Swarthmore Borough Council
By Katie Crawford
After months of debate, which provoked visceral responses from as far away as California, the Swarthmore Borough Council unanimously upheld, with conditions, the granting of a zoning accommodation for the property at 200 S. Chester Rd., permitting the HEADstrong Foundation to open its doors to as many as seven young cancer patients, who will be receiving treatment at local hospitals, and their caregivers. Councilman Ross Schmucki abstained from the vote.
Council president David Grove and council member David Creagan delivered a succinct but detailed announcement, clearly mindful of the emotion surrounding the topic, the packed council room, and the news vans lingering outside. Among the stated conditions on which the accommodation was granted were the construction of a handicap-accessible bathroom available from a dedicated parking space; inspection by the fire marshal and implementation of recommendations he may make; submission of a professional parking plan; and an assurance that the accommodation would expire upon transfer of ownership from HEADstrong to another party or use of the property for another purpose. Grove, referencing his 50 years as a trial lawyer, noted the inevitability of, “one side pleased and one not.” Prior to delivering the decision, he directed the audience to refrain from outbursts.
In his remarks to council, Mayor Tim Kearney noted, “a little empathy all around is a good idea,” and stressed the importance of not “vilifying” the neighbors who opposed the HEADstrong application and had appealed a borough Accommodation Request Review Board’s September decision to approve it. Kearney expressed his hopes that HEADstrong, like their soon-to-be neighbor on Harvard Avenue, A Better Chance-Strath Haven, would become “another cause for the community to rally around.”
James J. Byrne, attorney for a group of neighbors along Chester Road and Harvard Avenue, said that he was disappointed in Swarthmore Borough Council’s vote in support of the accommodation which exempts the applicants from the residential zoning’s limit of three unrelated persons living together. “We don’t think that [the HEADstrong Foundation] proved any discrimination that needed to be remedied by the accommodation,” Byrne said Tuesday. “Even if there were discrimination, is this use a reasonable, necessary response to it? There’s no evidence that it was necessary to move [the unrelated occupants limit] to 14 as opposed to 3, or 4, or 7.” Byrne said that while his clients were “very interested in an appeal,” he had not conferred with the neighbors group on next steps since the decision. An appeal would need to be filed within 30 days of the ruling. HEADstrong attorney Christine Reuther said, “We will be disappointed if the neighbors choose to pursue further appeals. However, an appeal will not delay the Foundation’s plans. We will take steps to have the matter heard in federal court, which has jurisdiction in matters involving the Fair Housing Act. When the Foundation prevails, we will also petition the court to have our fees paid by the appellants.”
BEP Gets Conditional Use OK
In other news, council heard the conditional use application for the Biology, Engineering, and Psychology building project at Swarthmore College. Craig Spangler, principal architect with Ballinger architectural firm, was the expert witness. He answered a series of prepared questions about the project, which is 670 feet from the closest residence not owned by the college. The new building will be 75 feet tall with an additional four feet of exhaust fans, used to release highly diluted emissions from ongoing experiments.
Two community members who reside in college housing came to address council and voice their concerns about the project. Ellen Ross, of 8B Whittier Place noted that, for those who live there, the project is, “not minimal at all.” Ross is particularly concerned about the planned sidewalk which will bisect the front yards of the faculty houses on Whittier Place, as well as the increase in traffic, both of which present dangers to the young children who live there. She also mourned the projected loss of, “some of the most beautiful trees on campus.” Council President Grove echoed her dismay at the loss of trees, particularly two memorial trees for his wife’s parents that are slated to be taken down as part of the project.
Daniel Grodner of 8A Whittier Place echoed the concerns about the sidewalk, and the possibility of service vehicles such as snowplows using the sidewalk if it is made 6 feet wide, increasing risks to young children who would be steps from their front porch to the proposed sidewalk. Representatives for the college noted that the sidewalk is required by ordinance and that its location was selected in order to disrupt the street trees as little as possible. Still up for debate in the borough planning commission is the width of these sidewalks. Three members voted for 6-foot sidewalks and three members voted for 4-foot sidewalks at a prior meeting.
Mary Hinds of 605 Elm, which is not college housing, while stating that she was fully resigned to the fact that council was going to allow this project, implored members to consider the significant impact on the quality of life for residents from the noise and the parking of construction and worker vehicles along Elm and Walnut.
Prior to the vote council member David Creagan, noting that he had no pecuniary interests in the project, recused himself, “in an abundance of caution,” given that his wife works at the college. Council president Grove jokingly expressed his hope that, “that kind of sensitivity will escape up to the highest office in the land.” Solicitor Bob Scott also recused himself given that his wife also works for the college.
Council ultimately approved the conditional use application. Grove, while voting in favor of approval, spoke of the noise and dust and overall effect on the Swarthmore Friends Quaker Meeting house stating this “project is not a blessing to my meeting.”
In two weeks council will introduce a motion to approve the budget which will include NO TAX INCREASE. Michael Carey, head of the finance committee, noted the $60,000 in additional funds due to the decrease in sewage treatment costs, recommending that these funds be placed in the sewer capital fund. Carey also suggested a $50,000 increase to the borough’s capital reserve fund given the strong year-end fund balance of roughly $600,000. Council member David Murphy urged council to consider an increase to non-uniformed borough employees in line with the increase given to uniformed union employees. Murphy praised the borough employees for their reliable, high-quality work.