[Update: The Borough had 30 days to appeal, and the window has closed. Nonetheless, it is our opinion that the Borough should have shut down this this matter well before the first hearing.]
Apparently a unanimous vote against them failed to convince the Borough to stand down after all. According to documents we’ve received today via a Right-to-Know request, Jenkintown Borough is or was considering an appeal of the ZHB vote taken last month regarding the notice of violation against the Downses.
I just received copies of the July invoices pertaining to the Downs ZHB hearing. What I’ve included here is the invoice from Rudolph Clarke, the firm representing the ZHB. The total for that month from all the invoices amount to another $3500. What stands out is the $1162 the Borough spent AFTER the vote researching a possible appeal. If the appeal window has not closed, this ordeal might not be over after all. If it has, another $1162 in taxpayer money just went up in smoke.
Question: Has Jenkintown Borough leadership gone insane?
The notes over the redactions reveal the easily discerned text under the marker ink. Click the image for a larger view.
Last night, Jenkintown Borough Council staged a pop-up meeting to decide whether or not it should continue supporting the idea of a Taco Bell with drive-through in a spot where its own zoning prohibits it. Spoiler alert: They rescinded their support by a vote of 8-2, although this motion only removes their previous support of the idea. It does not mean that they now oppose it.
Voting “no” was council vice president and social media bully Rick Bunker and David Ballard. Chuck Whitney and Christian Soltysiak were not in attendance. Kieran Farrell and Melissa Young literally phoned it in.
This evening’s meeting turned out about thirty people, including the president of Summerwood, Scott Hummel, the prospective buyer of the property, and their attorney. They and exactly one other resident spoke in support of this development.
First, a note about transparency. Council President Deborra Sines-Pancoe has repeatedly expressed her commitment to transparency and making every effort in that regard. So, if you find yourself laughing out loud the next time she brings up the topic, no one will blame you. The Borough created that PDF only two days before the meeting and it posted it online sometime between then and yesterday afternoon when we discovered it. It did not send out an email, post a notice on their Facebook page, or put anything on its own website news feed. That is not commitment. That is lip service.
New evidence discounts Summerwood’s tax claims
Much of the argument in favor of a single-story fast-food franchise, surrounded by a parking lot with drive-through open seven days until 2 A.M. centered around tax revenue projections. These claims came accompanied by more falling-sky predictions for the school district if the Borough denies Summerwood the opportunity to send even more critical density necessary for a viable central district to a landfill.
If Mr. Bunker would only look up from his taco plate and actually do the research … he might understand that favoring automobiles over pedestrians has historically destroyed downtowns.
However, new information emerged about the fallacy of a tax-receipt windfall from Taco Bell. In terms of gross business revenue, the two firms currently occupying the Hellweg building already generate roughly the same amount as a typical Taco Bell. On the raw financials alone, the opposition drove a stake into the heart of the variances. This project can claim no advantage to the borough or the school district that should compel the ZHB to override.
Also of note, one resident pointed out that the Hellweg family never advertised its property for sale. We still don’t know the details on how Summerwood and Mr. Hummel got together on this deal, but we may never know what might have happened if Mr. Hummel actually advertised this property. Developers are indeed not shy, as one resident pointed out, but they do tend to run in their own tribes.
Drive-through = blight
Aside from the financials, Rick Bunker dismissed the opposition’s research out of hand and made an egregiously uninformed claim that the opposition cared only about aesthetics. If Mr. Bunker would only look up from his taco plate and actually do the research on the value of pedestrian-friendly development, he might understand that favoring automobiles over pedestrians has historically destroyed downtowns.
Jenkintown has a few bright spots, but York Road between Cloverly and Washington Lane continues to decline, both in terms of aesthetics and property value. In fact, the JSD has cited the declining tax base in the central business district as the primary reason for taking more money from homeowners.
This vote now leaves it up to the Zoning Hearing Board and PennDOT, which must agree to installing a new traffic light at the location — and not at York and Cherry. We’re told that the odds of PennDOT putting a light at Taco Bell’s entrance run somewhere between slim and none, but it should still bother residents that a bureaucrat in Harrisburg has so much control over the future of our town.
