken at planning meetings, but the process keeps moving forward without concern for any of the issues mentioned above.

I'm looking for any advice, suggestions or ideas from this smart group of people on how to tackle this problem. Thanks in advance for sharing your wisdom and experience.

Barben

  • 5 O'Clock Shadow
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  • Posts: 10
  • Location: Rural PA
I'm usually on the development team, so I'm just going to list things that would make my job harder. 

Unfortunately, it sounds like this is going to happen one way or another.  Some projects just get that local/state blessing where everything is on "easy mode" so to speak because some elected officials want to say that they're doing well with revenue, or housing, or bringing jobs, etc. 

So background: generally, zoning/planning laws are set up to allow any type of development somewhere in the municipality (you can't just blanket-prohibit a use), but a floodplain by a river seems bad. So your best-case result may be getting the developer to install all environmental stream buffers, flood openings, and maybe traffic signals. 

Your best chance to throw monkey wrenches into this are at the local/municipal level.  This is because once the project goes to the state for approvals, there's always a path to take to get to construction.  That path could will add cost and requirements, but it's there.

Start with Zoning.  Every municipality (sometimes the County) has a zoning ordinance, which lays out the types of uses allowed in each area.  Look at the development location to see if apartments like this are a principal permitted use (PPU), conditional use (CU), or not permitted.  If it's a PPU, then you're probably out of luck for this path.  If it's a CU or not permitted, check with the planning department to see if the developer is requesting any variances.  Variances are requests to go outside the zoning regulations for something, whether it's limited parking, a smaller setback (from, say, that stream you mentioned), or whatever else.  There are hearings for these, and you should gather all the information you have about the river, turtles, etc. with a bunch of other concerned citizens and go.  There is usually a public comment. 

Specific concerns to raise at the hearing (or any public meeting discussing the project) are as you mentioned (environmental, safety of residents due to flooding, etc.) But instead of talking about is from an "I'm worried about..." go with "Did they get approval for..."  This is going to be effective because all the municipality (and the developer/engineer) are trying to do is not get sued.  So if an ordinance says they need approval from a conservation/environmental/watershed district, they better have it.  It's not going to stop the project forever, but it's a roadblock. 

Ask about permits from conservation/environmental/watershed districts, the state DOT, the Delaware River/Chesapeake Bay/(Major Body of Water) Commission, the state environmental agency (DEP/EPA), the state historical commission (if one exists), and FEMA.  Not all of these may be needed, but it's worth asking.

If you're in Pennsylvania, let me know via PM and I can make more specific suggestions.

Indio

  • Bristles
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  • Posts: 314
Thanks for the ideas @Barben.

I'm going to reach out to the neighbors to see who has a copy of the paperwork. It was in a dropbox account but mysteriously disappeared today so I couldn't look into the variances and property use types.