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Chester County Press

New Garden residents oppose plans for Route 41 development, sewer rate hikes

03/22/2022 04:20PM ● By Richard Gaw

Photo by Richard L. Gaw               An overflow audience of residents attended the New Garden Township Building on March 21 to voice their displeasure over a proposed plan that would develop the Route 41 corridor, as well as shared their concern over a projected sewer rate hike.

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

Although it was not listed on the itinerary for the March 21 New Garden Township Board of Supervisors meeting, listening was the most important task on the agenda.

For more than two hours, the five members of the board heard resident backlash related to two issues: the township’s plans to amend the township’s zoning map in an effort to revitalize Route 41 and promote mixed-use development along the corridor; and the much-anticipated sewer rate hikes stemming from the sale of the township’s wastewater system to Aqua.

Over the past few months, the township has lofted a proposal to rezone 97 parcels along Route 41 to Avondale Borough that are currently zoned Highway Commercial (HC), R-1 and R-4 Residential to a Unified Development (UD) classification. The purpose of rezoning is in step with the township’s 2018 Comprehensive Plan that calls for the corridor to be converted to a mixed-use thoroughfare for commercial use “in which to work, shop, dine and play.”

The plan also calls for the construction of a variety of housing options along the corridor, and the enhancement of streetscapes through the addition of street trees, street lights and sidewalks. In his opening remarks, township planner and zoning expert Tom Comitta called the proposed change “a 40 percent enhancement value.”

Comitta expressed his cautious optimism for the planned development along the corridor.

“My main concern is, ‘If you build it, will they come, and will they come at all?’” said Comitta, who had presented creative ideas about the plan to the board earlier in the year. “Let’s say we look at this road ten years from now. Will there be a greater attractiveness? In our best imagination, can we think about outdoor dining along Route 41? It may take ten or 20 years for a lot of positive changes to happen, but you have to start somewhere.

“It’s trying to aspire to a better outcome. We can’t predict the future, but we can say what our best practices are, and that’s what we are trying to do.”

The township’s idea to redefine the Route 41 corridor recently got a huge vote of confidence in the form of three letters it received on March 17 from the Chester County Planning Commission. In one letter, Senior Review Planner Glenn Bentley recommended that the township adhere to its 2018 Comprehensive Plan and concentrate its development in the vicinity of the Limestone, Newark and Penn Green Road intersections off of Route 41.

During a public hearing to consider the adoption of the ordinance to amend its zoning, several residents voiced their adamant opposition to the idea. After introductory comments by board Chairman Steve Allaband, township Solicitor Bill Christman and Comitta, several residents expressed concern that the development would decrease the value of properties along the corridor; that Route 41 and Route 7 are not conducive to residential and pedestrian traffic; that it would severely impact the quality of life for township residents and increase demand for police and emergency services; increase property taxes; lead to additional traffic on an already busy route; and impact the availability of well water for residents who live nearby.

A few of the residents encouraged the supervisors not to vote on the ordinance, in favor of giving those living in the township more time to provide additional feedback to the proposed plan. Richard Zimny, a former member of the township’s Zoning Hearing Board, suggested that the township make a map of the proposed zoning changes available to residents.

After the hearing, the board had the option of adopting the ordinance. On the advice of both Christman and Comitta, however, the board chose to table the vote in favor of sending a revised version of the ordinance to the Chester County and New Garden Township Planning Commissions for further review, and scheduling a second public hearing on May 16.

‘The ratepayer is not even allowed at the bargaining table’

Township resident Peter Mrozinski delivered a presentation to the board that echoed the concerns of his fellow residents of the Harrogate North community – that the sale of the township’s wastewater system to Aqua for $29.5 million in 2020 will lead to a massive yearly increase in sewer bills for thousands of township residents.

Mrozinski said that Aqua’s purchase was the first municipality utility sale in the commonwealth that was signed under Act 12, which permits the sale of a public utility to a private, for-profit utility at a much higher price than was previously allowed. He said the act also allows the private company to recoup the cost of their investment by jacking up its rates to its ratepayers.

“Through a bizarre twist, both the buyer and the seller benefit from a higher price sale,” he said, referring to Aqua and the township, “while the third entity – the ratepayer – is not even allowed at the bargaining table.”

Mrozinski then referred to the 2019 purchase agreement between Aqua and the township, which specified a two-year rate freeze, but in September of 2019, the township and Aqua signed an amendment to the agreement that ended the rate freeze and opened the door for Aqua to raise sewer rates at its own discretion.

“So now, New Garden still got $29.5 million, and Aqua got a better deal, because they are not constrained by any rate freezes,” he said. “They can charge as much as they want. The loser again is the ratepayer who will now be saddled with higher bills.”

Referring to an overhead chart, Mrozinski spelled out the details of the rate increase that forecasts annual fees rising from $800 in 2020 to more than $2,000 by 2030, applicable to those residents who use an average of 48,000 gallons of wastewater a year.

“Why were the rate freeze and cap removed from the agreement?” Mrozinski asked the board. “Was there any attempt to have Aqua pay more to offset this benefit? Was there any attempt to get ratepayer input?

“Was New Garden Township aware of this rate request from Aqua? New Garden and Aqua both signed this agreement. Was anyone watching to make sure that Aqua met the terms of the agreement? Because they didn’t.”

At the time of the initial agreement between the township and Aqua in 2016, the township agreed to financially secure the capped rates, and specified that “a reserve fund will be established out of the proceeds of the sale to financially secure the contractually capped rates. The fund will be used to reimburse existing users should the contractually capped rates be exceeded.”

Mrozinski then asked the board if the township is planning to “honor your promise” to help offset the rate increase.

Allaband said that he is not aware of any rate mitigation that has been implemented elsewhere in Pennsylvania that mirrors the transaction and agreement between Aqua and New Garden Township. He said before the township chooses to create a sewer rate mitigation, it must first find out how to implement it.

“In looking at this and working through some of the constraints, I think the board has to come up with some answer,” he said to Mrosinski. “I think that is due to you and all of the other people [whose homes are tied into] the sewer system, as well.

“Anything that we can do to be proactive, we should be doing it,” said board member Kristie Brodowski.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].