23 Hill residents met Wednesday night at the Chestnut Hill Library to talk about an alternative to the CHCA, with which they are frustrated.

By Wesley Ratko

Twenty-three members of the Chestnut Hill community turned out Wednesday night at the Chestnut Hill Library to voice their frustrations with the Chestnut Hill Community Association and to organize a counter organization that, as they said, would put residents before business interests.

The meeting was organized by Ron Recko, a Chestnut Hill resident and past president of the CHCA Board,. Recko told those present that he had become disenchanted with the CHCA, saying the group no longer adequately represents the interests of the neighbors.  He blamed “business interests” for taking over the organization.

He called the meeting as a first step toward organizing the various opposition groups that have formed in the last few years in response to several major projects that, according to Recko, have negatively impacted near neighbors.  He referred specifically to the Fresenius Dialysis Center at Winston Road and Moreland Avenue, the forthcoming development of the Magarity Ford site and Chestnut Hill College, among others.

Recko said that any project that requires a variance will inevitably have a negative impact on the quality of life for neighbors.

“I believe that a viable commercial corridor along the Avenue is important,” he said, “but not to the detriment of the residents.”

Resident Joe Pizzano reinforced Recko’s comments, saying there is a need to create a new organization that truly represents the interests of the community.

“We can become the new RCO,” he said, referring to an element in Philadelphia’s new zoning code that would recognize a single community organization as the point of contact between the city and any developer looking to build in the neighborhood.

“What we don’t seem to understand is that what happens in one part of Chestnut Hill affects us all,” said George Spaeth.  Spaeth, a hill resident and also a former president of th CHCA board, said he believes the CHCA is a deeply flawed organization.

“You can purchase it,” he added.

Stacy Mogul, a resident, lawyer, and representative of the Northwest Wissahickon Conservancy, talked at length about his organization’s efforts against Chestnut Hill College and its development of the Sugarloaf property.  He said his group has a single covenant action pending against the college to force it to honor the existing deed restrictions on the property.  The funding for this effort, he said, is running out.  He urged the group to contribute to the legal fund.

“We are beating the path that will make it easier for future groups,” he said.

Mogul was accompanied by George Thomas, a historic preservation specialist who echoed the majority opinion of those present about the CHCA and its committees.

“The Development Review Committee is an arm of Richard Snowden, [CHCA board member andmanaging partner of Bowman Properties, which is developing the Magarity Ford site]” Thomas said, adding that the organization as a whole is “hopelessly corrupt.”

The overall discussion returned repeatedly to how additional residents might be recruited to join the cause of making the Chestnut Hill Residents Association a significant counter-organization to the CHCA.

An hour into the meeting, Noreen Spota, administrative assistant to the CHCA, addressed the group, saying it was good to see such commitment to the community.  She said that one-third of the board turns over every year and that those who are dissatisfied with the direction the board has taken should endeavor to get involved.

“The board isn’t as big as it once was,” Spota said, “Individuals have more of a say.”

She also offered to present anything that the group might want the Board to see, such as a petition.

Recko ended the proceedings by saying that the majority of the residents are unhappy with the direction the community, but they need to come out and make more of an effort.

“Chestnut Hill is, unfortunately, a lazy community,” he said.  “The people have to come.”

He said that the library meeting room has been reserved for two hours every 4th Wednesday and he hopes the turnout will be better for future meetings.

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  • Tracy

    As a near (three block so maybe near enough) neighbor to the McGarity Site, I am still stunned by this thinking quoted above: “any project that requires a variance will inevitably have a negative impact on the quality of life for neighbors”… Really? Why? When opinions that are at best predictive become facts – and then “inevitable” facts I always shudder… If they do the project badly it might, if the project is done as well as proposed – having a vibrant shopping center is more preferable to an empty lot in my opinion. The “inevitable negative impact” is a rhetorical boogeyman here…

  • David

    Tracy, the Zoning Code is written for the protection of the citizenry. Variances from those protections are possible in certain situations as listed in the Code. The CHCA has historically traded away the protections provided by law in exchange for features some members would like and for some voice in the design process. I observed this over many years with the CHCA including many on the board and as an officer. I believe this is what Mr. Recko was referring to.

