Neighborhood groups prepare for Chelten Plaza zoning showdown

The controversial Chelten Plaza development in Germantown is rolling toward a zoning showdown over one retail store portrayed by the project’s developer as essential to the plan – the Dollar Tree.

To obtain a zoning permit in Philadelphia, the Department of Licenses and Inspections’ Zoning Application states that an applicant must “list the proposed use of the existing building, the addition and/or the new building.”

At a meeting held last night at Germantown’s House of Jin, attorney Yvonne Haskins and a coalition of neighborhood groups, including the West Central Germantown Neighbors, claimed that L&I issued a permit to developer Pat Burns that was inconsistent with such zoning protocol.

According to Haskins, Burns disguised what he intended to build by portraying the Dollar Tree as a “retail grocery store” on his zoning application in order to avoid a zoning overlay that directly prohibits the building of any variety store along Chelten Ave.

The Dollar Tree describes itself as a variety store on its own corporate website.

For months now, Germantown has been involved in a heated debate over development plans for Chelten Plaza. In March, developer Pat Burns made public his plans to use $4 million worth of public funds to erect a Save-A-Lot, a Dollar Tree and an Anna’s Linens on the corner of Chelten and Pulaski avenues. Since then, WCGN and a number of community organizations have joined together to protest the development, most objecting to the low-end nature of the proposed stores, while the community group Germantown Community Connection has been negotiating with Burns over design issues and other concerns.

On July 6th, Haskins, on behalf of her appellants, filed an appeal of permits to the Zoning Board, claiming that L&I failed to query what Burns provided as “intended use” on his zoning permit application.

In a NewsWorks article published Tuesday, Burns’s lawyer, Carl Primavera denied this, arguing that, as written, the zoning overlay is too broad and would exclude almost every retailer. He also stated he will work with the Planning Commission to have the terms of the overlay clarified.

Haskins responded directly to Primavera’s argument by posting an online comment to the article: “It’s against the law to disguise to L&I what you intend to build. Lying to public officials is just plain wrong, fraudulent and unethical. It’s not the Zoning Board’s job to rewrite the law.”

The real issue of the appeal, Haskins says, is not whether the zoning overlay applies to the Dollar Tree or whether it was written too broadly; it’s about whether L&I should have issued a permit to Burns over-the-counter or should he have applied for a variance, which would have allowed proper examination of these questions.

“Our appeal is with L&I,” Haskins explained. “This unit issued an over-the-counter permit without looking at what they were approving.”

In response to the appeal, a Zoning Board hearing has been set for September 21. Until then, Haskins, WCGN and it’s Committee Concerned with Chelten will continue to ramp up their efforts to oppose the Chelten Plaza development, members said.

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