Montco development dispute ends in a stalemate

Posted: July 21, 2014

A dispute over development in the Springfield Panhandle has ended in stalemate, with the landowner selling the property to a homebuilder and washing his hands of the controversy.

Instead of a 125-unit Atria Senior Living facility and 35 homes, the land now will be developed with 52 homes. Neighbors, developers, and township officials all agreed the facility would have been preferable, but they could not come to a compromise over the rest of the parcel.

The debate had become acrimonious and personal. The neighbors felt the Montgomery County township should get some concession in exchange for a zoning ordinance that would greatly increase the value of the property. The owner, Frederick C. Tecce, felt he should be able to do what he wanted with his land.

Neighbors wanted the back portion of the property - a wooded area that houses the headwaters of Andorra Run and borders Wissahickon Valley Park - preserved as a park. They formed a grassroots group and started looking at fund-raising to buy and maintain the land.

Tecce said that the back of the tract was the most desirable space for houses and that he had already given up enough density and open space to appease his neighbors.

"I'm not giving up another square foot," said Tecce, who has been trying for more than a decade to sell the 42-acre estate he inherited from his father.

After the township commissioners this month rejected his proposal to divide and rezone the front seven acres for Atria, Tecce threw in the towel.

"I believed in my heart of hearts that I would be a hero of Springfield Township for bringing them this opportunity," he said, arguing that senior housing and tax relief were two things the township badly needs. "There's no longer any incentive for me to do this. . . . At this point in my life I just don't want to be aggravated by these people."

Tecce, who has not attended public meetings in recent years, said he refused to negotiate with his neighbors because they were trying to "extort" land from him and prevent him from making money.

Brennan Preine, who led the neighbors' group, said they "tried to be constructive and find a middle ground."

"He always dismissed what I thought were very legitimate concerns on our part, dismissed the opportunity to come up with viable ideas," Preine said. "There was no communication. And I put that at Fred Tecce's feet."

Both men acknowledge a hint of historic irony. Preine's wife is a descendant of Ellis Ames Ballard, cofounder of the powerhouse law firm Ballard Spahr. The Ballards used to own most of the land in the Springfield Panhandle, including the 9,000-square-foot mansion estate that Tecce's father purchased in 1954.

The commissioners' vote was a close 4-3, and even those who voted against Tecce's proposal said they wanted the Atria site to move forward - but only if Tecce agreed to revert to a more spacious single-family-home zoning in the back of the property.

Commissioner Robert Gillies Jr., the most vocal supporter of Atria, said the township loses out on jobs, tax revenue, and other benefits because his colleagues "were playing a game of chicken. They wanted to see if this guy would blink."

Glenn Schaum, Baird Standish, and Jeff Harbison, three of the commissioners who voted against the proposal, said they don't regret it.

"I thought the developer could've come back with something a little more amenable," Standish said. "I sort of felt if they gave a little and the neighbors gave a little, they'd all come to an agreement."

"I think Mr. Tecce and some of the other commissioners' view [taxes] as being the most important thing," Harbison said. "But I and some of the other commissioners . . . think it needs to be balanced more" with other concerns such as quality of life, open space, and "an expectation when you buy a house that your neighbor's property won't be drastically rezoned."

Tecce, in an interview last week, said he had entered an agreement to sell all 42 acres to James A. Nolen, a homebuilder and longtime friend.

Nolen said he hopes to begin construction by the end of the year under the existing zoning, which allows for 52 homes or condominiums he expects to sell "in the $700,000 range." That zoning offers slightly less open space than was promised in Tecce's most recent proposal.

Tecce will retain the manor house.

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

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