At its first in-person meeting since March, the Newtown Township Board of Supervisors on August 26 voted unanimously to deny a conditional use application submitted by Toll Brothers.
Toll had requested the conditional use to build a cluster of 45 high-end single family homes on 150 acres located at Route 413 (Durham Road) and Twining Bridge Road.
Because the parcel is zoned Conservation Management (CM), a cluster development is allowed by use, but not by right, so that’s why Toll needed the conditional-use approval instead of a zoning change.
With officials and members of the public seated six feet apart and everyone wearing masks, the supervisors heard one more round of public comment before casting its vote [on August 26, 2020: see the video archive here].
Board members made no public statements as to why they voted to deny the request, but their decision prompted applause from the less than 20 members of the public who were allowed inside the meeting room. [See insights below.]
Residents are strongly opposed to the development taking access onto Twining Bridge Road, suggesting instead access be from Durham Road at a signalized intersection with North Drive.
Twining Bridge Road resident [JoyAnn Charlton] also voiced deep opposition to the development, speaking publicly against the plan over traffic and safety concerns and issues concerning flooding, drainage and acquifer recharge.
Charlton questioned the veracity of the Toll-funded traffic study, which she said “was dumped on the board of supervisors only minutes before the hearing depriving the board of any meaningful opportunity to adequately review, consider and question the submissions. The traffic study was not thoroughly considered or challenged. We’re expected to simply take Tolls’ word. Once these homes are sold Toll will be out of the picture leaving us to deal with the mess.”
[Township Solicitor Dave] Sander had advised board members that even though they were required to continue to take public comment on the issue, they had to base their decision solely on evidence presented and testimony given at the Feb. 26 hearing. All five supervisors voted to deny conditional use approval at the recent meeting without commenting just before or after they voted on their reasons.
"In general, I do not believe that the applicant demonstrated that the proposed development is consistent with the spirit, purposes and intent of the Conservation Management zoning district," Supervisor John Mack wrote in an email after the meeting.
On the developer's efforts to preserve agricultural soils at the site, he added "I do not believe that the applicant demonstrated that every effort has been made to provide a maximum amount of farmland preserved for agriculture.
"I do not believe that the applicant demonstrated that the proposed development is not a detriment to the property in the immediate vicinity."
A Five Year Financial Plan commissioned by the township is recommending a tax increase in 2021 to make up for a loss of revenue and to begin exploring cost sharing opportunities with neighboring Newtown Borough.
Steve Wray, from Econsult Solutions, briefed the board of supervisors on the report’s preliminary findings and recommendations during an August 17 work session.
In its report, Econsult outlines major recommendations to improve the township’s financial condition over the next five years, beginning with the addition of real estate tax millage [+4.7 to +7.0 mills were proposed] to the general fund budget beginning in 2021 “to help diversify and broaden the base of revenues and also to make up revenues lost in the earned income tax.”
The report also recommends the hiring of five career firefighters through a federal SAFER grant that would initially pay salaries and benefits over the first three years. As the grant expires in years four and five, Wray said regional cost sharing opportunities could make up the difference. [My understanding is that SAFER grants do not cover expenses such as pension plans, health insurance, etc.]
Comparing the township to its neighbors, Wray said Newtown Township has the second lowest real estate millage rate [see chart]. And the township’s millage increases have been consistent with the average increases across the municipalities.
Projecting ahead over the next five years, Wray said if nothing changes the township will continue to see “a growing spread” between revenue and expenditures with the fund balance projected to fall below 10 percent by the beginning of 2021 and continuing to decline through 2025 as it’s used to fund the widening gap.
One of the reasons given to raise taxes is to maintain a healthy General Fund Reserve, which was predicted to take a hit due in part to lost Earned Income Tax (EIT) collection caused by the COVID-19 closure of businesses and subsequent unemployment increase. However, the anticipated decrease in EIT never happened - in fact EIT collection increased 4.8% in 2020 vs 2019 (a "banner year").
UPDATE from KEYSTONE, which collects EIT:
At the close of August 2020, Bucks Tax Collection District (TCD) ended up with an increase of about $1.6 million from 2019. As it stands now, the TCD as a whole is up a little over $55,000.00 in 5th quarter money! Comparing earned income collections for 1/1/20 – 8/31/20 vs 1/1/19 – 8/31/19, Newtown Township specifically is up about $258,000.00 or 4.8%.
The two Bucks County agencies are teaming up to increase public safety and public trust by supporting additional training, transparency and communication. On Wednesday, they will join together at the Bensalem Police Department to formalize their new partnership.
