GCC forms new committee to monitor Germantown zoning matters

There are a couple of important things to know about Ernie Freeman, who will chair Germantown Community Connection’s new Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee (PLUZ).

No, he’s not related to Emanuel Freeman, the Germantown Settlement guy.

No, he isn’t a local and wasn’t around for whichever of Germantown’s good old days you remember. Freeman, 65, moved into Germantown within the past year, and got involved with GCC only months ago.

What Freeman has is a resume bolstered by decades of municipal-planning and community development experience in cities like Norfolk (Va.), San Diego, Baltimore and Cincinnati.

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Fresh eyes, clean start

Freeman, now working as a freelance consultant, will be the first head of a new volunteer standing committee within GCC charged with reviewing zoning variance applications and major development plans across all of Germantown.

“I think that’s one of the assets I bring — I don’t come with deep involvement with a lot of people,” Freeman said. “I come with a clean slate. I’m committed to Germantown and its future.”

It’s a move meant to avoid future controversies like the one that enveloped the Chelten Plaza shopping center redevelopment, where infighting arose over which community groups, and which leader, really represented what Germantown wanted.

Many involved felt a lack of a formalized community zoning and design review process left residents little leverage in negotiating changes with the property owner.

GCC’s PLUZ will also hold discussions about planning, land use, zoning and development, and has been created with guidance from Matt Wysong, Northwest community planner for the city Planning Commission.

Looming changes

It’s being done, in part, in anticipation of the city’s new zoning code, which formalizes the community involvement element through the work of registered community organizations, or RCOs.

“Most of Germantown is not represented when it comes to issues of variances and zoning cases,” Wysong said.

There is some localized zoning review happening in Germantown now, as groups like West Central Germantown Neighbors and the Germantown Restoration community development corporation do monitor zoning cases and alert neighbors, said Luke Smith, who chairs WCGN’s zoning, land use and planning committee.

Other groups are more narrow in focus. For instance, Germantown United CDC aims to improve the retail corridor, but isn’t meant to function like a civic group.

The new committee, which will have between eight and 10 members, isn’t meant to take power away from any existing groups, and different organizations can send the city different feedback on zoning and development cases.

Coming together

GCC President Betty Turner said the new committee would try to avoid disputes by soliciting participation from as many Germantown groups as possible and acting as the convening body for the one public meeting required between property owners and RCOs.

“People don’t all have to agree, and that’s fine,” Turner said. “But you’ll have to document why.”

The committee includes as a key member Yvonne Haskins, the Mt. Airy lawyer who represented Chelten Plaza protesters and is now a board member of Germantown United CDC.

In a recent interview, Turner and Haskins said it feels natural to work together now after the lessons learned from Chelten Plaza.

Turner said being this kind of central organization for Germantown is exactly why GCC was formed during the discussions over the city’s Transit Oriented Development Plan in 2007 and 2008.

“Chelten Plaza was a learning process for everybody,” Turner said. “We all learned lessons from it, and despite all that has gone on, we have remained neighbors. It has brought Germantown out of the closet, so to speak, and into the public.”

Haskins said it never was about Betty-vs.-Yvonne, but about getting a better Chelten Plaza.

“Sometimes conflict empowers people, sometimes conflict brings people out,” said Haskins.

Ongoing issues

Haskins has also been working with the Northwest Neighbors of Germantown in their talks with the city in regards to a Potter’s Field on the site of the Queen Lane Apartments. That case provides another example, she said, of where a centralized civic group for all of Germantown could be effective.

“This committee could be a visible, efficient, effective central process going forward,” she said. “In zoning, near neighbors often have the most say, but also the wider community wants to know.”

Freeman said right now, GCC is doing outreach to as many interested civic and community groups as they can find in Germantown — a number estimated to be between 12 and 30 — to seek people interested in serving on the PLUZ committee. But not everyone will be accepted: Those with professional, academic or other relevant expertise will be selected first.

Germantown residents or neighborhood stakeholders interested in applying to serve on the PLUZ committee can contact Ernie Freeman at ernest.freeman1@gmail.com.

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

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