NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP PLANNING COMMISSION
100 MUNICIPAL DRIVE, NEWTOWN, BUCKS COUNTY, PA 18940
May 21, 2013
Present : Chairman Allen Fidler, Vice Chairman Robert Whartenby and Members Ted Chleboski, Paul Cohen, Craig Deutsch, David Domzalski, Peggy Driscoll, Dennis Fisher (late) and Larry Galley. Also in attendance were: John Torrente, Township Solicitor, and Martin Vogt, Township Code Enforcement Officer.
Call to Order: Mr. Fidler called the meeting to order at 7:30 PM.
Approval of Minutes: Mr. Cohen moved to accept the minutes of April 16, 2013. Mr. Deutsch seconded and the motion passed 6-0-1, with Mr. Whartenby abstaining.
Zoning Hearing Board
Application of Robert and Karen Crawford, 110 Durham Road: Attorney Bernadette Kearney represented Mr. and Mrs. Crawford. She explained that during Hurricane Sandy a tree fell onto the Crawfords’ garage, completely destroying it. When the contractor began to rebuild, he failed to obtain proper permits, so the applicants did not learn until mid-February of this year that theirs is a non-conforming lot requiring zoning relief to rebuild. The project had already been near completion at that point. The Ordinance requires a special exception to rebuild a destroyed building on a non-conforming lot. In addition, the Ordinance states that if a structure is damaged more than 50% on a non-conforming lot, it must be rebuilt in such manner as to conform to the regulations in this ordinance. The garage cannot be replaced to comply with the current ordinance, and will require variances for lot size, setbacks and to rebuild. The non-conformity of the lot is size; it is 15,115.32 square feet, where 40,000 square feet are required.
Mr. Crawford provided a series of photographs showing the original garage, the damaged garage and the new, partially completed garage. He explained that the new garage is larger but will have the same footprint as the original, which had a concrete slab floor and a paved breezeway area. The new garage will cover most of the paved area. It is four feet higher than the old garage but still within the zoning requirements. He explained that he owns the adjoining property and next door house, which he rents out. The garage is for his use with his home. He has always lived at this house. The property was subdivided sometime in the 1940’s, but he owns both parcels.
Ms. Kearney said that the old garage had an attic area accessible by ladder which was used for storage. The new structure’s storage area is higher and accessible by a staircase.
Mr. Chleboski asked whether the garage has any utilities.
Mr. Crawford said that it will have electricity.
Mr. Cohen asked Ms. Kearney to clarify JMZO 1209(A).
Ms. Kearney said that the ordinance does not permit rebuilding of a structure damaged more than 50% unless in conforms to the current ordinance. The applicant could not build the exact same structure because the lot is non-conforming.
Mr. Vogt said that many ordinances have this provision to allow for reviews for the new structures to comply with current building codes.
Mr. Deutsch noted that relief would have been needed because the new structure is two stories while the old garage was 1.5 stories.
Mr. Fidler said that he felt the requirement to seek zoning relief for a structure completely destroyed by a storm places an onerous burden on residents. He suggested that the Commission pass this application to the Supervisors with a recommendation to not oppose it at the Zoning Hearing Board.
Mr. Cohen agreed but suggested that the Commission recommend that a condition be placed on any variance that the garage cannot be used as a residential rental unit.
All agreed to this suggestion.
Mr. Fidler said that Mr. Cohen had written to him and Mr. Torrente about his concerns about some recent applications.
Mr. Cohen said that he had read in the newspaper that Newtown Swim Club would submit an application for PRD with 56 townhouses and that Beneficial Bank had entered into an agreement for a revised plan. In both instances, the agreements between the Supervisors and the applicants had not been reviewed by the Planning Commission. Both plans had previously been seen at the Planning Commission, which had made some recommendations which are not included in the new agreement. He questioned whether these agreements should not have first been reviewed by the Commission. He spoke to Mr. Torrente, who explained that in the case of Beneficial Bank, litigation was involved and the agreement was discussed in executive session. The Swim Club was a matter of potential litigation.
Mr. Fidler noted that both plans would eventually come to the Planning Commission for land development review. He noted that the position of the Planning Commission has evolved in the Township and in recent years has been more involved with planning and engineering. He also noted that when land is developed as PRD’s the Supervisors have more flexibility and he expects to see more such applications in the future as the Township deals with more infill development.
