Editor’s note: Last week’s “Our Town” column by George McNeely on the development of land next to Abolition hall generated a great deal of response form readers. The following letters all address that column.
I want to thank the Chestnut Hill Local for publishing George McNeely’s compelling article about Plymouth Meeting’s Abolition Hall. As he points out, a large townhouse development slated for this property would surround a set of buildings that once housed, nourished and protected enslaved people en route to freedom in Canada, and that provided a venue for renowned abolitionist speakers. As such, these buildings would be robbed of their context and made nearly impossible to access by school children and others who wish to visit this hallowed site in the future. In addition, the development will destroy wetlands, exacerbate run-off and flooding, add to already impossible traffic congestion and eliminate hundreds of trees that sequester greenhouse gases. I hope the Local will continue to cover this critical story.
The plight of Abolition Hall and the adjacent land continues to provide a struggle for the residents of Whitemarsh Township and surrounding municipalities. This property was a significant stop on the Underground Railroad. To capture the true picture of what escaping slaves faced you need to have a sense of place. You need to see the surrounding fields and open space they would have seen when they were close to finding a safe house on their way north to freedom.
The buildings and open space need to be preserved to keep an important part of our history available for future generations to study and learn from.
Support an effort to revitalize the site and make it something to be proud to have as part of the existing historic district in Whitemarsh and Plymouth Townships. If development must occur, permit a few (2-3) single family homes set away from the historic buildings. It does take money to preserve history.
Hovnanian’s proposed 67-unit townhouse project on the historic Corson Homestead at Butler and Germantown Pikes falls short of meeting good planning practices on so many fronts. The three delineated wetlands, the water-filled sinkholes and the green canopy that is supported by more than 400 trees are all threatened by the earth disturbance required to construct these houses and the roads, sanitary sewers and stormwater management systems that will complete this development. And let us not lose sight of the degradation to a homestead listed on the National Register of Historic Places — buildings and land that served as a busy stop on the Underground Railroad.
Beyond these specific concerns, the Local brought to light an especially troubling fact — that the law firm of Eastburn & Gray, which is representing K. Hovnanian on this project, has contributed to PACs that support Sean Kilkenny’s campaign for Montgomery County Sheriff. Mr. Kilkenny, however, wears yet another hat. He is the appointed solicitor for Whitemarsh Township. Although Pennsylvania’s weak campaign finance laws allow such contributions, the township supervisors should avoid the appearance of condoning divided loyalties. One could even argue that when the supervisors deliberated in a quasi-judicial capacity during last year’s conditional use hearing, they should have sought outside counsel.
Over the next few months, the supervisors will be reviewing K. Hovnanian’s preliminary plans, stormwater management plan, and ordinance waiver requests. To ensure the integrity of these proceedings and their decision, they should require Mr. Kilkenny to step aside and recuse himself, and they should instead seek legal guidance from well-vetted independent counsel outside of Mr. Kilkenny’s law firm.
Thank you for permitting George McNeely to produce such an informative and factual article regarding the property that we in Whitemarsh refer to as the Corson property, which includes Abolition Hall.
There are a couple of items on which I feel the need to comment:
1. As stated, the developer does not propose to demolish any of the Corson buildings, but they also don’t propose to set aside any funds to restore the property or to set aside land for a Welcome Park for school children and other visitors to come and view the historical property. Without a plan for the historic properties, the buildings could succumb to demolition by neglect.
2. The Whitemarsh Shade Tree Commission is composed of Whitemarsh residents who are trying to stand strong against the proposal of removing over 50% of the trees; but, this group is advisory only and can only tell the Whitemarsh Board of Supervisors (BOS) that the K. Hovnanian builders’ proposal does not follow the Shade Tree ordinance; the BOS doesn’t have to listen to them. The township’s paid arborist asserted at the Shade Tree Commission meeting on September 3 that he classifies trees as at-risk and as “dead and dying” if they won’t survive for another 10- 15 years. The Shade Tree Commission disagreed with the arborist’s assertions.
3. There is nothing illegal about the dual hats Mr. Kilkenny wears for the county and multiple Townships. Does it give one pause? You bet! When Whitemarsh citizens attend meetings and feel like they are not represented by our township solicitor, it should give the BOS pause.
What should happen next is that the Whitemarsh Board of Supervisors should rely upon the advice of the residents of the community who they have appointed to the advisory committees and commissions; namely, the Shade Tree Commission, the Environmental Advisory Board, the Open Space Committee, the Historical Architectural Review Board and especially the Planning Commission, in evaluating the current plan and pressing for one that is less dense and allows for the preservation and maintenance of this gem of our community. These citizen appointees should be valued more than paid appointed staff who do not have a vested interest in our community.
I can’t thank you enough for stepping over the township line and writing an excellent article about the Abolition Hall situation. As a Whitemarsh resident and candidate for township Supervisor, I hold the same concerns that you addressed.
For some reason, the Township procedure is for a proposal to go to the Shade Tree Commission after the application has been approved by the Board of Supervisors. This ridiculous procedure puts unreasonable pressure and stress on the citizen members that make up the commission. High power attorneys come forward with their applications, and, if the commission questions or disagrees with the applicant, the first thing they say is, “well, the board of supervisors already approved our application.” I believe that at least part of the reason that the tree canopy in Whitemarsh has eroded so much is because of this very pressure.
The fact that sinkholes exist on the property raises several serious issues. If the township has knowledge of a sinkhole problem on the property, are they ultimately liable if damage is done to property, or people are injured due to sinkhole issues? Should Hovnanian be required to fully disclose that these homes are being built on possibly unstable land in all of their advertising? Should Hovnanian be liable for damage to homes if it occurs?
As far as the township solicitor issue is concerned, this is one of the reasons my running mates and I stepped up. It is a real issue not just in this application, but in additional development applications that we and many residents oppose.
I hope you will continue to cover issues in Whitemarsh. Thanks again.
Thank you for your recent “Our Town” article on the plight of Abolition Hall and the dedicated residents and friends who continue to fight and push back on the Hovnanian proposal to build 67 townhouses on this historic and environmentally sensitive site. The article provides an excellent history of Abolition Hall up to the current status, which remains undecided.
The proposed development is an example of how high-density development that will be out of character with the historic context of a location and will likely do significant damage to the areas environment.
As a longtime resident of Whitemarsh, I have watched how development has degraded our tree canopy, increased our stormwater problems, created sinkholes, and exacerbated a growing traffic problem. This so called “smart development” done in the name of progress has to be contained.
I am thankful for your coverage and hope it compels others to join the fight. I also hope that the Local and other news outlets will continue to have the courage to follow and cover this most important story.
Great Warehouse Sale
Thanks to the Chestnut Hill Business District, Bowman Properties and the many store owners who pulled together a great Warehouse Sale!
I loved the chance to check out merchandise from so many of the Hill’s great shops. The discounts were fabulous and wine/cheese on Friday was fun.
Thanks to all the organizers!
A happy reader
I love this paper and am a happy subscriber! Thank you for introducing so many amazing people who live (or have lived) in and around Chestnut Hill. People who make such an impact in our area and in our world.
Also to your credit, one can find a myriad of places to visit, events to attend as well as feature stories on local businesses.
In this day and age of dark politics, I so look forward to receiving Chestnut Hill Local in my mailbox each Wednesday!