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).
WHAT I LIKED
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.
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
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)
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.