Hearing will focus on E. Vincent opting out of regional plan

EAST VINCENT -- A public hearing will be held Wednesday on the pending decision by the township supervisors to withdraw the township from the regional plan it joined less than two years ago.

Originally scheduled for April 7, Wednesday's hearing is the public's opportunity to speak out on the plan to withdraw from the Phoenixville Regional Planning Committee, which coordinates development among West Vincent, East Vincent, East Pikeland, Schuylkill, Charlestown and Phoenixville.

The meeting at which the hearing will be held begins at 7:30 p.m. at the township building on Ridge Road and a vote could be held that night.

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At the core of the dispute is a zoning change that would allow the construction of a senior housing and nursing home -- called a "continuing care retirement community -- on a large parcel known as the Ruth tract off West Bridge Street and Stony Run Road.

The move to withdraw from the regional planning group came shortly after a consultant's review found the proposed zoning change to be "inconsistent" with the regional plan.

According to the Aug. 27, 2009 review of the proposed zoning change by Kise, Straw and Koldner, consultants for the regional planning group, "this CCRC zoning amendment is not generally consistent with the goals of the Phoenixville Regional Comprehensive Plan because it overlooks several major aspects related to the plan's goals, policies and objectives."

Among the regional plan's nine stated goals are: "Promote the economic vitality and quality of life of the region's existing community;" "implement growth management techniques to provide for orderly and well-planned new development;" "preserve open space and agriculture in the region" and "promote new economic opportunities and jobs."

Although he has not responded to a request for comment made earlier this month through Township Manager Mary Flagg, Township Supervisor John D. Funk was quoted by The Phoenix -- The Mercury's sister newspaper -- as saying his support for withdrawing from the regional plan had to do with, among other things, "increasing tax revenue, a gift for the township and his feeling of being disrespected by the 'amateurs' on the Phoenixville Regional Planning Commission."

The other township supervisor supporting the withdrawal, Mark Dunphy, was at the April 29 meeting of the Phoenixville Regional Planning Commission where the matter was on the agenda for discussion.

However, he did not contribute to that discussion and declined to comment on the pending decision after the meeting.

He confirmed that he voted against joining the regional planning group in 2008 and, as far as Wednesday's hearing was concerned, would say only "you'll have to wait until Wednesday night."

The township's third supervisor, Christine McNeil, has consistently supported joining and staying part of the regional planning group.

Rusty Strauss is an East Pikeland Supervisor and also sits on that township's planning commission. He is also the current chairman of the Phoenixville Regional Planning Committee.

He said the group had hoped to work with East Vincent to keep the township from withdrawing from the group and does not think the differences of opinion on the zoning change are reason enough for East vincent to withdraw.

Strauss said he believed there had been some misunderstandings and miscommunications about the implications of the report on the zoning change being inconsistent. "We're new at this," he said of the regional planning group.

"Frankly, I think they were looking for an excuse," he said April 29 of the East Vincent supervisor majority.

"We were working to try to accommodate them somehow, perhaps modify the regional plan," Strauss said April 28, "and at first it seemed East Vincent was willing to discuss it, but now it looks like they're going through with the withdrawal."

Indeed, while last August's report found the proposed zoning change is inconsistent -- and warned that adopting it would put East Vincent in violation of the agreement to which it had become a party -- it also outlined ways to change it so it would not be in conflict with the regional plan.

Strauss noted that if East Vincent decides to withdraw, the agreement requires that a one-year waiting period be instituted and that the entire comprehensive plan be re-drawn.

That will cost money -- costs all six municipalities, East Vincent included, must share -- and it will take time, Strauss said.

That point was raised April 29 by Schuylkill Supervisor Jim Morrisson, who noted that much of the data and the tables in the current plant are derived from "consolidated data" and must be re-calibrated to exclude East Vincent's statistics.

Strauss agreed.

"At our next meeting, if East Vincent goes ahead with this, we will have to be prepared to discuss what's involved in re-making the plan," he said.

He also noted that before re-making the plan, the group should endeavor to find out if any other bordering municipalities would be interested in joining.

"I have heard others might be interested in joining," Strauss said.

The effort to form and enact a Phoenixville Regional Comprehensive Plan began in 2000 and was not completed until East Vincent voted to join in 2008.

Elaine Milito, who is a member of the township planning commission, is also the president of a citizens group named Concerned Citizens of East Vincent Township and has taken an active role in advocating against the zoning change.

On her group's Web site -- www.ccoev.org -- she is urging residents to attend the May 5 hearing and to "tell East Vincent to stay in the Phoenixville Regional Plan."

The group notes that last August, the township planning commission unanimously voted against moving ahead with the zoning amendment.

She argues that the project which would be allowed by the zoning change would allow buildings that are taller than any other buildings in town and open the town up to legal challenges of its zoning ordinance.

One of the benefits of participating in a regional comprehensive plan is that it relieves each town from being legally required to zone for every use.

Indeed the analysis of East Vincent's zoning change notes that East Pikeland, Charlestown and West Vincent all have zoning to allow for projects similar to the one envisioned for the Ruth tract.

East Vincent "should consider how the need for this type of use is already being satisfied elsewhere in the region and then assess whether the use is still needed in East Vincent," the analysis observed.

Withdrawing from the regional plan may expose East Vincent to challenges for not having zoning for uses that neighboring towns were fulfilling when the township was part of a regional plan, argues Milito, who ran unsuccessfully against Dunphy for the supervisor seat he now holds.

A municipality's zoning ordinance can be challenged on the grounds that it seeks to exclude a particular type of use through a legal device called a "curative amendment," which puts the decision in the hands of the courts, not local planners.

In fact Milito's site notes that the developer interested in the East Vincent project, Paul Bucco, explored using a curative amendment to create the legal foundation for a similar continuing care retirement community at Route 100 and Kutztown Road in Hereford Township, Berks County.