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Residents 'Blindsided' by YMCA Expansion

Residents in the neighborhood of Forest Avenue, Highland Avenue and Church Road have asked Lansdale Borough for better notification, quicker access to meeting minutes

At the Lansdale Borough town hall meeting last month, a discussion on quicker accessibility to meeting minutes and problems with the  shed some light on what the borough is legally obligated to do when it comes to development.

Economic Development Committee Chairwoman and Councilwoman Mary Fuller read a letter at the town hall session from borough resident Jessica Behrle, who owns the property at the corner of Church Road and Forest Avenue.

In her letter, Behrle, who read the same letter at the June 20 council meeting, expressed frustration on projects in the borough that have impacted the well-being of her home and family: 

I have been trying to access the meeting minutes and agendas for committee meetings and borough council meetings. I have discovered that meeting minutes from the most recent meetings have not been posted. In addition, agendas for meetings are most often not posted until the afternoon on the day of the meeting.

I would like to request that all meeting minutes be posted within a reasonable, not causing undue burden on the borough, timeframe after the meeting, and marked as draft pending council committee resolution agreement, with final minutes posted once they are approved.

In addition, I request that all agendas be posted in a rational and reasonable timeframe prior to the meeting. Just as members of the committee council should know the topics being addressed, in order to prepare for the meeting, the residents should also have time to prepare for the topics covered in the meeting.

Fuller said agendas for meetings are usually posted 24 hours prior to a meeting. However, sometimes those agendas are not finalized by then, and must receive approval from the respective department head prior to public posting.

Fuller said often times council members are receiving updates to the agendas by Wednesday afternoon and up to the evening of the meeting. Even then, there are about two more drafts that come out after the original.

Resident Grace Walz, of Highland Avenue, said Behrle's letter reflects that fact that neighbors were scrambling to find out information on the progress of the YMCA development.

"The neighborhood was blindsided by the expansion," said Walz. "I talked to ( CEO) Bob Gallagher several months ago, and he told us it would be at least two years. And then all of a sudden this happened. It seems like a lot was done that neighbors had no inkling about."

Fuller said she could understand Walz's concern.

"I'm sorry it wasn't more clearly made public to the neighborhood," she said. "Although, I think that was the collaborative's job."

Walz said certain neighbors received a letter about the project from the YMCA.

"They didn't go out to all the neighbors," she said. 

Director of Community Development John Ernst said he spoke with Behrle at the council meeting. He then explained the status of the project with those in attendance at the town hall session.

Ernst said the project has gone through several committees in the borough, including zoning hearing board. It is currently before the planning commission.

"In order to go in front of the zoning hearing board, we are legally obligated to notify the residents within a certain radius of the property that this application is being held at a public forum for certain reasons," Ernst said. "According to borough ordinance, we are obligated to inform residents within 150 feet of the property. The borough notifies all residents within 200 feet of the property, so we hit the maximum number of residents we are legally obligated to notify."

Those notifications include information on what is happening at a certain date, what is going to be discussed and the implications that could happen with the project. 

In addition to the resident notification, the property itself is posted with information and the project is advertised twice in the newspaper. 

"The YMCA, knowing that this could be a project that generates interest among neighbors, decided they were going to have a public meeting and invite neighbors," Ernst said. "I can't speak for the YMCA on how they chose the neighbors that they would invite, but they did acquire from my office the listing of people that were notified legally from the zoning hearing notification."

Ernst said the borough made all efforts to make sure that residents were notified. He said the borough could have done more, but then there are consequences like increased postage costs and making sure all the right things get sent out.

"Then, where do you stop and which projects do you decide you're going to notify a wider range of people?" he said. "We try to be consistent."

In many situations, a proposed project is allowed to be built on a property by right; the owner has a vested interest to develop what they want within code.

"If the developer chose to do something that is allowed to be done by the zoning district, the borough is no right to stop them," Ernst said.

If a developer wants to build something that is restricted in the district, then they must seek relief from the zoning hearing board and show a hardship.

"The YMCA has every right to do what it is doing there," Ernst said. "We could have ended up with a body shop or a gas station there, and that would be allowed. But maybe there would be more opposition. It is an economic incentive for the borough."

Once a project passes the zoning hearing board, it goes through the planning commission, Ernst said. The planning commission, through the Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance, deals with how land is used in the borough and looks at items like stormwater management and a timeline of responsibility.

Resident Linda Breithaupt said residents must be aware of where to look for information on Lansdale projects. She said the borough has been posting information on meetings for street improvements, the most recent being for Knapp Road.

"I live a block away from Knapp. I knew my street would be affected, and I wanted to be there to make sure they knew that," she said. "I didn’t see any of my other neighbors. I went because there was an ad in the paper. I wanted to make sure I knew what was going on, even though I was not directly involved."

Read the paper, read the Patch," she said. "They do try and get it out there as much as they can."

Fuller said the struggle is there are so many ways to get the word out, and so many ways the borough doesn't get the word out.

"They had a poll run in the Patch that asked why don’t people attend town hall meetings. Overwhelmingly, people said 'I wasn’t aware of the meeting' and we've been doing this about a year or more now," Fuller said.

"The funny part," Breithaupt said, "is 45 to 50 respondents weren't aware. But now they are aware and they don't come here." 

Many residents at the meeting agreed that it all comes down to demographics and who has time to attend meetings. 

"It's tough. Where do people get their info? Are they reading the paper? Are they looking on Facebook? Do they only do it via email?" Fuller said. "Even if we try all the outlets, there are still cracks that we fall through."

Ernst encouraged residents to express their opinion on projects and contact the borough with any questions. He also encouraged residents to attend committee meetings.

Residents are also allowed to request items be placed on a Lansdale Borough committee or council agenda.

"At the end of the day, the YMCA is responsible for how it deals with its own property. However, that does not mean the borough is not interested in hearing what residents have to say," Ernst said. "With traffic, we want to hear from the people that deal with roads. It's hard to deal with traffic on Forest when issues haven't occurred yet."

He said the borough could only do so much.

"The borough needs help from residents on what to do to take it further," he said.

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