Charlestown Township Planning Commission
Saturday, February 6, 2016
(Chester County Historical Society - Third Floor - Classroom #1)
225 N. High Street
West Chester, PA

  1. Devault TND’s- Lessons Learned

    Mr. Allen updated Members regarding Spring Oak and Pickering Crossing. A 32 point document, dated February 5th, 2016 was previously emailed to Members. It listed problems (and the reasons) that have surfaced at the TND’s.

    Initially, the developer was to follow guidelines, with the Township in control of progress. But, Spring Oak:

    • Switched builders (Dewey Homes to JP Orleans)
    • Lacked documentation- as it progressed, it became apparent documents that recorded handshake agreements and discussions were not in place.
    • The builder follows the design manual more interpretively.
    • There were no detailed renderings of the buildings.

    However, in Pickering Crossing the Township has had fewer concerns. The developer has learned from Spring Oak, and built more according to Township vision.

    Mr. Churchill voiced his dismay at the Township having this degree of control. Especially because it still did not receive the desired look, or quality it wanted. Mr. Allen would like to have Township consultants watching over the design manual and ordinance, more closely, enforcing the DRC’s vision.

    Mr. Allen was disturbed to find code enforcement gaps, such as varying foundation sizes, existing even with inspections and design manuals. Members wondered if this has exposed the need for a Township advocate or project manager to be on site daily. Although someone is doing inspections, this person is not an architectural construction manager. The TND Ordinance does not “provide” for this kind of site coverage, especially at a level Mr. Allen feels Charlestown needs. He wants to be sure the standards of design are maintained, just like maintaining the Code. Currently, Mr. Frens will document problems and bring them to Mr. Wright’s, or Mr. Merklinger’s attention. Mr. Allen hopes that this enforcement will begin to fill the design gaps, and this issue is solved. But, as a rule, Mr. Allen should not have to police adherence to the design manual. The developer may need to hire a design architect.

    1. Spring Oak had an idea book and design guidelines, but the guidelines were too general.
    2. Pickering Crossing, unlike Spring Oak, has a pattern book, drawings, and a specific design standard, but it is still missing the finer finishing details.
    3. Pickering Crossing changes are now being tracked via “the Bulletin”.
    4. Mr. Comitta said the design manual “lessons” learned need to be in the Devault Village Spring Oak design manual. The Township needs to monitor the little details that make a difference. The example given was the railing paint currently being glossy, when it was flat in the manual.
    5. Mr. Westhafer stated that all the parties underestimated the size of the project and amount of accompanying details. No one scheduled this out, unfortunately. Even Township consultants could have hired more personnel.
    6. Mr. Churchill stated that JP Orleans was not the only party that underestimated the need for personnel to monitor detail.
      1. Mr. Merklinger was not made aware of the scope the Township, DRC, or PC expected him to take on.
      2. JP Orleans is not getting the same message that Dewey got.
      3. The Township has no advocate to help JP Orleans realize the vision.
    7. Even more than engineering, the architectural construction needs to be followed to the design standards level Charlestown wishes. This needs to be enforced before permitting per Mr. Westhafer. Mr. Richter suggested a municipal engineer, like Phoenixville’s, to not only police permits, but the TND guidelines.
    8. Mr. von Hoyer agreed that an architectural advocate/enforcer may need to be hired.
    9. Mr. Westhafer suggested Advanced GeoServices hire the person, so that they would report to Mr. Wright. He doubts the Township wants to hire.
    10. It was suggested that JP Orleans should pay for the additional consultants; Mrs. Csete reminded Members that the developer is invoiced for Township consultant fees.
    11. Mr. Allen stated he will meet with Mr. Wright, (perhaps Mr. Merklinger), the Frens’, Mr. Philips or Mr. Willig, and Mr. Westhafer, to let them tell the PC how they would suggest solving the problem. This allows them to present their case.
    12. Attention is now being focused on Mr. Wright, and Mr. and Mrs. Frens, beginning a more detailed monitoring. Signing off on the changes is simply too late in the process. Hopefully, problems will lessen with this new procedure. If not, the PC will approach the Board with a list of problems, and a recommendation on how to fix them. This could be something like an experienced architectural manager.
    13. Mr. Churchill returned to his opinion that the Township has too much control on design details. He does not think the Township should be able to say flat or glossy. This should be left to the developer.
    14. Mr. Comitta will also need to monitor adherence as the landscaping begins, especially since this is the first TND for JP Orleans.
    15. Since the next phase is two months away, if improvement is not seen before March, then the Board will be notified.
    16. The dilemma being that there are many more phases, and Mr. Allen needs to step back from the detail of this project.
    17. Members also discussed discrepancies in the HOA document.