    • Tracy

      Thanks for your comment David. My point is not that historically, this is a good or bad deviation. My point certainly is not that you are wrong here with what you share.

      The comment that gave me genuine pause was this given offered: “any project that requires a variance will inevitably have a negative impact on the quality of life for neighbors”… Sorry – a variance does not “inevitably” have negative impacts in the real world or a given here. It is possible but really… Why frame this – in this way?

      A variance can also be terrific. But for me to assert any “project with a variance will be inevitably terrific” is as equally ridiculous. I like this project and love this store in Horsham. I am also someone who lives close by and is not a fan of big empty lots down the road. I think the reason the debate here has been handled badly is there is such hyperbolic rhetoric going on that a calm discussion is almost not possible. This type of assertion makes me less inclined to go to the meeting whereas I would be otherwise inclined to do so. I just wish that as a community we can discuss this with candor and good will and drop the hyperbolic musings/claims that are not grounded but used anyway…

  • Anonymous

    Tracy, I agree with you – not all zoning variances are bad.. The world changes, and often the codes need to also to keep up to date. I used to live near the old Magarity site and I think people forget that when it was in operation, it was a nightmare – tow trucks dropping off wrecks, car alarms going off constantly, auto-trailers dropping of new cars, etc. I think the CHCA did a relatively good job hearing from the neighbors and making informed decisions.

    On thing that drives me crazy about CH is that when residents don’t get their way, they blame it on not being heard – I think often they are heard, just the community as a whole doesn’t agree with them.

  • JLP

    When are these meetings? They need to get the word out to garner support. There is no contact info in this article.

  • kmv

    I think the following paragraph is misleading.

    “We can become the new RCO,” he said, referring to an element in Philadelphia’s new zoning code that would recognize a single community organization as the point of contact between the city and any developer looking to build in the neighborhood.

    In fact, as far as I can tell from reading the new code, there is no such concept as “a single community organization”. Instead, it seems to allow for multiple community organizations, either neighborhood-oriented or issue-oriented to register and become recognized RCOs. Assuming that a CO meets the criteria for an RCO, developers will be required to provide it with notice of all ZBA appeals for special exceptions and variances in the RCO’s area of concern. This is an important distinction to make, because it changes the dynamics if there are multiple RCO’s acting as stakeholders.

    Of course, I could be wrong. The zoning code is not the clearest document in the world. The Local would be doing its readers a service by clarifying this matter.

  • mikeg

    The 8200 controversy is not a fight between keeping the property undeveloped vs. new development and zoning change. In this sense, the 8200 controversy is different from those like Greyloch and Sugarloaf – where neighbors are opposed to any viable development at all. I think it is important to recognize the differences and distinctions. Tracy (and others) have expressed support for the owner of 8200 because development is preferred to the empty lot. But the vast majority of those near-neighbors (and there were 600+ of us) who oppose the owner in the 8200 situation agree that thriving development is better than the status quo. The density of the owner’s plan is the real sticking point. I have said all along that the market should front on Germantown Avenue, with luxury residences on top, with the zoning changed to allow for this. This kind of plan would bring in the anchor market, allow for mixed use development, and not upset the commercial/residential zoning character of the block and neighborhood. Instead, the property, which stretches from G-town all the way back to Pastorious Park, has been zoned commercial to within yards of the park. 80% of the plot is now commercially zoned. That is an increase from 60% – which was in line with the rest of our awesome neighborhood. Maybe the owner will do the right thing, and despite having procured the uber-zoning he wants, develop the property, with the wonderful market, in a way that is less dense and in character with Chestnut Hill. the Chestnut Hill that in the past several months has attracted Iron Hill Brewery, Chestnut 7, Mica, Stella Sera, Thai Kuu, The Treehouse, Yoga, Elfant Wissahickon, the Chestnut Hill Pharmacy, Hipster Home, Indigo Schuy, Oxford Circus Toys, and on and on.