Thursday, July 11, 2013

Zoning Workshop Report

Here's my report on last night's Zoning Workshop.

First, despite hearing over and over how no one knew the public was going to show up, yet how everyone was glad we had, I got the distinct impression we weren't welcome. We were told that this meeting was for the planning people to explain to council members about the proposals so "they could help present it to the public."  In my mind, that translates to the later workshops being only presentations of a finished plan, with no intention of listening to public comment and making appropriate changes before the vote.

By the way, hardly any council members showed up, so I'm not sure what the meeting would have accomplished without the public there. The best questions of the evening were voiced by my fellow citizens.

Still, I'm going to be fair and reserve final judgement until after I see the proposed zoning district definitions in print, which we were assured would happen before the next workshop (which may or may not be August 1st--stay tuned).


We were told that zoning would be done on a block-by-block basis. Nothing could be built on your block that wasn't already on your block. If you have a block of single houses, no one could come in, knock down two houses and build rowhouses or twins or an apartment building, regardless of your zoning district. You can go the other way--demolish a twin and build a single house--but you supposedly can't increase the number of units or families on any one block. Houses can't be converted to multiple family dwellings. Existing multiple family houses will be grandfathered in, but if those dwellings are abandoned or condemned, or the owner repeatedly fails to pay taxes or other fees, Norristown Planning can resell it with the stipulation that the number of units in the house be reduced to what's appropriate for the neighborhood.

If a prior zoning variance created a dwelling that was not in keeping with the character of the block, that sort of dwelling could not be built again. For instance, if an apartment house was built in a block filled with twins and singles, another apartment house could not be built there.

Developers can, of course, apply for zoning variances, but we were assured that in order for a variance to be approved, the developer had to show a legitimate hardship and that cases would be dealt with strictly, to protect each neighborhood.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE (or possibly didn't understand)

As I pointed out the other day, many R1-A districts will become R-2 or R-3. We were told that R-2 basically replaces the old R1-A (that isn't supposed to allow rowhouses), and the old R-2 becomes the new R-3 (which does allow rowhouses and duplexes). I asked, "If zoning is done on a block-to-block basis, why do we need separate residential districts at all?" I got no answer.

When asked why the R1-A areas on the West End and over near Arch and Johnson Hwy would become R2, while most of the 3rd District's R1-A zone would become R-3, we were told the houses in the R2 zones were all singles and twins. I pointed out many blocks in the North End were also singles and twins. I pointed at the map to show that the R2 zones contained row homes, and that many North End blocks had lots bigger than those in the proposed R2 zones, I was told I was wrong, or ignored altogether.

Here are some photos. You judge.

Rowhouses in a proposed R2 zone in the West End.

Area near Rittenhouse. Primarily single homes with a smattering of twins, some on large lots. If you go up and down Pine and Locust, you find more of the same. Powell St. has all twins. Yet this is all slated to be R3 zoning.

The block above Freedley and Astor is R2, despite having rowhomes. The big single houses below Freedley, all the way down Harding (along with some twins) are all labeled R3. I think, no matter where you live in Norristown, we can agree that future development across from Elmwood Park should NEVER be zoned for rowhomes, or even smaller, narrower houses. It would not only ruin the character of the park, but a higher population density there would make parking for events impossible.

The whole presentation was given by John Cover of the Montgomery County Planning Commission. By his comments, he was more than a mere advisor in this project. Possibly he even led it. I'm not certain, but I don't think he lives in town.  He seemed like a nice, knowledgable man, but as he talked, he got the names of  several streets wrong. So why is the County, and someone who isn't a resident and doesn't seem to know Norristown, deciding our land use for us?

Which brings me to what I especially didn't like. This whole process, we were told, was done by making a database of every property in Norristown, using Courthouse records. They did some spot-checking using aerial photography, but apparently, no one actually went out and studied the neighborhoods in person. Our neighborhoods, like our residents, have unique character and function. You ought to get to know them personally before deciding their fate.


  1. You raised two very important points.

    First point. Your impression of their reaction to the "public" showing up speaks volumes. They "pretend" they want public input, but the final plan has already been determined. Have you ever heard of the Delphi Technique? Take a few minutes to watch this video.

    Second point. If the man leading the meeting knows little about Norristown and doesn't reside here, why is he making decisions about our town? The people who are directly impacted by these zoning changes i.e. the residents should make the decisions.

  2. It appears to be a puppet show. I'm not quite sure who the puppet masters are, but its not council. But I now understand that's all the more reason to question everything.