The East Falls Community Council will vote to settle a pending lawsuit with a local developer at a special meeting later this week.
The meeting, to be held on Thursday, Feb. 21, will consider the terms of the settlement between the EFCC and Westrum Development Company, which oversees the East Falls property known as Hilltop at Falls Ridge, which is bordered by Ridge Avenue and School House Lane.
Barnaby Wittels, first vice-president of the EFCC, said at an EFCC meeting held earlier in February that the settlement was ready to sign after a sit-down between representatives from EFCC, Westrum, and the office of Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr.
The agreement spelled out that Westrum would pay the EFCC $28,000 for use with the Inn Yard Park playground, which would be supplemented by $25,000 in funding from Councilman Jones, who has already contributed significant monetary support to the playground.
Jones would assume responsibility with regard to EFCC’s requests for additional traffic controls at Falls Ridge and a rental restriction originally placed on the property was dropped at the councilman’s request.
Exchanging playground funding for development opportunities
In November, the EFCC announced that it was suing Westrum for $50,000 to enforce an agreement between the organizations that was first drawn up in 2006. At the time, Westrum was seeking to develop land at the Falls Ridge site.
Tom Sauerman, president of the EFCC, said last year that Westrum had agreed to provide $50,000 in funding for a playground at Inn Yard Park on Ridge Avenue, along with providing traffic regulations and rental restrictions at the Falls Ridge properties.
In response, John Westrum, CEO of Westrum Development Company, told NewsWorks that his organization was willing to pay the remaining balance owed in structured payments, that rental prohibitions were “outlandish,” and that the traffic regulations were a matter for city government.
At that time, Westrum expressed an interest in settling the matter, and indicated a desire to meet with Councilman Jones’ office to broker a solution.
After months of scheduling, this meeting took place on Feb. 6, with representatives of EFCC, Westrum, and Jones in attendance. Asked for comment on the meeting, Jones said that his participation was “an appropriate role of a councilperson,” arranging a public-private partnership that would benefit a neighborhood playground.Jones cited the impact of the recent economic downturn as a potential reason that diminished the ability of Westrum to pay.
“Instead of us fighting about it,” remarked Jones, “I stepped up and put more money to it, in the hopes that we could move on to the next thing.”
Relaying that he understood the principle behind EFCC’s position, Jones observed that it sets an example for developers who may consider reneging on their agreements with communities.
“Such is not the case in East Falls,” he said. “Watch out what you sign up for – they’re not going to forget.”
‘EFCC’s decision is very troubling’
While EFCC attorneys were hoping for a quick adoption of the settlement by the EFCC membership, several present at February’s general meeting were concerned about the terms of the agreements and that sufficient community notification had not been given – the vote was a last-minute addition to the EFCC agenda. Instead, those present moved to table the topic until the March meeting, much to the chagrin of attorneys representing the neighborhood.
Marjorie Jacobs, EFCC’s attorney in the Westrum suit, said in a notification released by the community group that the decision to table could jeopardize the negotiations.
“EFCC’s decision is very troubling,” wrote Jacobs, expressing her concern that the delay would have “negative consequences for EFCC with respect to its prospects for settling the equity litigation and its future dealings with Councilman Jones and John Westrum.”
Referencing Jones’ dealing with the matter, Jacobs said the councilman “stepped in and ‘took jurisdiction'” over the traffic issue, stating he would evaluate the issue at a later date as part of a comprehensive analysis of neighborhood traffic patterns and traffic safety concerns.
Noting that John Westrum was adamant about his opposition to rent restrictions, Jacobs related that Jones asked about any existing problems concerning occupancy of the condominium units at Hilltop at Falls Ridge and was told that EFCC was not aware of any at this time. As a result, she and Wittels backed away from the inclusion of rent restrictions.
“At the conclusion of our meeting with Councilman Jones, we cautioned everyone that we would recommend settlement to EFCC on the terms we had discussed,” she wrote, “but that we still needed to obtain approval from EFCC.”
Meeting scheduled for Thursday
With the issue tabled – and a $28,000 check from Westrum hanging in the balance – Jacobs lobbied aggressively for a quick reconsideration of the issue, suggesting that a meeting be called and expressing a willingness to attend and speak in support of its adoption.
While lamenting the potential loss of credibility with both Westrum and Jones, Jacobs also referenced legal considerations. She indicated that the EFCC’s decision could force the parties to engage in unnecessary and costly discovery in the equity litigation “at a time when they could be finalizing a settlement of that litigation,” and could ultimately weaken EFCC’s attorney’s ability to negotiate.
“EFCC’s decision also leaves counsel for both sides in limbo for weeks,” Jacobs continued. “John Westrum could easily conclude from EFCC’s decision that settlement negotiations are a waste of time, that the recommendations of EFCC’s counsel carry no weight with EFCC, and that there is no prospect of reaching an expeditious settlement based on terms that are acceptable to both sides.”
Attorneys for Westrum weren’t immediately available for comment.
Asked for comment about her response, Jacobs said the email speaks for itself, but looked forward to EFCC reaching a decision on Thursday.
“Both sides [of the lawsuit] want to reach a settlement,” she said. “Psychologically, that’s a good thing.”
The EFCC will meet on Feb. 21, at 7 p.m. in the Falls Presbyterian Church on Midvale Avenue and Vaux St.