Susan Guthrie

Lower Merion Zoning Code--Please Delay Adoption

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Susan Guthrie
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Lower Merion residents deserve the best feasible zoning code. The draft zoning code proposed for adoption, Version 3.1, does not yet meet the mark. As currently written, it has potential negative consequences for the quality of life in Lower Merion’s neighborhoods. Additionally, it has significant ambiguity, unintended results, and errors. We are concerned that, if the current version of the new zoning code is passed on September 18, there will be a number of opportunities for developers and institutions to take advantage of these flaws by submitting development plans prior to the Board of Commissioners making corrective amendments. Further, we believe that Version 3.1 needs more review. Although residents have had opportunities since November 2018 to publicly comment on early versions of the code during development, the time and opportunity to provide feedback to the finished code has been all but nonexistent. We, the undersigned, ask the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners to delay adoption of Version 3.1 and provide 60 days before advertising again to allow the issues indicated below to be addressed and for residents to have sufficient time to review and provide comment on the proposed code in its entirety.

In particular:

  1. Implement a process to vet the code carefully by stress-testing it with hypothetical development for residential, commercial and institutional situations.
  2. Continue the regional civic association public workshops held early in the process to sufficiently educate and solicit feedback from the residents by presenting a comparison of the draft code to the existing code (including a comparison of the impact).
  3. Protect the environment and the bucolic look and feel of neighborhoods throughout all the Township:
    1. by reducing the expansion of allowed impervious surface cover in all residential zones to zero, just like has been done in R-AA, R-A, and R-1;
    2. requiring open space protection with all development on institutional properties greater than five acres;
    3. limit building area to 80% of the allowed impervious cover in each residential district (which is roughly comparable to the current zoning code); and
    4. eliminate the cases where IE zoning yields unreasonable increases in allowed impervious relative to existing zoning. (For example, under Version 3.1, several institutional properties in the Township would be allowed to increase their impervious cover by more than 45 percent of the current allowance. The limit should be more like 10 percent.)
  4. Protect the quality of life in residential neighborhoods by limiting negative consequences associated with institutional primary and accessory uses:
    1. Clarify the known potential ambiguities pertaining to multifamily or commercial historic conversions and accessory uses on institutional properties.
    2. Provide greater protections to residential neighbors of institutional properties by eliminating exceptions in the noise ordinance when applied to accessory uses and providing stricter limits to spillover parking.
    3. Develop a process to monitor and enforce accessory uses on institutional properties.
    4. Work with educational institutions and residents to develop appropriate standards for the number of dorm rooms per acre, similar to how Continuing Care and Skilled Nursing Facilities are treated in Version 3.1.
  5. As an interim measure, on September 18 protect Ardmore from additional placeholder developments by advertising amendment(s) to the current code that would lower the maximum height of commercial buildings in Ardmore to 4 stories or 52 feet.


This petition is supported by the following Lower Merion concerned residents:

Bill Katz (Merion Station), Jan Swenson (Merion Station), Isabel Melvin (Indian Creek), Susan Guthrie (Merion Station)


The following is an explanation of the rezoning process and the reasons for the requests outlined above.

Lower Merion Township embarked on a process to comprehensively rewrite its entire zoning code—the ordinances that dictate what can be built, where it can be built, for what purpose, and how it will be used. On July 31, 2019 the Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted to advertise for adoption what would become version 3.1 of the draft code. The BOC will now vote whether to adopt version 3.1 as the new code on September 18, 2019—45 days after the vote to advertise.

The community has not been given sufficient opportunity to review and provide feedback on the full draft. The bulk of the substantive revisions occurred during the months of May, June and July 2019 with a fully-integrated draft not available until mid- July. The final draft version (“Version 3.1”) was completed on July 31. While technically legal to advertise for 45 days, the bulk of the time for review was in August, when many Lower Merion residents are away on vacation. Hence, although there were months of meetings regarding the Code while it was in development, there has been limited opportunity for residents to review the final decisions made by Township staff and the BOC. More time is needed for residents to evaluate this crucial document in its entirety. Further, there has been only one opportunity to publicly share feedback since the advertisement of Version 3.1 – at the August 5 Board of Commissioners meeting, a mere 3 days after Version 3.1 was made publicly available.

Version 3.1 needs more review and vetting by the BOC, township staff, and the community. Since July 31, residents identified many ambiguities pertaining to institutional properties -- some that we view as potentially quite serious and consequential -- which had not been identified by the BOC or staff. These ambiguities potentially could allow landowners/developers to submit development plans that would negatively impact our community and which, we believe, were not intended by township staff and the commissioners. What other ambiguities exist that have yet to be found?

Elements of Version 3.1 could negatively and substantially impact our neighborhoods and community:

  • Increases maximum allowed Residential impervious cover. In certain residential neighborhoods, allowed impervious cover could increase by 2 to 17 percentage points (equal to 7% to 61% of the amount of cover currently permitted). These changes disproportionately impact the eastern, more densely populated, side of the township. More allowable impervious cover means more additions and teardowns, an altered neighborhood fabric, fewer trees (necessary to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and combat climate change) and more stormwater runoff and flooding. To our knowledge, the Township has not provided any analysis of the likely impact of this change on total impervious cover, or any analysis of the effects of increased impervious cover on stormwater runoff.
  • Increases maximum allowed Institutional impervious cover. For example, compared to the amount of impervious cover currently allowed, and depending on the campus plan increment selected by the BOC, impervious cover could increase by up to 19 percentage points (or 68%) at St. Charles, by up to 14.8 percentage points (or 46%) on the Merion/Waldron Mercy property, and by up to 10 percentage points (or 48%) on the Friends Central lower campus. Additionally, institutions can net out walkways (with restrictions) and porous hard-court surfaces from their impervious calculations, further increasing undesirable hardscaping.
  • Creates an incentive to tear down existing houses and replace them with bigger ones. The distinction between impervious allocated to building area and impervious allocated to driveway/walkway/patio is eliminated. That yields an automatic increase of up to 25 percent or more in the allowed size of the structures and makes teardowns/rebuilds more economically viable. In the old code, building area is limited to ~70-80% of total impervious cover. Teardowns and bigger new houses will impact the existing streetscape, and alter the bucolic look and feel of our neighborhoods.
  • No explicit protection from accessory uses by institutions. Negative consequences stemming from primary and secondary (accessory) uses at institutions has long been a voiced concern of nearby residents. The Q&A on Institutional Zoning (see Township website) from a March 1, 2018 public workshop indicated that “primary and secondary use definitions would be closely reviewed and refined to address local needs” and that well-defined conditions on accessory use would “allow for supervision and enforcement” regarding intensity of use. That did not materialize.
  • No explicit protection of institutional open space. The largest remaining tracts of non-park open space on the eastern side of the township belong to institutions. The draft code does nothing to protect that open space. There is a precedent for requiring institutions to set aside open space—for example, the MC district created for Main Line Health at Lankenau Hospital did.

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