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Tinicum grapples with groundwater, steep slope protection


Bookended between New York City and Philadelphia, the rural beauty of Bucks County is expected to drive a 9% growth in population between 2022 and 2027.

All the more reason some environmentalists are aggressively monitoring land use proposals in their towns to ensure the projects don’t imperil safe, reliable and adequate water supplies and municipalities are enforcing their laws protecting steams and hillside steep slopes from overdevelopment.

Two recent Tinicum Township Board of Supervisors meetings wrestled with examples of groundwater and steep slope discomfort.

The 20-year-old joint Bridgeton-Nockamixon-Tinicum Groundwater Committee advises local government bodies on decisions affecting the quantity and quality of area groundwater.

On Sept. 5, members of the all-volunteer committee presented its annual report, including the results of ongoing groundwater testing and monitoring, performed with the help of a local hydrogeologist.

The committee’s Dr. Carrie Manfrino stressed that, in addition to watching water levels with drought and precipitation monitors, it’s also important to look to the future, assessing and addressing newer vulnerabilities.

“In addition to watching our water levels, we would like to look at water quality,” said Manfrino. “As a committee, we develop baselines by testing our own wells, which is a great start to secure a sense of area water quality. We would like to establish a long-term water quality study and encourage our community to go out and monitor their own water.”

Committee member Dr. Steve Donovan stressed that “by minding the ship, we can avoid unsustainable groundwater over-withdrawal, which could lead to unintended conversion to municipal water, at a huge cost to the townships.”

Meanwhile the burgeoning use of hardship variances for new construction on sensitive sites sparked lively debate at a supervisors meeting in August.

Residents voiced concern that the Tinicum Board of Supervisors is not taking a strong enough stance in support of sustaining a rural township.

The ultimately withdrawn Zoning Hearing Board application of Thomas Berger at Center Road in Erwinna is a case in point. Berger requested hardship relief from multiple zoning ordinances in a very steep slope area to build a driveway, single-family dwelling, septic system, a pool and other associated uses.

Vice Chair Eleanor Breslin observed that to obtain a variance in a Steep Slope Conservation Overlay District, “the relief awarded must be the very minimum required.”

Township Solicitor Steve Harris explained the issue is that the variances in play are not to locate the residence, rather about disturbing the steep slope. “No matter what the size of the residence and pool, you still have the same driveway.”

In planning commission member Harry Johnston’s estimation there wasn’t a good justification for a such a long driveway.

Longtime township historian and environmentalist Kathryn Auerbach interjected with frustration.

“It has always been clearly stated that these parcels were non-conforming when they were split and probably not suitable for residential use,” she said. “There is no hardship here, the township doesn’t owe the applicant anything.”

James Helms, who chairs the board of supervisors, stressed that the zoning hearing board ultimately makes the call on variances and other forms of relief.

Auerbach hoped the board shared her passionate feelings about enforcing existing zoning laws and that they will not be “wishy-washy” when making their recommendations.

“You sound like you are sort of okay with this, but this goes against every grain of what the township has been working on to protect us all these years.”

Helms responded, “We can’t just say ‘no’ to everything. Rather we must let the process play itself out.”

Ms. Auerbach ended with an impassioned plea. “If you don’t manage your steep slopes, you are encouraging more and more runoff and degradation of our streams. Last month, people died because of flash floods. In 1955, 99 people died because of tremendous water. We have these laws for a reason — not simply on a case-by-case basis but because of what happens afterwards.”

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