Big Brother Code Enforcement

Jenkintown makes code enforcement double-plus good.

Big Brother peers in on the Jenkintown Community Facebook page

A few weeks ago, I made the mistake of recommending to a fellow resident seeking a contractor for a furnace replacement that he might do the work himself.

Facing a similar project, I consulted a friend and fellow DIYer, who told me that the job no more requires a contractor than does the replacement of a washing machine. My friend and I plan to convert my system from oil to gas. I look forward to the savings in energy, money, and space.

Full letter from Jenkintown BoroughAbout a week and a half after I posted my intentions on the Jenkintown Community Group page on Facebook, I received an official letter from the borough signed by Kevin Lynch that due to my “posting on social media,” he felt it necessary to remind me of my obligations to the Borough, namely the permits I need to file and pay for.

Yet again, the Borough provides another revealing window on their operation. I never stated an intention to “stick it to the man”, so it makes one wonder that in a town riddled with ongoing, unaddressed code violations, the Borough would take the time to single out someone discussing a furnace upgrade on Facebook. I wish my description of Jenkintown as “small town politics at its smallest” didn’t have such a ring of truth, but rarely does a month pass by when it lives up to that reputation.

Should we add permit fees to the whole “death and taxes” thing? We seem to have come to an understanding as a society that whenever we want to do something to our property, we probably need a permit. Government and apologists for statism will snap back that the permitting process is for our own safety and the good of the community, but is it really?

When I filed a Right to Know request to for copies of all the sidewalk permits, I first asked if the Borough could provide me with the grand total of contractor estimates for the work performed. They said they did not compile that information, and that some of those permits didn’t have that line item. Considering the incredulity of this, I pressed on with my request, only to find that the Borough did indeed distribute no fewer than four versions of the permit, two of which did not ask for the contractor’s estimate, a line item it said it didn’t require in any case. The form didn’t provide such a disclaimer, which meant that a healthy percentage of people did thankfully provide it.

So, if the Borough does not compile any of the information in a database, does not provide a uniform application process, and doesn’t care what you and I spend on our sidewalks, why do they charge for these permits? To offset the cost of having George Locke walk, excuse me, drive out to the worksite, look at the work, and say, “Looks good to me”, all the while he’s on the Borough clock anyway? To whom does this make sense?

Incidentally, they honored my request before they realized they could charge me to redact the names and phone numbers on the permits. All I sought was the total cost, which they could have easily provided had they took the $25 and paid a temp to enter the information into a spreadsheet.

Not to worry, Mr. Ryan. If I do the work, the Borough will get its money. I don’t have an issue with having a third party inspecting the work, but if I’m already paying that third party’s salary, how is that not a cash grab, plain and simple? Money for nothing, indeed, and yet another example how our government nickels and dimes us out of the rewards of our hard work.

ADA requires four feet of space to allow for wheelchair access. This ongoing problem violates that requirement and the Borough is doing nothing to stop it.
ADA requires four feet of space to allow for wheelchair access. This ongoing problem violates that requirement and the Borough is doing nothing to stop it.

Bring Walnut Street parking into compliance before a lawsuit does

Jenkintown’s selective enforcement of its own laws risks expensive litigation.

As most people who live in Jenkintown know, the sidewalk along the 300 and 400 block on the south side of Walnut Street exists primarily as a parking spot for the residents who live along that road. Of course, this is not actually the case. Jenkintown regulations, as they do in most cities and towns, prohibit cars from parking on a sidewalk. Jenkintown, however, chooses to selectively enforce this ordinance — as they have with others — because they simply don’t know what do do without causing a firestorm of protest from those offenders.

What those residents don’t seem to understand and what Jenkintown has chosen to ignore is that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires 100% compliance in all public buildings and spaces. Public sidewalks must be four feet wide, and those along Walnut do meet that requirement. Exceptions might include areas with existing and long-standing obstructions such as telephone poles, but they do not include illegally parked vehicles. The ADA does not consider the inconvenience of the able-bodied.

As someone who has counseled private businesses about the necessity for compliance, I know not only something about the law, but also the risks of ignoring it. In 1999, the City of Worcester, Massachusetts faced a lawsuit for its failure to provide 100% compliance during renovations of its historic train station. The ADA accessible platforms did not extend the full length of the train. The suit halted construction on the $60 million project and delayed its opening by several months.

As a consultant for the restaurant industry, I’ve met with people seeking to restore historic structures and put them back into service. They would often bristle at the notion of expanding doorways to accommodate wheelchairs or to build obtrusive ramps which would harm the historic nature of the structure. My advice was always the same: Do not even think about trying to get a waiver. It only takes one guy in a wheelchair to show up at your permit hearing to stop your project cold and invite litigation.

The power of the ADA is not something to be trifled with, and indeed, the Borough spends significant money on building accessible sidewalk ramps. That’s the law. They have no choice.

The ADA doesn’t care about your sideview mirror

However, the situation on Walnut Street is not only a safety hazard for able-bodied pedestrians, it is impassible for the disabled. Eventually, the Borough could find itself embroiled in litigation that will demand enforcement of the law with significant fines by the state for its ongoing failure to comply with the ADA. That is simple reality.

Residents have complained online that they don’t want to pay for $400 mirrors; that this is a town from the “horse and buggy days,” and worse, that anyone who dares suggest the Borough actually enforce its own ordinances must be “an idiot.”

Don’t shoot the messenger, Jenkintonians. I sympathize with residents and understand their frustrations. I too have lived in areas with horrible parking, but I never dared to flout the law or claim a right to do so.