    Gaps in Plan Reviews.

    The only issue the Members discussed at length was a simplified method for a sketch plan. The next step is drafting a type of chart that simplifies things for residents, and encourages them to talk to the Township first. Mr. Comitta will work on this.

    On-Going Issues & New Approaches:

    Sketch Plan Submission Requirements and Strategies

    Members want a brochure for the lobby, newsletter, and website. It will be a sample of what applicants can bring to the Township, that ensures that neighbors and the environment are protected. Included will be a list of consultants that the Township has worked with in the past. It will not include recommendations. To draft this brochure, Mr. Comitta is going to invite a few experts to a session to discuss and design it pro-bono. Their cooperation will mean inclusion in the brochure, being listed as consultants, engineers, and planners/designers that have worked with the Township in the past. This meeting will hopefully be held before the March 8th meeting.

    Conditional Uses & Standards

    Members discussed specifying standards and criteria. Last year Mr. Bender discussed the complications of criteria being too specific. He suggested using the Zoning Hearing Board. Now, Mr. Churchill suggested reviewing their decisions, going back two years. Mrs. Csete will provide participants with a list of reviews. Before sending more reviews to the Zoning Hearing Board, Members thought it a good idea to be sure they are in agreement with the decisions being handed down.

    Comprehensive Plan Update & Focus

    Dividing the Townships’ FR district into smaller zones is still undecided.

    A major concern is the pressure of encroaching growth from the south. Members want to be proactive to the consequences of the new Great Valley Center, Atwater, the building of connecting commercial within East Whiteland, and resulting traffic congestion. Mr. Comitta would like to promote bridge building at East Whiteland’s monthly Comprehensive Plan Task Force Meeting. Mr. Motel will act as liaison to East Whiteland. He plans on discussing Route 29 challenges, major connector road issues, and promoting some of Charlestown’s attributes, such as the Devault Rails-to-Trails, and the many green spaces.

    Mr. Comitta does not think there is enough in the Phoenixville Regional Plan to use it exclusively. He suggested using both, the Township Plan and the Regional Plan, supplementing with the Regional.

    Mr. Allen feels pressure building, due to not having enough apartments, from the growth pressures coming from the south. The Township is in between the density of employment coming from the south and the growth from the Route 422 corridor for Phoenixville. There is a trend to rezone unused commercial zones for apartments. Apartments are a hot market to millennials (example Eagleview). However Charlestown has a fragile environment, due to its many streams and hills; there are few places suitable for apartments.

    Members wondered if the Township could be challenged on apartment data. They discussed the Filippo property, Devault zoning, Phoenixville Pike, and the quarry, as potential apartment locations. Mr. Comitta will add the note about being under intense pressure to accommodate more growth to the CCPC grant application. Mrs. Csete stated that only 1% of the Township homes are zoned for apartments. Although TND2 is not apartment friendly, some Members feel the need to plan for them.

    The Board of Supervisors is looking for a recommendation about the Comprehensive Plan for Charlestown. Mr. Westhafer was in favor of accepting the Regional Plan. It is easy to withdraw, but acceptance must be unanimous.

    Mr. Westhafer moved to recommend the adoption of the Phoenixville Regional Comprehensive Plan as the Charlestown municipal plan as a supplement to that plan in the interest of Charlestown Township. Mr. von Hoyer seconded. Mr. Westhafer called for discussion, and there being none, called the vote. All were in favor.

    What does Charlestown have to offer neighboring municipalities? Devault trails, a green roadway to the slip ramp, recreation fields, and the Mill. Mr. Churchill suggested working with East Whiteland would be easier, if the Township approached East Whiteland with what Charlestown has to offer. As a note, Mr. von Hoyer would like the trailheads better marked, and easier to follow if the Township is going to use them as a plus item.

    Viewshed and Heritage Resource Protection

    Members discussed Swiss Pines, since it is privately owned. A foundation overlooks this land with some of the parcels under easement. Restoration is possible per Mr. Motel. The owners have been plagued by the problems that often face large land owners without a lot of capital. The problems of littering, upkeep, gates being left open, and visitor noise have contributed to its deterioration.

    Mr. Brian O’Leary, Executive Director of the Chester County Planning Commission

    Mr. O’Leary spoke about Chester County’s strong reputation for land preservation vs economic development. It is also well known for land planning, open space preservation, urban revitalization, and Vision Partnership Grants.

    His mission is to continue the positive direction the County is going. He also wants to update the County’s Comprehensive Plan with a series of workshops, with municipal and official input, and update the Landscapes2 program.

