NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP PLANNING COMMISSION
100 MUNICIPAL DRIVE, NEWTOWN, BUCKS COUNTY, PA 18940
Minutes of the meeting held on May 5, 2009
Present: Chairman Allen Fidler, Vice Chairman Jim Ott, Sue Beasley (late), Peggy Driscoll, Dennis Fisher, Jay Sensibaugh, Robert Whartenby and Brandon Wind, members. Also in attendance were: Michele Fountain, Township Engineer, Andrew Brown, Township Traffic Engineer, John Boyle, Assistant Township Manager Jennifer McGrath, Township Solicitor and Mike Galla, Interim Codes Officer.
Call to Order: Mr. Fidler called the meeting to order at 7:30 PM.
Approval of Minutes: Mr. Ott moved to accept the minutes of April 21, 2009. Mr. Wind seconded and the motion passed 7-0.
(Mrs. Beasley arrived)
JMZO Amendment Update: Mr. Fidler informed the Commission that after conversation with Ms. McGrath, they had decided to postpone drafting a sample amendment to the JMZO for a mixed use in the TC district. Ms. McGrath has begun researching some similar ordinances in other municipalities. She suggested that she could begin a draft after some further discussion on some of the mixed uses that will be presented later by Ms. Fountain, and after some additional discussion of performance standards.
Mr. Sensibaugh said that it had been the unanimous vote of the Commission members to request the draft ordinance to act as a guide and template for discussion of mixed uses. He was disappointed that no draft had been prepared for this meeting.
Mr. Fidler said that he has discussed the timeline for completion of the review of the TC district with the Board of Supervisors, which has indicated that the June deadline discussed earlier is a flexible deadline. The Board would prefer a careful and thorough review and would extend the deadline. The proposed ordinance might need more than the mixed use; other changes to the TC district might also be recommended.
Board of Supervisors: Mr. Fidler reported that the concept plan for the Promenade had been revised in response to the Planning Commission’s comments and presented to the Board. After its review, the Board indicated that although there were some issues to be addressed in land development, the Board would not oppose any necessary applications to the Zoning Hearing Board.
Historic Architectural Review Board: Mrs. Beasley reported that HARB had discussed signage for a Mexican restaurant to occupy the Il Sol building. It appears that if the new owner wishes to continue to use the internally lighted sign, she would need a recommendation from the Planning Commission.
HARB member Harriet Beckert said that the owner has decided not to use the lighted sign.
Environmental Advisory Council: Mr. Fisher reported that, in addition to its ongoing projects of open space inventory, wildlife management and energy conservation, the EAC has been discussing the requirement of an environmental impact assessment or study for land development. Such an assessment is currently only required in the quarry district. The EAC might ask the Township to possibly extend the requirement to other sensitive land development projects.
Mrs. Beasley asked whether the EAC had reviewed plans for Rockbridge. She was concerned about the removal of trees and about excess water in the building foundations.
Mr. Fisher said that plans had been presented and the developer had agreed to certain recommendations of the EAC regarding pesticides and road salt.
Ms. Fountain said that the Township has kept track of the clearing of trees. The removal is what was permitted by the Ordinance.
Continuation of Non-Conforming Uses: Ms. McGrath reported that she had researched the question of when a use would be considered abandoned, as the Commission had expressed concerns about a few properties on Sycamore Street that are no longer operating as service stations or auto dealerships. Both are currently permitted uses, but if JMZO 2009-01 were adopted, the Commission had questioned whether these properties’ uses would be considered abandoned. Her research indicated that six months after a use ceases it is considered abandoned, however, case law indicates that if the property owner is attempting to actively continue the use, it would not be abandoned. She gave as an example, if the owner of an abandoned auto showroom were actively marketing the property for sale as an auto showroom, it would not be considered an abandoned use. If the amendment were adopted, the use would be grandfathered if there was evidence of attempting to continue the use.
Mr. Fidler said that there has been some concern in the Township about whether one of the larger properties on Sycamore Street could possibly be redeveloped as a Super WaWa type store/gas station, but in reading the definition of E-10, Service Station, Super WaWa might not meet the required criteria.
Continued Discussion of Sycamore Street: Ms. Fountain provided the Commission with a large packet of information on small “downtown” districts in nearby Townships and Boroughs. Included in the packet were maps and lists of permitted uses in Stone Harbor Borough, Princeton Borough, and Metuchen Borough in New Jersey and Doylestown Borough, New Hope Borough, Skippack Township and Lansdale Borough in Pennsylvania. Ms. Fountain pointed out that all of these town centers are concentrated in a downtown area only for several blocks, usually with a one block/lot width, which is similar to Newtown Township. Most allow mixed uses and most allowable uses are similar to those currently permitted in Newtown Township. Some uses permitted elsewhere which Ms. Fountain suggested could be discussed for the TC district are mixed use, studio related to artistic activities, library and museum, municipal building, tavern and emergency services. She also suggested discussion and review of Ordinance Section 603.C.3, which allows a fee in lieu of providing the required number of parking spaces and use E-14, specialty/cultural shopping facility. Ms. Fountain will prepare a spreadsheet for the next meeting for easier comparison of the permitted uses. She noted that Skippack Township allows fitness studios in its downtown district.
Mr. Fidler said that, depending on the size of the facility, parking could be an issue. A small yoga studio might not generate the same parking and traffic that would be generated by a large facility or a dance studio or karate school.
Mr. Sensibaugh agreed with Mr. Fidler, but questioned whether to address the uses or the performance standards, so that uses are permitted provided they meet dimensional and parking requirements.
For the benefit of residents in attendance, Mr. Fidler gave a brief overview of performance standards, explaining that the Ordinance could control the uses by requiring certain setbacks, impervious surface, parking per square foot or per employee. He noted, for example, that if retail is limited to spaces under 10,000 square feet, the district probably would not attract developers of big box stores.