Credit for this vote goes to Tim Dibble and all those that signed his petition and those who contributed to their GoFundMe to pay for attorney Michael Yanoff’s services representing the anti-sprawl, pro-community position. We are grateful that a majority of Council reconsidered their position.
We made a correction to our description of Scott Hummel. He is not one of the current owners of the property as we had described, but seeks to purchase it from the Hellweg family for lease to Summerwood. If the ZHB turns down the variances, Mr. Hummel loses nothing.
Last night’s the “Conversation with the Commissioners” event at the Abington Township Office not only gave us a good dose of information about county activities, it also revealed the stark contrast between Jenkintown’s government with one committed to transparency above and beyond the strict legal guidelines.
First, the concept: Montgomery County is a big place, so having our commissioners set up open forums to meet constituents shows a true commitment to an open process that provides residents with updates and allows them to directly ask questions and make suggestions. Compare that to Jenkintown, a tiny place with twelve representatives who only show up in public at official meetings and the occasional public event to deal with a looming, controversial issue (if even then).
Second, the venue: My first time at the Abington offices starkly contrasts with what we experience in Jenkintown. I understand that Abington is a much larger municipality with a larger budget, but seeing their council room fully equipped with working microphones, cameras for live video, comfortable seating, windows(!), and working ventilation shows a desire by a local government to encourage participation. While I do strongly believe that government must scrutinize every dime that passes through its hands, I also believe that the people should demand government venues as points of pride.
Third, the message: We seem to have quite the proactive county government. Chairperson Val Arkoosh proudly cited a litany of programs and activities and at the same time heralded the county’s restored AAA bond rating. Our taxes went up, but they are still the lowest of all the counties in the region, she claims. Whatever you might think of its policies, it does seem that the county expedites them with a level of professionalism and transparency sorely missing in Jenkintown. In other words, the county doesn’t punch above its weight.
Setting aside the politics of all this activity or even the necessity of county government in general, the presentation displayed a conspicuous degree of competence and professionalism that Jenkintown residents deserve for our community. Perhaps that new borough hall might some day become a reality, but some of that Cedar Street money might have instead gone to a working AV system, functioning air conditioning, and better gallery seating in Council chambers — anything that invites citizen participation and transparency. Then again, that would have to be a cornerstone of our government’s agenda.
It always puzzles me when I see and hear people lament controversy and seek a return to nothing but happy talk, whether it’s about their town, their particular interest group, or about some relationship. The Titanic might be sinking, but they just want to gaze at the majestic iceberg in the water. Those of you who just want “everyone to get along” or to stop saying bad things about Jenkintown truly need to get your heads out of the sand. In the face of recent events, your choices are these: lead, follow, or get out of the way.
I too love, or at least desire to love, this little town. It is a special place in more ways than one. However to live here with blinders on does this community a grave disservice, especially when the main source of the problems here comes from our own government. The abuses and incompetence of Borough Hall simply cannot be ignored any longer. As homeowners and taxpayers, we ALL should be concerned and not be afraid to speak out against what is happening. Because YOU might be next.
In the 15 years I’ve lived here (so far), the one thing that continues to bother me is the underlying fear that so many have expressed to me of Borough Hall. People do not want to speak out because they do not want to get in the Borough’s crosshairs. I get that. I suppose with all that’s happening to Peggy and Dave Downs, who could blame them. The last thing I want to do now is improve my house in any way because of the permits it will require and the hassle I expect to get. If you don’t think that Sean Kilkenny and the gang aren’t trying to make an example out of them, you are kidding yourself.
I don’t know about you, but I’m simply not the type to bend over and take it. I grew up in a hard scrapple household with a single mother who fought her way through life. She was a hell-raiser, a union maid, and at times a determined battle-axe of a woman who did not always do what she was told. She was a high school drop-out who would eventually graduate from college at 49 with a degree in education. So, no, I’m not going to be quiet when I see good people wrongfully targeted by government abuse.
I know there are plenty of others here in this town who get this, who are more than a little sick and tired with our government’s activities, but you have to speak out now. I would also urge you to reach out to the media or any other organization you know of that might take an interest in delving deeper into this matter and others.
A couple of years ago, the National Geographic’s website published a charming piece about our “Big Hearted” town. That may indeed be true, but failing to consider the flaws in that heart makes the story a lie. Not everyone here is happy with what’s going on. Besides the negligence of our government, people leave here because they can’t pay the taxes. Some of that is not under our control, but much of it is.
