Somerton Civic prez: We’re still hoping for help from O’Neill on UPS proposal

By Chris Bordelon

President, Somerton Civic Association

I want to thank Councilman David Oh for attending the Somerton Civic Association’s March 10 meeting, drawing attention to issues raised by the huge warehouse proposed at 1 Red Lion Road and other proposed warehouses in residential areas, and suggesting solutions. The SCA’s board has engaged in several conversations since asking every City Council member for help regarding this. Large, all-night distribution operations generating traffic including tractor-trailers, parking, pollution, noise and other problems raise concerns for people living nearby that legislative solutions can address.

Oh recognized that. He met with the SCA’s board, listened to our concerns about the project contemplated by site owner Commercial Development Company and potential user United Parcel Service, and suggested helpful ideas.

Oh suggests subjecting massive industrial developments to Civic Design Review. A CDR committee comprised of experts in architecture, sustainability, landscape and urban design and development meets with builders and civics to consider big projects’ impact on surrounding neighborhoods and recommend improvements. Some projects just 5 percent of the reported size of the 1 Red Lion proposal are considered large enough to require CDR. Oh proposes an upper limit on the size of industrial projects exempted from CDR.

Planning Commission regulations say that “CDR is focused on the assessment of the proposed characteristics and quality of the public realm that is an integral part of any large development project. The ‘public realm’ is defined as sidewalks, public spaces, streets and public and community facilities. In addition, CDR will address the way in which a large proposed development may have an impact on its neighborhood.”

Subjecting massive warehouse projects in residential areas to CDR would allow for expert scrutiny and community input. I participated in CDR and saw it improve a development plan. Planning Commission staff report that 70% of CDR projects through 2018 were altered by developers in line with CDR recommendations.

Oh also wisely suggested legislation restricting traffic near 1 Red Lion. Legislative relief from both UPS traffic and the flow of vehicles detoured off main roads inundated with UPS traffic may be necessary if development proceeds. An influx of tractor-trailers and delivery vehicles threatens to swamp already-busy local roads. Traffic problems may also escalate elsewhere in the Northeast, which PIDC’s vice president described as “ground zero” for building distribution centers.

The Times‘ reporting of Councilman Brian O’Neill’s comments missed much about our March meeting, the law and the SCA. In March, the SCA announced a tree giveaway (later canceled due to the coronavirus), thanked Rep. Martina White and Sen. John Sabatina for joining other Northeast legislators supporting anti-SLAPP legislation in Harrisburg, recognized a police officer’s service to our community, continued advocating pedestrian safety improvements near Somerton train station and heard from Congressman Brendan Boyle’s office that SEPTA would visit our meeting to discuss them. The Times omitted all that, but extensively quoted O’Neill, who didn’t attend or send staff.

O’Neill told the Times that CDR is limited to building aesthetics — as already noted, it isn’t. O’Neill also claimed that Council couldn’t require the 1 Red Lion project to obtain a zoning variance. Until a developer like CDC files for zoning permits, its proposals remain subject to new zoning legislation, which the pending ordinance doctrine makes effective even before enactment when a Council committee reports the bill. O’Neill himself proposed in 2003 “to codify what the law already provides, i.e., that the pending ordinance doctrine renders a zoning bill effective according to its terms no later than the date that such bill is advertised for public hearing.” The doctrine was added to the Zoning Code in 2012. A zoning bill, once reported by a Council committee, could still require CDC (as of this writing, on April 3) to obtain a variance. But O’Neill told Times readers otherwise.

In 2018, months after proposals for large warehouses next to residential areas of Somerton at 1 Red Lion and elsewhere had surfaced, the SCA suggested that O’Neill introduce a zoning bill to require variances for big industrial projects at such sites in our neighborhood. We also suggested that the bill address other shortcomings in the Zoning Code’s local application. O’Neill delayed for months before arranging meetings with the SCA board and with the Planning Commission staff, which offered to draft any local zoning bill that O’Neill wanted. When we met, O’Neill suggested scheduling a follow-up meeting to finalize what to ask the Commission staff to draft. This now appears to have been a hollow election-year gesture. O’Neill ignored requests for a follow-up meeting and proposed no bill.

No one on the SCA’s board sees O’Neill as an adversary, as he told your reporter. We’re volunteers concerned with our neighborhood’s well-being. The board looks to elected officials for information and support, welcomes elected officials or their staff to attend all of our meetings, and is ready, willing and able to work with any of them, including O’Neill.

Regarding 1 Red Lion, we sought information from him and asked him for zoning legislation that he, as our district Council member able to advance a bill with councilmanic privilege, is best placed to introduce. The board entertained false hope that O’Neill, in agreeing to meet, would stop ignoring us. O’Neill’s once-common attendance at SCA meetings and frequent communication and obvious rapport with the SCA’s former president before the latter’s resignation in 2016 has stood in contrast to O’Neill’s approach since then.

In the Times, O’Neill introduced the absurd notion that a “clash” at the November SCA meeting kept his staff from attending meetings. Before reading your March article, I had never heard of this invented concern. The “clash” consisted of O’Neill’s staff member accusing me of stating that O’Neill had signed nondisclosure agreements about 1 Red Lion Road, and me denying that. NDAs have been made, and the City Law Department continues to withhold NDAs it possesses despite a state order to release them. I’ve never claimed to know who signed them.

But an elected official can deny representation to constituents without signing agreements to do so. It’s been known publicly for more than two years that a warehouse use raising serious concerns for local residents is being considered for 1 Red Lion. Knowledge of the several warehouses proposed in our neighborhood in close proximity to people’s homes was all that a motivated Council member would need to insist upon community input for such developments. O’Neill’s excuse for not addressing the 1 Red Lion project — that he doesn’t know about it — has worn so thin that he may need other explanations for avoiding discussions of it. Hopefully disparaging neighborhood volunteers in the newspaper isn’t his new approach. ••