Ms. Fountain said she had begun her research first considering the uses. She will research performance standards as uses are considered. She pointed out that recent census data shows that Newtown Township has more women than men and more women than the national average. There are also more Asian people than the national average. This data should be kept in mind when planning for future uses. Fitness and educational facilities might be appealing to Newtown’s demographics.
Mrs. Beasley said that she is concerned that there might be a perception that the Township does not want businesses to be too successful because successful businesses generate traffic and parking.
The Commission discussed the concept of shared parking. Mr. Wind said that he would urge that parking be more connected to use than to square footage. He mentioned that some of the other municipalities for which information is provided are successful in part because they are within walking distance of large parking areas such as Metuchen’s railroad parking lot.
Mr. Sensibaugh said that he is not supportive of shared parking. He feels it is only successful in very large shopping centers. The members discussed the shared parking at Goodnoe’s Corner. There was some concern that the lack of adequate parking could be problematic to some of the businesses. Customers might not use the businesses if they are unable to find easy parking.
Mrs. Beasley noted that when shared parking is approved for a shopping center, the uses in the center are considered at time of approval, however, the mix of uses can change, sometimes very quickly, changing the parking requirements for the center.
Mr. Ott agreed. He suggested that perhaps tenants should be asked to contribute toward multi-level or underground parking.
Mr. Wind and Mrs. Driscoll noted that many people expect to park very nearby and have not taken advantage of ample parking a short distance away from the shopping areas on Sycamore Street. Outside of school hours there is usually ample parking around the high school, for example.
Mr. Fisher said that a short distance away from Goodnoe’s Corner there is on-street parking available, which is not frequently used.
The Commission briefly discussed concerns about the requirement for off-site parking for employees of Goodnoe’s Corner. Employees are parallel parking on Ice Cream Alley. Mr. Ott said that the typical Rite Aid store usually has as many parking stalls as the entire Goodnoe’s Corner lot.
Resident Karen Katz said that the Newtown 21 st Century Voice organization has attempted to gather input from residents about Sycamore Street. Among the 83 respondents, about 60 favorably responded to restaurants and retail shops, 44 preferred a height restriction of 30 feet, 25 preferred a height of 40 feet and 11 expressed support for 50 feet. 64 people included community center as a preferred presence on Sycamore Street. Fitness use was not included in the options for preferred uses.
Mrs. Beckert asked whether Ms. Fountain has spoken to representatives of the municipalities she included in her research.
Ms. Fountain said she has spoken with planners for the municipalities, who indicated the success of their revitalization efforts. Lansdale’s plan calls for parking incorporated into building structures.
In response to comments from Mrs. Katz, Mr. Fidler and Resident Vince Lombardi discussed some work done by the Joint Downtown Newtown Corporation on transportation. Research had been done about providing shuttles or trolleys for shoppers in the State Street area and also for employees of the State Street businesses. It was found that the area is too small to support a shuttle; Mr. Lombardi called it a “critical mass”, a number that would make a shuttle self-sufficient.
The Commission briefly reviewed the idea of a municipal parking authority or a municipal parking facility. Mr. Fidler noted that these ideas have been considered at different times. It is his understanding that expanded municipal parking has also been considered by the Borough.
The members discussed an ordinance for mixed uses. Ms. McGrath said that she has begun reviewing the Langhorne Borough and Perkasie ordinances to serve as a possible guide. She provided copies of this ordinance and literature on a planned area of Doylestown Borough with live/work units.
Mr. Sensibaugh said that it might be a good idea to require something equivalent to a homeowners association for buildings with condominiums and business space.
Ms. McGrath said that she will continue to investigate mixed use ordinances. She asked the members to consider the possible combinations of mixed used that they think might work well. She suggested considering the size of parcels for the various combinations of retail, residential and office uses.
Ms. Fountain said that she would prepare a spreadsheet comparing the uses in the municipalities being reviewed for comparison. She mentioned Princeton’s planned commercial development, which she suggested might be considered for a parcel greater than two acres.
Resident Joanne Bintliff Ritchie asked whether any research has been done on the costs to build a parking garage where drivers would pay to park.
Mr. Fidler said that past research had indicated that the commercial district could not support construction of a garage.
Mrs. Beasley questioned the financial arrangements for maintenance of buildings with condominiums and unoccupied retail space.
Mr. Fidler asked that for the next meeting, Ms. McGrath provide information on a mixed use ordinance, Ms. Fountain prepare a comparison spreadsheet of uses and some additional information on viable mixed uses and Princeton’s planned commercial development, and that the members prepare to discuss performance standards for lots greater than 2 acres, with particular emphasis on parking.
Mr. Fidler said that some of the other municipalities with successful downtowns have a civic feature as the centerpiece of the commercial district, such as a park, library, community center. He said that perhaps some attractive walking trails from the available parking areas to Sycamore Street, possibly near the Presbyterian Church, could be discussed.
Residents in attendance expressed support for this idea, as Sycamore Street is within a short walk of the middle and high schools.
Other Business: Ms. Fountain provided information on the upcoming Pennsylvania Downtown Center Annual Conference in Johnstown from June 7 through 10. The conference will feature sessions particularly timely to efforts to revitalize Sycamore Street. The Commission agreed that if the Township would pay, the members would like to send Ms. Fountain. Mr. Sensibaugh and Mr. Whartenby also expressed interest in attending to represent the Commission.
Mr. Fidler said that he would speak to the Township Manager about this and would also include it in his report to the Board of Supervisors.
Mrs. Beasley moved to adjourn at 10:15 PM. Mr. Ott seconded and the motion passed 8-0.
Mary Donaldson, Recording Secretary