If you want to safely park your car somewhere, may I respectfully suggest purchasing a house with a driveway or access to a parking lot. The sidewalk does not belong to you. It is, as we have always maintained, a public resource reserved for the pedestrian.

A simple blueprint for a more transparent Jenkintown

A simple blueprint for a more transparent Jenkintown

What began as an effort to simply change the sidewalk ordinance so that it becomes more equitable and produces superior results has evolved into an investigation into the overall competence of Jenkintown government. The more you know, the less you like, sad to say. Indeed, it seems that at times Council makes things up as they go along, which we have to assume is a downside of all-volunteer governance.

What’s worse is that the more we try to shine some light on their activities, the more they tend to circle the wagons. The grapevine now tells us that despite Council’s assurances of openness and transparency, they have begun to consider prohibiting citizen live streaming their meetings. We hope this isn’t the case. With the Borough now considering a major move to sell its properties to a developer, a commitment to an open process is more vital than ever.
 To us, an open process means the following:


More timely email updates and announcements. Borough Hall still seems reluctant to release information much more than 48 hours in advance. We ask for a five-day notice minimum. Council President Deborrah Sines-Pancoe seems to struggle with procedure and resources, but regarding the latter, we have a non-profit client with two employees that manage to issue an email every month with little trouble.

Regarding the former, that’s for Borough Hall to work out, but we suggest that any issue that commits taxpayers in any substantial way, that may affect tax levies, the physical appearance of Jenkintown, and relevant public meeting should warrant a succinct blast, post on the Facebook page, and published on the Borough website five days in advance.

Electronic media

Anyone who compares meeting minutes with our recent YouTube postings will clearly see the discrepancy between the official record and reality. The minutes omit a great deal. The Borough must at the very least archive all recordings of its meetings. They can either do that on their own equipment, or they can upload the audio files to, which will cost them nothing.

Currently, the Borough does generate an electronic audio recording of its meetings, but once the minutes are filed, they destroy the file. There’s no excuse for this.


The Borough must commit itself to live streaming its meetings. As we have proven, there remains no barrier, financial or technological, to doing this on a regular basis. All videos can both be streamed from and archived on YouTube or Facebook or both.


As we have pointed out on many occasions, with each ward represented by three council members, you’d think you might see them once in a while. In our ward, only now-former-councilor Laurie Durkin ever bothered to even leave a pamphlet on our door since we moved here. Our representatives are more than welcome to knock on our door and talk about anything with us. We guarantee a polite, intelligent discussion about what we think would make our community better.

Can the Borough finally admit to the inadequacy of its current procedure for dissemination, and that it must finally come into the 21st century? Doing this will go a long way to alleviating the Borough from the expense of fulfilling the spate of Right-To-Know requests it has endured of late.
The Myth of Main Street fails to explain Jenkintown's decline

The Myth of Main Street fails to explain Jenkintown’s decline

The New York Times recently published a widely shared article about Main Street and how some believe our new president will prove a boon to it. Louis Hyman lays the blame of for the decline of Main Street solely on its inherent economic inefficiencies.

It’s worth noting that the idealized Main Street is not a myth in some parts of America today. It exists, but only as a luxury consumer experience. Main Streets of small, independent boutiques and nonfranchised restaurants can be found in affluent college towns, in gentrified neighborhoods in Brooklyn and San Francisco, in tony suburbs — in any place where people have ample disposable income. Main Street requires shoppers who don’t really care about low prices. The dream of Main Street may be populist, but the reality is elitist. “Keep it local” campaigns are possible only when people are willing and able to pay to do so.

This otherwise fine article fails to cite the single most important factor in the decline of Main Street, which had nothing to do with the spread of big box retailers. Downtown’s fate became sealed after World War Two when government at all levels essentially subsidized the development of the suburbs, often the more far flung, the better. The blame for the decline of Main Street lies at the hands of government at all levels.

In Jenkintown’s case, PennDOT compounded this with policies that prioritized the movement of automobiles over the safety of pedestrians — something that too many in the Borough have yet to grasp. The construction of a $2.4 million parking lot attests to that, as does Borough Council’s continued failure to wrangle control of Old York Road back from PennDOT.

If one looks over vintage post cards of downtown America, they will see plenty of Sears & Roebucks, Walgreen’s, J.C. Penney’s, Kresge’s, W.T. Grant’s and other national or regional retail chains. Despite what this article says, Main Street viability did not depend upon economic ossification and the preference of local shops over national.

Viable downtowns require a better understanding of economic and environmental sustainability. When I lived in Worcester, Massachusetts, I used to say gladly that if Walmart ever opened a store on Main Street, I’d be among the first to step through its doors (not that I’d buy much). In the Clapham district of London, you’ll find the supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, a store nearly as large as any local ACME, right on its main street.

Downtown Jenkintown today is about as relevant to everyday life as a Charles Dickens novel. If I can’t buy a tube of toothpaste there, what’s the point?

jenkintown parking lot

The damage of Jenkintown’s $2.4 million lake of parking

The Congress for New Urbanism advocates for sustainable development — the type of development that Jenkintown has enjoyed since its founding. Unfortunately, our powers that be have little clue about the underlying reasons for why residents and visitors find our little borough so charming. Hint: It’s not the parking lots.

On-street parking does several good things, and its alternative (on-site parking lots) does nothing good. Google “sea of parking.” Are any of the hits positive? Of course not; a sea of parking is dreadful on all counts. Beyond the obvious ugliness, they heat the microclimate by absorbing solar radiation and heating the air above them. Heating the microclimate makes walking uncomfortable and so people drive, even if the parking lot is out of sight. More driving = more crashes and more deaths and injuries.

Source: How fire chiefs and traffic engineers make places less safe | CNU