Roxborough neighbors fight plan to build retaining wall on steep Green Lane hill

Some Roxborough residents are watching closely for a decision from the Zoning Board of Adjustment on a plan to build a retaining wall on a steep wooded hill overlooking a Wissahickon trail entrance.

The controversy surrounds a variance application by The Galman Group, which owns more than 30 apartment buildings in Philadelphia, Montgomery County and Delaware, to extend the parking lot at the Donna Court apartments at 631 Dupont St. The lot overlooks a wooded dropoff that leads down to Jeannette Street and Green Lane and an entrance to the Wissahickon Creek trail system.

To support the parking lot, Galman has asked for the variance to build a 30-foot high retaining wall against the slope, and originally planned a row of eight townhouses below it on Green Lane.

The ZBA held a hearing on the application on Aug. 10 at which the city Planning Commission reported favorably on the issue, but several members of the Central Roxborough Civic Association in attendance objected.

The group’s board also voted to formally oppose the project, and members reached out to state Rep. Pam DeLissio, said Gordon Cohen, who lives on Green Lane.

After discussions and email exchanges with neighbors and city officials, the developer agreed to remove the townhouses and indicated they currently have no plans to build them. The ZBA has not yet issued a decision on the variance, said Maura Kennedy, spokeswoman for the city Department of Licenses and Inspections.

Peter Kelsen, attorney for the developer, said not only would the additional 22 parking spots for the 44-unit Donna Court take some cars off of neighborhood streets, it would bring the property into compliance with current rules requiring a parking spot for each bedroom.

Also, he said, adding the retaining wall would improve stormwater runoff and soil conservation at the site, where a soil study revealed the steep slope is actually the result of several feet of fill matter, likely put there during Donna Court’s construction in the 1960s.

“This is not what we’d call a natural slope,” Kelsen said. “When we build the parking lot, we’re going to put in stormwater management measures under the parking lot that will actually make the site better.”

Cohen and his wife, Lynda Payne, emailed their objections to the Planning Commission, asking why the variance was even being considered given the Wissahickon Watershed Controls and goals of the Philadelphia 2035 plan.

“If they get the variance to build the retaining wall, then there’s nothing to stop them from building the townhouses,” Cohen said.

In theory, Cohen is correct, as the Green Lane-fronting property’s current zoning allows townhouses by right. Still, it’s not likely, Kelsen said, as the ZBA originally rejected the permit application because the size of the lots put the townhouses in violation of setback rules.

Neighbors said they can’t understand why the matter even came under consideration, when the area in question is controlled by the Wissahickon Watershed Controls. Special environmental controls within the overlay bar site clearing and earth moving activity on slopes greater than 25-percent grade, and the site where the retaining wall would be is a 50-percent grade.

“We feel like there’s probably no question that they will grant the variance,” said neighbor Don Simon.

Kelsen wouldn’t speculate on what the ZBA might do, but said Galman’s position is that the slope regulation shouldn’t apply in this case.

“Our position is that even if it did apply, the provision is intended to prevent soil erosion and runoff, and engineering-wise, the retaining wall is an improvement,” he said.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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