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Residents pack Hilltown hearing on Venue development


Driven by concern over a proposed age-restricted community, Hilltown residents packed the municipal building for a June 20 township Planning Commission meeting on the potential development.

The hearing saw input from representatives for Lennar Construction, a Miami, Fla.-based developer that aims to build The Venue – a proposed 174-unit 55-and-older community in the area of Swartley Road and Route 309. There was also input from Hilltown Friends, a local community group that opposes the development.

While iterations of the Venue have been discussed in Hilltown for several years, the most recent version is in what officials have described as the concept plan stage.

Current zoning does not allow for the type of development Lennar envisions on the acreage upon which it wants to build. As such, the developer needs zoning changes/relief from the township Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors plan to hold a special hearing to consider granting those zoning amendments – or not – at 6 p.m. July 6, at the municipal building. The three-person board, which locally governs the township, could take into account input from the Planning Commission.

The volunteer Planning Commission serves as an advisory board to supervisors, providing advice on things like how to proceed with regards to particular development applications. Supervisors are not bound to agree with or act on any of the recommendations, but can consider the commission’s insights as they weigh proposals.

In a 4-1 vote at the June 20 meeting, the Planning Commission recommended that Lennar’s desired zoning relief be granted, provided certain conditions are met. Those include lowering the number/density of units to around 150 total and limiting three-bedroom units to only 33% of the total home count. A proposal to lower the number of allowed units even more was not approved.

David Christ, chairman of the Planning Commission, said the commission sees certain benefits to Hilltown from the Venue.

For instance, the development could provide what Christ described as needed 55-and-older housing in the township, where he said there are only two other age-qualified developments. The positioning of the Venue out on commercialized Route 309 – rather than the more rural interior of the township – also makes it a reasonable spot for this type of development, Christ said.

Christ also said that the developer has so far worked in good faith, making requested modifications like ensuring vehicle exits and entrances to the Venue would only be on Route 309, not Swartley Road.

Hilltown Friends believes the Venue is not right for Hilltown. The group is concerned the development could cause road-clogging traffic, excessive stormwater runoff that leads to flooding, environmental hazards, intrusive lighting, the need to hire more police officers, and decreased property values for current residents who live near the development.

Hilltown Friends also believes amending the zoning to allow for the development Lennar wants would set a dangerous precedent that other developers could exploit to cram more houses onto properties than local ordinances allow.

The zoning “rewrite changes all criteria that help limit this type of development, creates new formulas on how open space and impervious surfaces are calculated, and higher housing density to occur in our rural residential zoning,” Dale Ott, a leader in the Hilltown Friends group, has said. “This is the developer’s attempt to have commercial activity and development occur in the rural residential zoning. We cannot allow this to happen as it will pave the way for others to do the same.”

“I am disappointed in the Planning Commission’s decision,” added Michele Tyson, a member of Hilltown Friends. “Allowing developers to change the ordinances everyone else is supposed to follow makes no sense to me. How can they be permitted to rewrite the ordinances of the entire township so they can build whatever they want to build when the rest of us have no choice but to follow the ordinances?”

Tyson, Ott and others should have a chance to voice their concerns before supervisors at the July 6 meeting. Even if supervisors grant Lennar’s desired zoning relief, the developer would still have to go through a land development approval process, in which fully-engineered plans would be reviewed by supervisors, township staff and other agencies. Lennar would need land development approval from supervisors to build – something that could take years, were it to come at all, officials have noted.