Department Spotlight: Planning & Zoning

Posted on Wednesday March 10, 2021
A Department Insider's view and updates straight from the Director of Planning & Zoning

Unless you’re a commercial developer, realtor, or have sought permits for your home, you may not be too familiar with the Planning & Zoning Department. However, this essential Department is the backbone of new Development and Land Use throughout the Township.  While you might ask what an average day is like in this Department, there really isn’t one!

According to Henry Sekawungu, Director of Planning and Zoning, other than scheduled meetings, an array of issues may pop up that can change the direction of the day. “The many competing tasks that our office is part of can make it a challenge to prioritize, but we like to at least respond to each inquiry voicemail we receive  – usually about 10, on top of 30-40 emails, by the end of the day, so they are given due attention.” Henry Planning Zoning Spotlight

The Planning and Zoning Department is short-staffed as a result of the pandemic, but has been able to continue to provide necessary services to our residents, contractors, and developers, who can drop off applications and payments in a drop box at the Administration Building, coordinate with staff to hand off applications and payments, or schedule Zoom meetings or in-person meetings as necessary.

Two common items on the vast array of the department’s priorities are Zoning and Use Certifications and Zoning Determination Requests.

Because the Township does not do property transfer inspections, realtors submit Zoning and Use Certifications with affidavits indicating that the street address is properly displayed and smoke alarms are installed and functioning. These two elements are bare minimum requirements to ensure safety, as posted street numbers help police and fire personnel to locate an address quickly in case of an emergency, and to know if there is an active smoke alarm. The Planning and Zoning Department may receive 20-30 of these applications in a week.  Through this process, the department also makes sure there are no outstanding violations in place on the property.

Realtors and those selling property should be aware that the Application for Zoning and Use Certification must be submitted four weeks before settlement, so it is encouraged to submit the application even before a sale is lined up.

When a property owner is interested in changing the use or developing a property or parcel, they must submit a Zoning Determination Request allowing for staff to perform a comprehensive zoning review which takes 15 to 30 days. Staff will review the application to determine conformance with the Township Zoning Ordinances, and as part of the response, will issue a zoning letter detailing their findings as part of the determination and also next steps in the permitting process. This may involve a request for zoning relief, submission of a Board of Historical Architectural Review (BHAR) application for a recommendation for a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) if located in one of the two Historic Districts, and in some cases, the proposed could also trigger Subdivision and Land Development.

In cases where relief or BHAR approval for a COA is not required, the requestor may proceed in applying for permits.

Due to limited sewer capacity, the Township continues to be under a consent decree by DEP. A change in use or a new use (any use that has not been in continuous use for more than one year is considered a new use), trigger either a mailer, a waiver, or Sewer Planning Module submission to DEP for review of the proposed use and determination of how much usage will be generated by the proposed use. As part of this review and submission process performed by the Township Engineer, applicants are required to establish a Professional Services Agreement and escrow for the review. Water bills for a period of one year for when the prior use was 100% operational and a narrative on the prior use and proposed use are required as part of the submission. In most cases, there will be a credit from the prior use that will be applied to the proposed use limiting the amount of Equivalent Dwelling Units (EDUs) that may be needed for the new use. This process should be factored into the review process, and may take anywhere from 60 to 90 days.

The Development Committee, which includes the Township Manager, the Chair and Vice Chair of the Building and Zoning Committee, and the Ward Commissioner of the property in question, will meet with developers of larger parcels to receive input on how the proposed fits in with the overall visioning and character of the Community.

Henry’s advice to prospective owners and developers? “Before you buy or lease a space, contact the Township or fill out a Zoning Determination Request so we can help you determine if your proposal is an approved use and what may be required prior to occupying the property or opening your business. When people don’t contact the Township first, they may incur a considerable loss of financial resources and investment that include rental fees and potential revenue that may take several years to recoup. Establish that the use is permitted and properly zoned prior to signing a lease.”

Development projects can take up to five (5) to go through the review and approval process, construction and close out. A few of the open ones include Ashbourne Meadows, Greenleaf at Cheltenham, Westminster Theological Seminary, Elkins Estate and the WAWA. After going through the development approval process, including several public meetings, the preconstruction meeting for Wawa was held last week, geared toward site improvements. The developer received the go-ahead to begin work, and the schedule has been posted here. In the coming weeks, workers will be paving, fencing, metering, and adding utilities, storm systems, basins, sanitary tie-ins and water supply, all weather-permitting.  The focus of this work is to prepare the site for actual physical construction of the building. Building permits have not been submitted yet for the structure.

Wawa Site Work  Ashbourne Meadows Site Work 1  Ashbourne Meadows Site Work 2
 Wawa Site Work at Easton and Waverly
 Ashbourne Meadows
 Ashbourne Meadows

Henry states that he most frequently receives calls about opening a business, but aside from that, resident inquiries vary, from installation of swimming pools and other permitting, to questions about zoning, subdivision, Land Development and Sewer in the Township.  He explained that for interior work, anything that deals with plumbing, electrical, or significant renovations such as bathroom or kitchen renovations or additions require permits, while cosmetic changes such as painting, carpeting, or new doors do not.

He cautions residents against doing work without permits, as permit fees triple for proceeding illegally with construction.  “It’s a big issue for this department and Township elected officials – it’s a life and safety issue.  Doing work without permits could put lives in jeopardy if it’s not up to code.”

Henry relies on his team, which currently includes the Assistant to the Director Bob Habgood, Permits Clerk Sue Drucker, and Building Inspector Tom Cinaglia. This team which, is less by two positions, has continued to play a critical role in getting all the work done and anticipates activity to pick up as the weather breaks.

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