The Phoenixville Area School District’s plans to expand East Pikeland Elementary were dealt a surprising blow last week when the East Pikeland Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) rejected the district’s request for a number of variances.
The school district had been engaged in a back-and-forth with the township for 17 months over its plans to expand the Hares Hill Road school, which it maintains is simply too small for its fast-growing student body. The district required a number of waivers to build the facility though, and their acquisition has been complicated by a legal challenge from a group of homeowners set on blocking the district's proposal.
The homeowners have argued that the facility PASD wants to build is simply too large for the lot. They've also raised questions about whether expansion on the site is safe given that the area's groundwater is contaminated with dieldrin, an insecticide.
Still, approval of the waivers seemed a forgone conclusion as recently as this summer when the East Pikeland Board of Supervisors granted the project conditional approval. Then came last week's ruling.
PASD superintendent Alan Fegley, in a letter to parents written just after the October 24 hearing, called the decision a “major setback” for the district. It was also an expensive one. Fegley said, up to this point, the project has cost the district $590,000 in legal fees, predevelopment and environmental work, and other planning, plus run up an additional $900,000 in architectural costs.
In its written decision authored by board members Mark Brooks, John Lilienfeld, and Jeff Morgan, the ZHB indicated that, in its view, the school district was simply trying to do too much on too little space.
“In short, the project is the quintessential ‘ten pounds in a five pound bag’ that is often presented,” read the board’s decision. “The mismatch between the character of the neighborhood and the character of the proposal is too great and too severe to be solved by the imposition of conditions.”
The ZHB added that the PASD proposal was excessive relative to the size of the lot, the needs of its students, and the concerns of the neighbors.
“The sheer number of the rooms and the size of many of the rooms is breathtaking,” the ZHB decision went on, adding that some rooms, like private bathrooms for the two principals, seemed unnecessary.
The board also rejected the district’s request for exemption from open space requirements. PASD had come up with a stormwater management scheme for the site that would achieve the runoff goals of the township’s open space ordinance despite its excess of impervious surface, but the ZHB said no.
“Controlling for stormwater does not address the fact that the site is going to be used to park more vehicles than is appropriate for the site. And that those vehicles will be traveling to the site on narrow, hilly roads,” the document read.
The board also concluded that impervious surface limitations are not just a matter of stormwater runoff; they exist to preserve open space and discourage overcrowding. The PASD proposal would undercut each of these objectives.
The ZHB also emphasized that it didn’t consider the site’s dieldrin contamination, long a hotly contested issue, in its decision. It called the matter “beyond its purview.”
The board, in closing, wrote that it was “sympathetic” to the needs of East Pikeland Elementary students and wished PASD had advanced a more balanced proposal.
It’s unclear what the school district will do from here. Fegley said it will consider a number of options, including litigation to continue to pursue the proposed development, renovation of the existing building, adding classroom trailers, or simply finding another location to build the school.
Do you agree with the decision? Tell us in the comments.