"As our communities are re-imagining public safety, we think these kind of relationships throughout the county will connect us with the police a lot better," said Karen Downer, president of NAACP Bucks County.
Both agencies plan to meet shared goals, including:
A commitment to regular meetings and open dialogue between the NAACP Bucks County and Bensalem Township Police Department leadership
Both parties agree to work together to encourage and assist Bensalem residents, especially residents of color, to consider serving the Bensalem Township community by becoming a police officer with the Bensalem Township Police Department
Increased transparency regarding the results of police misconduct investigations, including reporting outcomes to the NAACP
Downer hopes to forge similar partnerships with other police departments across Bucks County. Such agreements, she said, "will go a long way to build partnerships where we are comfortable making direct contact with police and having straight forward honest conversations."
[See insights below for news about Newtown Twp's new resolution.]
The Newtown Borough Council on Sept. 2 voted unanimously to extend a resolution allowing borough restaurants that have applied for a special permit to offer outdoor dining for another 45 days.
In June, with restaurants limited in the use of indoor space due to Covid-19, council adopted a resolution setting up a Temporary Permit Application process that allows restaurants to offer outdoor dining and retailers to sell merchandise outdoors on their private property for a 90-day period.
With the 90 days about to expire and COVID-19 restrictions still in place limiting restaurants to 25 percent indoor use, council agreed to extend the resolution for another 45 days, taking it up to mid- to late-October.
On June 24, 2020, the Newtown Board of Supervisors (BOS) approved a resolution; "establishing guidelines and policy for outdoor sales of merchandise and/or outdoor dining for existing businesses in Newtown Township during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The resolution automatically expires within 90 days of its passage (on or about September 24, 2020), but the term can be extended beyond that by a vote of the Board of Supervisors.
UPDATE (9/9/20): Newtown Township Supervisors passed a revised outdoor dining/sales resolution extending the expiration until the "current Newtown Township Emergency Declaration issued due to COVID-19 is repealed or otherwise withdrawn.
One of open government’s tallest pillars is the residents’ ability to be in the room when those they’ve elected to represent them decide how to spend their money or alter their town.
That pillar strained like never before this spring under the weight of the coronavirus and the stay-at-home orders, business closures and community and governmental cancellations that followed the outbreak.
And while COVID-19 is a continuing reality in most towns in Bucks and Montgomery counties, local governments are gradually resuming meetings that, by law, must be accessible to the public.
Towns have tried to strike that balance through the use of live-streaming technology with call-in, email or text-in forms of public participation. Some have even used web conferencing platforms like Zoom to gather remotely and allow the public to join in.
...towns with hot-button topics and packed meetings will need to be thoughtful about how they’re giving the public its access when a COVID-era capacity crowd, in some towns, doesn’t exceed single digits.
Here are a few ideas we like. We support the use of overflow rooms where residents can gather in a second room and watch the proceedings.
Some developers arrive at municipal meetings accompanied by attorneys, engineers, landscape architects and other consultants. It makes sense to us that their teams should be required to wait outside until it’s their turn to present.
Township staff, elected officials and residents all have a role to play in making these meetings work. If all parties approach the matter with understanding, flexibility and a willingness to adapt, they can turn their attention to the business of running the town.
The more Zoom "public" meetings hosted by Newtown Township (e.g., Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission meetings,, etc.), the less actual public input we get. Despite my best efforts, I cannot convince the BOS to allow the general public to directly participate in its "public" Zoom meetings. I'm told that there would be too many people trying to speak at the same time and that would disrupt the meeting. Yes, one Zoom BOS meeting was “zoom bombed," but Zoom has increased security such as requiring the implementation of the “waiting room” feature. The meeting moderator can admit only recognized participants to join the meeting.
Currently, the only way for residents to participate in BOS Zoom meetings is to submit questions/comments via email to email@example.com before and during the meeting. All comments will be read, but so far many meetings do not include any resident comments at all! Luckily, important matters are being delayed until live meetings can be scheduled – probably in September.
Update (9/10/20): Newtown Twp is still using Zoom for "public" BOS meetings and at the Sept 9 meeting there were further limits placed on public comments submitted via email.
Some comments submitted by email to be read during BOS meetings are very lengthy and although the public notice of BOS meetings promises that ALL comments will be read out loud at the meeting, it was decided - as a compromise - that if comments are very long then - with the permission of the commenter - only a summary will be read and the entire comment will be included in the meeting minutes. At least that is my understanding of the procedure we may be following in the future (I am not sure if it is a step forward or backward).