Sign Ordinance Review: Mr. Fidler said that he Supervisors have asked the Planning Commission to begin a review of our sign ordinances for possible adjustments to better reflect our changing commercial districts. This will be a time consuming review, as the sign ordinances are different for the different zoning district. He asked the members to familiarize themselves with the ordinance for the PC, TC, TC-2, CC, LI and OLI zoning districts.
Mr. Torrente said that the electronic sign ordinance prohibits electronic message centers from all zoning districts. The Township has recently reviewed a zoning application for such a sign. He suggested that this should also be included in the review.
Mr. Galley asked whether the process would have to be similarly discussed in depth by the Jointure partners and whether this would further lengthen the process.
Mr. Fidler said that the zoning map has been drawn so that most of the commercial districts throughout the Jointure have different designations, so that, for example, only Newtown has a Town Commercial (TC) zoning district. The commercial district in Wrightstown is designated as Village Commercial. Each different district has its own sign restrictions. He did not expect any difficulties with the Jointure partners where only Newtown’s commercial districts are impacted by changes.
Mr. Fidler suggested that while the Commission members are becoming familiar with the various sign ordinances, perhaps Mr. Vogt could compile a list of the difficulties he sees frequently.
Mr. Vogt said that he would research this further, but he has had ongoing complaints and concerns about temporary “sale” signs and banners. These are permitted for 120 days, but that number has been difficult to measure, as some businesses only display the signs on weekends. This has become a difficult ordinance to enforce.
Mr. Cohen said that rather than having a number of days for which a temporary sign is permitted, perhaps the permit could name the end date.
Mr. Fisher arrived at this point in the meeting.
Mr. Vogt said that he has also had difficulty enforcing compliance with sandwich board signs. These require a $50 annual fee, and some have paid while some have not. Recently he has had some difficulty with charitable activity signs. Some appear for events, such as fundraising runs and walks, which will not be occurring in the area. The signs pop up around town and a frequently left in place after the events. The Commission might want to consider limiting these signs for events happening locally.
Mr. Fidler said that the business community has had difficulties with restrictions on signs within 1000 feet of the Newtown Bypass.
Mr. Vogt said that he spends a lot of his time trying to enforce violations; there is rarely any violation in the LI or OLI districts. Most problems are with shops in the commercial districts. When he receives a complaint about a sign, he visits the site, ascertains the violation, speaks to the proprietor about what is in violation and what is permitted at the location. Most comply when told what would be permitted, but if they do not comply, he issues a cease and desist order. If the order is not addressed, a violation is issued.
Mr. Torrente said that if a business is found in violation, fines can be as high as $500 per day.
Mr. Fidler said that the goal of the review is to protect the Township while also making the process less cumbersome for business owners. He would like the Commission to become familiar with the ordinance and would like to review recent violation issues and zoning applications. Then he suggested including representatives of the business community in open forum discussions.
Mr. Fisher noted that former Planning Commission member Shannon Wilson had a number of suggestions at one time for improving permitted signage. He asked whether there are any restrictions on signage on trucks parked near businesses.
Mr. Vogt said that businesses can park commercial vehicles on their properties, but they are prohibited by most of the homeowners associations, so that owners cannot park their business trucks in the driveways of their homes.
Mr. Torrente said that the Commission might want to also consider signage for home occupations in residential districts.
Mr. Vogt asked the Commission to include in its discussion of temporary signage, consideration of temporary sidewalk sales.
Mr. Fidler suggested that this could be a lengthy review. He suggested that the Commission plan to continue this discussion as an agenda item on the second meeting of each month if time permits. He would report this to the Board of Supervisors, announce it to the public and as the discussion becomes more focused, he would reach out to representatives of the various business associations to participate in the discussion. The Commission might also want to include Bucks County Planning Commission Executive Director Lynn Bush in the discussion at some point. He would seek some direction from the Supervisors on this.
Subcommittee and Liaison Reports
Historic Architectural Review Board: Mrs. Driscoll reported that HARB is in the process of revising its certificate of appropriateness application.
Environmental Advisory Council: Mr. Fisher reported that the EAC met informally last night. It is planning an educational forum on June 8 at 9:30 AM on hydraulic fracturing. All are welcome.
Mr. Whartenby moved to adjourn at 9:10 PM. Mrs. Driscoll seconded and the motion passed 9-0.
Mary Donaldson, Recording Secretary