Upper Holmesburg up in arms over debris, odors

Residents of Upper Holmesburg first started complaining publicly about odors and debris emanating from Britton Industries’ 8901 Torresdale Ave. site in November 2014. Seventeen months later, many neighbors have the same complaints, despite assurances that Britton is cleaning up its property.

During the monthly meeting of the Upper Holmesburg Civic Association last Thursday, about a dozen residents indicated by a show of hands that they have smelled a foul odor coming from the 13-acre site where Britton does construction- and landscape-materials recycling and distribution. The city’s Air Management Services office seems to concur.

It has issued the company 12 violations and fined it $12,000 since last December.

Some neighbors further complain that dirt and fine gravel from the recycling yard covers the public sidewalk and street outside the Britton property, while dust from the site coats their nearby homes.

And during last week’s meeting, the civic association’s zoning chairman, Paul DeFinis, read from a site inspection report issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on March 10. But the report mentions nothing of the conditions outside the Britton yard, DeFinis said, leaving neighbors wondering where next to turn for relief.

The Northeast Times attempted to contact Britton officials on Friday to ask for their response to the community’s concerns, but a telephone message was not returned.

Larissa Klevan, the leader of the City Planning Commission’s Northeast Cluster, said at Thursday’s meeting that she could help the civic association research the property’s zoning file. UHCA leaders think the file may contain documents that could compel Britton to mitigate the problems. Specifically, the civic leaders will be looking for a list of provisos or conditions approved by the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment in 1999 that allowed a prior materials recycling business to operate there while respecting neighbors’ rights.

According to city tax records, the property last sold in 1998 for $650,000 to an entity called PFR Partners. Tax records list the address as 8837 Torresdale, despite the different business address.

In 1999, Academy Recycling Corporation opened for business there, but only after obtaining a permit from the zoning board.

In the absence of an organized civic association at the time, neighbors met on an ad hoc basis with then-City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski to address their concerns about the operation, which included concrete crushing, mulch grinding and soil processing. Ultimately, neighbors agreed to support Academy at a zoning board hearing on condition that the business adopt eight provisos.

Included among the conditions were that Academy had to install and maintain an eight-foot fence around the perimeter of the property, as well as a row of trees outside of that to buffer the recycling activities from neighbors.

Also, all truck deliveries and pick-ups were to access the site via a gate on Tolbut Street, away from the closest residential properties.

The zoning board approved the permit on June 28, 1999.

Britton Industries took over the site in 2014, although ownership of the property has not changed hands. Neighbors soon noticed that the buffer trees had been removed and that Britton added a gate and weighing station on the Torresdale Avenue side, in apparent contradiction to the earlier neighbors’ agreement.

During a December 2014 UHCA meeting, Britton officials said they were unaware of any preexisting provisos and that they purposely opened up the site so that passers-by could see piles of the various mulch and soil products for sale there.

Licensing records obtained by the Times showed that the city issued three new permits to Britton in 2014, covering the outside storage and processing of mulch, compost and concrete; the construction of the new weigh-station; and the erection of two 15-foot signs on the property. L&I issued the permits “over the counter,” meaning that Britton was not required to consult with the community or to get zoning board approval.

Neighbors have been complaining about odors and grime since then.

Last January, DeFinis reported during another UHCA meeting that the Pennsylvania DEP had visited the site and ordered Britton to develop a plan for remediating the odor problem. The March 10 DEP report was a follow-up to that earlier visit. In it, the inspector reported that he observed no odors on the site.

But those who live nearby claim otherwise. Individuals who wish to share their complaints and photos of their affected properties may do so via email to uhcamembers@yahoo.com

The civic association will archive any records received for possible future use.

In other UHCA business:

• President Stan Cywinski said he had no new information to report regarding either the former Liddonfield Homes site or the Rosewood Caterers site.

Cywinski hopes that NewCourtland Senior Services will present its plans to redevelop the Liddonfield site at a UHCA meeting later this year. The Philadelphia Housing Authority recently agreed to convey the Liddonfield site to NewCourtland for the construction of several hundred apartments with low-income seniors, a senior center and two athletic fields for Holy Family University.

Regarding Rosewood Caterers and its rumored conversion into a swingers club, Cywinski said that he is unaware of any new efforts by the property owner to reopen the business or by the Department of Licenses and Inspection to take further sanctions against it. The site is still subject to L&I’s cease and desist order. ••