Middletown Township joins just a handful of other Bucks County communities in creating a Human Relations Commission.The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the ordinance that would establish a Human Relations Commission under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
The commission will have seven members and can conduct public trainings, educational sessions, informational seminars and community activities. The commission would have the ability to address some complaints related to discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations, and conversion therapy.
“I think this [Human Relations Commission] is going to give the members of our community who maybe have been disenfranchised or discriminated against a voice and a seat at the table,” said Supervisor Anna Payne.
In Lower Bucks County, Bristol Borough, Newtown Borough, Newtown Township, and Yardley Borough have ordinances establishing Human Relations Commissions.
I first floated the idea for the Newtown Anti-discrimination ordinance in July, 2018, and in September, the Board of Supervisors heard a presentation from Yardley Councilman David Bria, who led the charge on Yardley’s anti-discrimination ordinance.
The recently completed Newtown Citizens Survey reveals that many residents are concerned about the condition of roads, streetlights, etc.
Question 8 of the survey asked respondents to rate several services as Excellent, Good, Fair, or Poor. Responses weighted using scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being “poor” and 4 being “excellent.”
Snow removal, street cleaning, street lighting, and street maintenance received were among the services receiving the worst ratings.
One of the goals of the Newtown Township 5-year financial plan is to attract new business to Newtown and help all businesses thrive. When asked to identify the two TOP priorities that the township should focus on for attracting new business, Public Infrastructure was the top choice with 45.6 % of respondents.
Why Not Hire More Public Works Personnel?
Given the survey results, I expected that the ESI consultants would recommend that the township hire more Public Works personnel. Among all the departments that service the community, the Public Works (PW) Department is the primary one that must be considered when thinking of "quality of life improvements." This is born out by the citizen survey in which 70% of respondents said "Streets and Highway Improvements" was a top choice they felt needed improvement.
Last month, the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) heard an application for the new clothing store, which is proposed to be located in between Acme and Bed Bath & Beyond.
The shopping center sought impervious surface relief, parking relief, and loading berth location relief in its quest to build the 12,500-square-foot store.
The ZHB denied the variance for the impervious surface relief. The other variances for parking and the loading berth were approved.
The impervious surface variance that was denied sought to allow for 61.70 percent impervious surface, where 50 percent is required and 59.65 is currently existing.Township Manager Micah Lewis said that leaves the applicant with a few options: Resubmit a new application, file an appeal of the denial, or simply do nothing. Lewis said the township has not yet received correspondence from the applicant indicating how they plan to proceed.
The application voted on by the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) plans included a 385-square-foot addition to the existing Chick-fil-A restaurant plus a right-turn only lanes leading up to the Chick-fil-A to ease traffic jams.
At the July 8, 2020, Board of Supervisors meeting prior to the ZHB meeting, I questioned if it was the norm to have two applications in one (Old Navy + Chick-fil-A). Township Solicitor Dave Sander replied it is not unusual when a property is owned by one entity and proposes various improvements to some but not all the property to include all relief requested in one application. I saw the need for Chick-fil-A improvements but had concerns over the Old Navy portion of the plan.
One item that certain residents believe need improving in Newtown's parks are the toilet facilities, which remained closed up until recently when a resident complained:
"I am a Public Health Professional and longtime resident of Newtown Township...Township Manager Micah Lewis, and the Board of Supervisors has refused to rectify the situation of no public sanitary facilities available in all of 2020 while the parks do remain open and sometimes heavily utilized.
"There are no public facilities available for hand washing, defecating, or urinating. There have been NO Open facilities available in these 3 parks in 2020. They were NEVER opened.
"An EASY solution that overcomes ... Public Works Employee's safety issue is to RENT Porta Potties. They each cost $126 per month. So for $378 a Month, Newtown's 3 lovely and expensive parks can actually be sanitarily utilized by the public."
The Township Manager responded:
"After further discussion with our insurance provider, and legal council, we have decided that we will be placing a portable restroom in Veterans Park. The facility will be posted with signage that states "This Facility is not Maintained by Newtown Township - Please Use at Your Discretion." If the facility becomes damaged, unsanitary, or unuseable in any way, our staff will lock it, and the vendor will be contacted to rectify the situation."
I later confirmed that portable toilet facilities were delivered to Roberts Ridge, Veterans, Chandler, and Helen Randle Parks.