Thursday, December 9, 2010

Opposition mounting to proposed shopping center in Solebury

By Charlie Sahner

As area real estate developers seek approval to build another shopping center in Solebury adjacent to the existing Logan Square commercial complex, the township's Zoning Hearing Board continues to deliberate in secret, and opposition from nearby residents and environmental groups grows.

The proposed commercial development would include a gas station run by nearby Giant Food, a bank, a pharmacy, a chain-style family restaurant, a Dunkin' Donuts and other businesses where the local nightclub Cartwheel once operated before being severely damaged by a 2005 fire.

That space was bought by Penns' Grant Corp., whom will work with with New Cartwheel Partners, which in turn shares interlocking executives with Logan Square owners Solebury Partners Ltd. The consortium is talking to another new commercial center based around the defunct banquet hall Fountainhead, also once ravaged by fire, which already has needed approvals for a new hotel and banquet location.

While the location is already zoned for commercial use, developers require approval of 15 or more zoning variances, including one to construct nearly 400 new parking spaces.

Speaking of the proposed shopping center, concerned Solebury citizen Chris Caputo puts it plainly: "We just don't need it. Residents don't want another traffic light on Route 202, they don't want more chain stores, they're concerned about the look and aesthetics of the area, and about the potential effect on water depletion and potential water pollution.

"This project is the most critical development in Solebury Township and is irreversible, so the decision requires significant thought and public input before it should move forward," Caputo added.

Caputo has collected more than 350 signatures in opposition to the proposed development and plans to present them at the Dec. 21 Solebury Board of Supervisors meeting where the the determination by the Zoning Hearing Board will be heard.

Solebury resident and petition signatory Soren Giese said, "The Cartwheel project will require a record 16 variances to existing ordinances to be completed as proposed. It seems that the developers are turning the process on its head by trying to retrofit current zoning ordinances to comply with their proposal rather than coming forward with a plan that is in alignment with the requirements set forth by the township."

All that we ask is for the township to apply the ordinances as written. We feel that this is the best way to protect our community while at the same time allowing development of those areas designated for this purpose," added Giese.

New Hope resident Terry Marks said of the project, "I'm okay with it as long as there is safe ingress and egress, with a new traffic light at the entrance...but do we need another drug store or another Dunkin' Donuts one half mile from the one on Main and Bridge streets? A gas station that doesn't gouge us with ridiculous prices would be welcome, though."

Joni Lefkowitz-Glassman, owner of the Dunkin' Donuts location in New Hope, commented on the new location she intends to add at the former Cartwheel site:  "A Dunkin Donuts WITH a drive thru, may I add!  Always a good thing when in a rush or in bad weather!"

Area environmentalists are also weighing in on the proposed development. Said Les Isbrandt, former President of the New Hope Historical Society and current head of the Aquetong Watershed Association, "The Aquetong is a beautiful, high quality watershed. When something like this comes along, let's do it right.

"We want to protect the watershed for all of us," he continued.

"It's not just a small step, it has major consequences -- for land use, water, and traffic -- what do Solebury and New Hope gain by this going in? Change is inevitable, but is this change for the better?" asked Isbrandt.

He and other environmentalists are especially concerned about construction of a gas station just a few hundred feet uphill from the Aquetong Creek.

Said one Solebury environmentalist, "When it comes to petroleum products, there's no margin for error."

And impermeable surfaces like parking lots and restaurants also may cause runoff into the already threatened watershed, from which existing municipal wells draw significant amounts of water for sale back to homeowners.

Isbrandt is also concerned by the Zoning Hearing Board's decision to "close the record" at its last meeting and the public's right to input on the board's decision which it says it will render by Dec. 10, a worry echoed by Caputo.

"We were told at the meeting that there will be no further objections and questions," Caputo said.

Another Solebury resident interviewed said that his family hadn't received notice from the township of the zoning meeting in question, as has traditionally been the case.

Peter Augenblick, Chairman of Solebury's Board of Supervisors disagreed that inadequate notice of the zoning meeting pertaining to the proposed shopping center had occurred, saying "We sent notices to contiguous property owners, and all township meetings are listed on our website."

Augenblick went on to explain,"Part of the zoning procedure is considered legal testimony, and they have to close debate off at some point. They are a legally independent organization -- they have their own solicitor. We have no idea where they are in the decision making process. They might be requesting time on Dec. 21 or maybe later, we don't know.

"We try not to interfere.  Zoning is a long way from getting [their decision] to us yet.  But we're the final step. Solebury is not closing the record; we continue to welcome questions and opinions from residents on this issue," he added.

"The Supervisors have already looked at the issue of commercial zoning, but zoning is like cheese; eventually it all goes bad," pointed out Augenblick.

When asked if the proposal's progress was a sign of a political shift by the current board shift away from conservation and towards commercial growth, Augenblick said, "Absolutely not. This is the biggest thing right now in Solebury and everybody knows it."

Still, residents and environmental groups are worried that approval of the proposed Cartwheel complex will form the precedent for unbridled commercial development of Route 202 all the way to nearby Lahaska.

"This development will be the first step to transform our community into another Flemington, Warrington or any other place where strip malls and chain restaurants have taken over," said Giese.

Answers Augenblick, "The Board of Supervisors does not want Route 202 to look like Flemington."

Meanwhile, community leader Caputo continues to urge "residents concerned about the project to attend and speak up at the Solebury township supervisors' meeting at 7 p.m. on Dec. 21 at the Solebury Township building."

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