Jenkintown is slowly but surely becoming an enclave for the wealthy on one side and a transient “community” of renters on the other. If you think it’s bad now, just wait another ten years.
Making the case to hire a Main Street manager for Jenkintown
Central to the discussion of Jenkintown’s revival is the Jenkintown2035 plan. Two years ago, through the input of Jenkintown residents, we drafted our vision for the town’s future. You can read all about it on the Borough’s website.
As plans go, it is pretty comprehensive, and it does have plenty of fine ideas. Its contents lay out a fairly predictable but solid vision for an older, inner-ring suburb such as Jenkintown: An emphasis on “walkability”, architectural preservation, good connections to transit, etc.
However, we’ve heard repeatedly that the number one concern of residents is the revival of the commercial district. In the section covering economic development which includes the commercial district, the plan lays out these three guiding principles:
Continue to support the growth of Jenkintown’s Town Center district as a destination for arts, entertainment, dining, and music while maintaining its distinctive identity and sense of place.
Build upon the established scale and historic character of Jenkintown’s commercial areas while improving the downtown experience by enhancing the public realm, creating a pleasant strolling environment, and establishing a cohesive identity for the Borough’s commercial areas.
Encourage new development that grows the Borough’s business and property tax base and creates new and diverse employment opportunities within the Borough.
Not meaning to beat a dead chihuahua, but how does a Taco Bell advance any of those three principles? How does a million-dollar pocket park?
How Hatboro manages
We have frequently cited Hatboro as an example to follow. It has not only kept its on-street parking, it today finds itself in the midst of a real revival. It has many things in common with Jenkintown. It has transit, a traditional downtown district, walkable neighborhoods, and ready access to transit.
Hatboro also has a plan for its future development, but unlike Jenkintown, it hired a steward for that plan in 2011 — a professional consultant named Stephen Barth of Barth Consulting Group. Since Mr. Barth became Hatboro’s Main Street Manager in 2011, he has overseen the rehabilitation of its downtown as well as more than $45 million in residential and commercial development throughout the borough.
Hatboro’s council and manager delegated that authority to Barth, and the results speak for themselves. As Barth describes it, he serves as the point man for any new project in Hatboro. He takes the plan, and as he describes it, works backward from the outline, always asking the question, how does that help us achieve our goals, and if it doesn’t how can we steer it in that direction?
We sat down for lunch with Barth at Bernie’s in the heart of Hatboro to chat about his role in the budding revival. This Bernie’s he pointed out, represents a true $2 million investment in the town’s commercial district. It has preserved the streetscape, and gives both residents and visitors yet another contemporary dining option.
Bernie’s also features outdoor seating, something that Fontana’s Restaurant, its predecessor, did not have. Though still open when he became the Main Street manager, Barth stepped into the very tired space and found it completely empty at lunchtime on a beautiful day. So, he proposed to the owner to conduct a little experiment.
“I said if he would let me set up tables on the sidewalk, I would buy lunch for anyone who sat there.”
Then as now Hatboro had no ordinance prohibiting sidewalk cafes as long as it didn’t block pedestrian traffic.
“Just my putting tables outside started to attract attention, drawing people into the restaurant.”
The experiment proved a rousing success, although one that took more than a few dollars out of Barth’s wallet. “I didn’t consider that people would start ordering the most expensive items on the menu,” he smiled, “or bottles of wine!”
Nevertheless, he proved his point. At a certain point, foot traffic attracts more foot traffic — something that a traditional downtown like ours is designed to accommodate.
Cloudy with a chance of 8 balls
Borough Council member Kieran Farrell reminds residents at every opportunity to read and comment on the Jenkintown2035 plan. While laudable, Council’s recent actions show the futility of further public involvement.
We strongly recommend that if the Borough truly believes in this plan that we helped to draft, then it must allocate funds for a trained professional to turn it into reality. No one in Borough Hall currently has the qualifications for that role, least of all our current Borough Manager who spent most of his time during the “Conversation” in the corner of the cafeteria.
Do we seriously believe that current Council leadership will delegate that authority? Let’s ask the Magic 8 Ball.