East Falls Community Council goes forward with Westrum lawsuit over playground funds and development provisions

After a period of years, The East Falls Community Council announced last month that it will go forward with plans to sue the Westrum Development Company. 

As authorized by a vote of the EFCC in November 2011, the EFCC is suing Westrum for $50,000 to enforce an agreement between the organizations that was first drawn up in 2006, according to EFCC leaders. At the time, Westrum was seeking to develop land at the site known as Hilltop at Falls Ridge, bordered by Ridge Avenue and School House Lane.

Tom Sauerman, president of EFCC, said last month that Westrum had promised $50,000 in funding for a playground at Inn Yard Park on Ridge Avenue in exchange for the approval of what Sauerman termed “a myriad of variances” for the development.

In addition, Sauerman said that they are looking for additional provisions previously agreed upon: The prohibition and enforcement of left turns to or from School House Lane, and the requirement that Falls Ridge homebuyers occupy the houses for five years, discouraging speculative buyers seeking rental properties.

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EFCC will be represented by Marjorie Jacobs who, according to Sauerman, will be working on a contingent fee arrangement, with the EFCC covering her out of pocket costs and Jacobs only being paid if the case is settled in the community’s favor.

Meg Greenfield, former first vice-president of the EFCC will serve as in-house counsel, and Barnaby Wittels, current first vice-president of EFCC, will provide his services to the community council on a pro-bono basis.Both Jacobs and Wittels declined to comment on pending litigation.

Addressing the agreement’s terms 

John Westrum, CEO of Westrum Development Company, told NewsWorks that his organization “always tried to cooperate with everyone” when negotiating a deal, and was willing to pay the remaining balanced owed in structured payments.

With regard to traffic control, Westrum said that the installation of a no left-turn “pork-chop” was an issue with city government.

In response to the stipulation that homebuyers agree to no rentals for five years, Westrum said it was “an outlandish view of how people have to deal with this marketplace.”

While noting that his company is not in the practice of renting, Westrum said that the market has changed dramatically since 2006 and that people today are having trouble getting mortgages.

“We won’t be able to sell houses if you have to say you can’t rent them out,” he explained. “If somebody wants to buy one as an investment, the inability to rent them creates a problem.”

Westrum noted that he has requested “countless meetings” with Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr.’s office to get the opposing parties together.

In response, Michelle Wilson, spokesperson for Councilman Jones, said that one meeting did in fact take place between the aggrieved parties, but did not indicate when the meeting was or what outcomes took place.

Sauerman was unable to comment.

‘A desire to resolve, no desire to fight’ 

Wilson did offer that Jones stepped up to provide additional financial support for the playground, which opened late in 2011.

“We didn’t want to see the community suffer because of a lack of funding,” she said, adding that her office stands at the ready to help broker an arrangement.

“If more needs to be done,” she said, “we would be more than willing to facilitate a sit-down with all parties.”

In the meantime, Westrum remains open to communication but steadfast in his stance.

“We have a desire to resolve this, and no desire to fight,” said Westrum. “We want to be good neighbors, we want to do the right thing, and we ask that the EFCC be good neighbors also.”

“If it goes to litigation,” he surmised, “it goes to litigation.”

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