The Hovenden House, named for the artist Thomas Hovenden who lived on the property. The home is at the corner of Germantown and Butler pikes. (Photo courtesy of Sydelle Zove)

by Brendan Sample

The Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors officially voted on Thursday, Oct. 25, to approve plans for a townhouse development on the property surrounding Abolition Hall.

The developers, K. Hovnanian Homes, had been seeking a conditional use permit from the board to move forward with the project, and now that permit has been granted, albeit on the basis that the developers must fulfill 22 individual conditions.

Meetings over whether or not the board was going to grant this permit have been going on since March, as Whitemarsh residents have vocalized their strong opposition to the townhouse plans as they were proposed.

With the property surrounding Abolition Hall, Hovenden House and Maulsby Barn, all of which are on the National Register of Historic Places, concern has been raised about the potential short-term and long-term damage the townhouses could cause to the properties and surrounding land.

Although the developer’s application was approved, the 22 conditions of the resolution will allow the board to maintain a certain level of control over the development. The agreed-upon terms include provisions for ensuring the historic properties are not demolished, the townhouses do not exceed 38.5 feet in height, and that the number of units is specifically limited to the proposed 67. The developers must, among other actions, submit a maintenance plan for the upkeep of the historical structures, extend the sidewalks along Butler Pike, submit to detailed evaluations on the soil and wetlands by a registered professional engineer and the Army Corps of Engineers, respectively, and provide an updated study on traffic in the area.

Despite the numerous conditions placed on the developers by the township, many Whitemarsh residents remain unsatisfied with the outcome. Before the decision was officially announced, Friends of Abolition Hall, the community group that has led the efforts to change the development and preserve the buildings, submitted comments to the board regarding the conditions. As they were still in draft form at the time, FAH was hoping to change them so that they could ultimately have a greater impact on preserving the land. This was done during the board’s most recent public meeting on Oct. 25.

The FAH took issue with the township board’s actions during the meeting, as they claimed that their comments were not recorded in any sort of official capacity. The group also felt that their comments did not have any impact on the approved conditions, which were the same as the draft ones.

In a statement issued by FAH convener Sydelle Zove on behalf of the organization, she noted that approximately half of the conditions required Hovnanian to ensure that the townhouse construction remains in line with existing requirements of the Whitemarsh Township Zoning Ordinance, which she feels does not effect any real change.

“Clearly, the outcome of these seven months of hearings is disappointing,” Zove said. “The public is vehemently against this project for a variety of reasons. For some, it is the increase in traffic congestion. For others, it is the loss of open space. Of course, most people are deeply appalled by the planned degradation of a nationally significant homestead. Then there’s the issue of the wetlands, the exacerbation of sinkholes (there are three large ones nearby and several on the property) and the concern about the fate of the historic structures. Take your pick – it isn’t pretty no matter how you slice or dice it.”

As of the writing of this article, the FAH is still deciding whether to file an appeal of the decision, which must be done no later than Nov. 24 and would go to the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas. Regardless of whether or not it appeals, the group will still be involved with the process going forward, as the developers look to gain land development approval of the project. With more public hearings needed to gain that approval, this will ultimately allow the FAH another opportunity to express its concerns in the hopes of changing the townhouse plans.

While many local residents are disappointed with the board’s decision, they remain passionate about preserving Abolition Hall, said Zove She said she was particularly impressed with the turnout at the latest board meeting, which remained high even after months of debate and with the prospect of an unfavorable outcome for the FAH looming.

“There were a lot of new faces in the crowd last night [Oct. 25], and there were several people who spoke who hadn’t spoken before,” Zove said. “This has clearly touched a nerve in the community. There are different issues that resonate for different people.”