    VPP Grant and Phoenixville Regional Plan

    Mr. Comitta told Mr. O’Leary that the Township was denied the VPP grant, and described the East Whiteland and Phoenixville area push for development. Besides bridging the gap in communication with East Whiteland, how does Charlestown begin dealing with these growth challenges?

    Mr. O’Leary said the County likes to see regional plans, and municipalities working together. Since Charlestown has an intergovernmental agreement with the PRPC, this would give the Township the number of apartment units it needs.

    Chester County Focus Update

    Mr. Churchill asked Mr. O’Leary what he felt was priority for the County. Mr. O’Leary said the Commission is working on traffic, open space pressures, and urban revitalization. There is a new concern about office parks and employment centers. Due to shifts in the market, the County is studying how to make suburban offices more competitive. They want to maintain the high quality open space but create work places with all the amenities desired by companies and millennials. By doing this in the suburban office zone, the County can keep its standing of having the highest employment in the state. This means:

    • More of a demand for residential zones and apartments.
    • Working with developers who are trying to reinvent office parks
    • Researching new transit styles, like Uber, versus driving.
    • Connecting with train stations and making them more accessible.
    • Studying the effect of increasing density to make it more feasible for public transportation versus increased traffic.
    • Communicating with transportation management associations.
    • Considering a driverless van/bus loop versus the cost to nature.

    Since the idea to add a toll on Route 422 died, it eliminated the local train idea (Schuylkill Valley Metro), because the tolls would have funded it. There is a strong possibility that there will be a Norristown high speed line to King of Prussia and a startup service from West Chester to Route 1 near the Franklin Mint.

    Mr. O’Leary described “benching”, where companies provide much reduced office space per employee, but many varied amenities (coffee shops, gyms, stores, restaurants). However, he believes this has a fad element, though to a small degree, it will be here to stay.

    Devault Rails-to-Trails

    Devault Rails-to-Trails is a “spine trail” that links people, places, and communities within Chester County. The group should begin building foundations with small scale advocacy conversations, promoting its relation to a larger project, like linking a regional network. He suggested the next step for the Trail’s task force be to arrange a meeting between all the municipalities. He thought it was too early to target specific organizations for support. Plus the County wants to work with the task force, and they aren’t ready. It will be more of a 10 year, not a 2 year process, like the Comprehensive Plan. Many people still need to change their mindset, that it isn’t a railroad anymore, and never will be. He wants to meet with the task force and asked Mr. Churchill to contact him via email.

    Mr. Motel asked Mr. O’Leary if it would help if the Township committed funding. Mr. O’Leary said first the right of way needs to be secured. And although there is no county grant program for trails, there are state funds, such as the William Penn Foundation and DCNR. Funding can vary, for example Struble Trail near Marsh Creek can be extended with the transfer of a comparatively small amount of land, but the price is exorbitant.

    Last year the Vision Partnership Program had less money to distribute. This year’s applications must be in before March 2, 2016. The CCPC also helps in housing, pipelines, economic development, agricultural development, and historical preservation. There is a lot of expertise available at the County to be used.

    Sketch Plan “Lite” Suggestions

    Mr. O’Leary discussed resources for the sketch plan lite idea. He suggested contacting National Lands Trust, and Conservation by Design.

    His suggestion for applicants:

    1. Submit a preliminary plan, and highlight what is ON the property (site analysis), and include neighboring properties.
    2. Do not highlight the idea or goal.
    3. Then with a site visit, it is easier to move the goal around on the property, to better accommodate site conditions, etc.

    In other words, residents should not start with what they want, but start with the constraints.

    Action Items

    1. Members decided to apply for the Vision Partnership Grant before the March deadline, since they have what is needed for submission. They will form a subcommittee and meet in the last week of February, about recommending an amended Phoenixville Regional Comprehensive Plan.
    2. Mr. Comitta will meet with planners and engineers, in the next 2 weeks, for a sketch plan “lite” (and trails) brain storming session.
    3. A TND meeting will be set up by Mr. Allen, with Mr. Wright, Dale and Susan Frens, Mr Willig and Mr. Westhafer on next Tuesday night.
    4. Mr. Motel will contact East Whiteland and initiate a meeting to discuss growth issues. He will also explore ideas for a retail tenant for the General Warren Village.

    Final Notes: The Alternative Energy Ordinance draft has been reviewed. Mr. Churchill wants the Members to rethink the constraints. He and Mr. Allen discussed consideration of aesthetics when encouraging alternative use.

    Mr. Comitta shared with the PC that he has been nominated for election to Fellow, which is one of the highest honors that the American Institute of Certified Planners bestows upon a member. He will attend the National Planning Conference April 2-5, in Phoenix, Arizona.