INDIANA: Housing plan draws appeal
July 30, 2013 11:00 AM

Some of the neighboring property owners of a proposed high-density student housing building at 931 Oakland Ave. in Indiana have filed an appeal of the Indiana Borough Planning Commission’s approval for the student rental project. The neighbors contend the building, as proposed by B&L Properties, of Pennsburg, will substantially deviate from allowable design standards, and they argue the planning commission abused its discretion in approving elements of the project the neighbors say do not comply with the borough’s zoning ordinance.

The appeal asks the Court of Common Pleas of Indiana County to reverse the planning commission’s approval of the project’s construction plans.

In response, B&L called the appeal a “frivolous” action that could delay the developer’s construction schedule and greatly increase construction costs if work is pushed back into winter. B&L is asking the court to require the appellants to post a bond of more than $500,000 to cover those possible financial ramifications.

Attorneys for B&L Properties also noted the neighbors who filed the appeal are landlords in the student rental business, too, and the attorneys contend the appeal was filed “to curtail competition.”

The B&L project along Oakland Avenue was designed under the borough’s traditional neighborhood development overlay ordinance, enacted seven years ago to encourage developers to build high-density student housing projects close to the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus and draw students from their rental units scattered throughout the borough’s residential neighborhoods.

The TND overlay ordinance had become more controversial in recent months — in part because the TND zone overlapped some R2 Residential Zones of the borough — and some property owners contended the new high-density housing projects ruined their property values and made it virtually impossible to sell their homes.

Others held the opinion the TND overlay concept was working and was slowly restoring the integrity and character of the borough’s traditional residential neighborhoods.

But council repealed the ordinance on July 2, more than five weeks after the Oakland Avenue project was given the green light.

The planning commission voted on May 15 (and issued a written decision on May 24) granting final approval for B&L’s plans to tear down the bed-and-breakfast at 931 Oakland Ave. and build in its place two four-story student housing structures that will accommodate 64 students. The buildings will abut but will not be internally connected.

Since the spring of 2012, neighboring property owners attending planning commission and borough council meetings have voiced concerns that the proposed B&L student rental buildings will not be appropriate for the Oakland Avenue site. The neighbors have argued the housing units will cause traffic and parking congestion for residents living nearby and in other ways will be detrimental to the safety, welfare and rational development of the neighborhood.

The adjacent and nearby neighbors who filed the appeal are Deborah Ames, George and Joanne Stewart, David Moore and Carl Bish.

The appellants contend borough council never granted to the planning commission the jurisdiction to interpret, apply, disregard or modify the provisions of the borough’s zoning ordinance or authority to grant zoning variances.

“The design standards, under which the planning commission was required to review B&L’s land development plan, prophetically warns … that, if handled badly, new building types can easily fall out of scale, overwhelm traditional streetscapes and become something inappropriate,” the appeal states. “The planning commission abused its discretion and committed errors of law in approving B&L’s land development plan in the face of obvious noncompliance with the provisions of the zoning ordinance, which the planning commission had no authority to modify or disregard.”

The appeal lists several examples of how the B&L project, in the neighbors’ opinions, deviates from the zoning ordinance and design standards:

• The ordinance requires buildings to “front toward and relate to public streets, both functionally and visually to the greatest extent possible.” But, the appeal states, B&L’s east building has no identifiable front and does not relate to any public street.

• The ordinance requires a primary entrance shall be through the main pedestrian access way. But the east building had no identifiable primary entrance, according to the appeal.

• The ordinance requires the setback shall be 18 feet on one side if shared access is not provided. B&L’s buildings do not share access with any other property but the proposed buildings only provide a side yard ranging from 16 to 6 feet.

• The zoning ordinance requires no front yard area in the TND overlay zone shall exceed 12 feet from an existing street right-of-way or the edge of a sidewalk. But the west building is placed more than 40 feet from the cartway and 36 feet from the edge of a sidewalk, according to the appeal.

• The project was given preliminary approval on the condition that a porch be widened to the full width of the building on the west side of the property fronting Oakland Avenue. But the final plan “shows B&L’s refusal to extend the porch to the full width of the building,” and “B&L’s east building has no front fa￧ade and no porch of any width,” the appeal states.

• Design standards require an access for disabled people, preferably at the rear of the structure. “B&L’s buildings propose no ADA-accessible or disabled entrances. In short, handicapped students need not apply,” the appeal states.

• The proposed B&L buildings are each 70 feet long and, under the design standards, should have a 10 percent offset at least every 30 feet to break the appearance of the buildings into smaller components. “Neither of the wholly monolithic buildings provide any offsets,” the appeal states. “B&L’s buildings are the antithesis of the design provided for in … the design standards.”

For those and other reasons, the appeal asks the court to reverse the planning commission’s May 24 final approval for the Oakland Avenue project.

In their petition to the court, the attorneys for B&L contend the neighbor’s appeal was “taken in an effort to frustrate B&L, to stop B&L’s development of the property and to curtail competition.”

The B&L attorneys ask that as a condition to proceeding with their appeal, the neighbors should be required to post a bond to compensate B&L for damages it will suffer if construction of the high-density unit is delayed.

According to the petition, B&L has invested $436,000 in developing the project. A delay that pushes construction into the winter will increase building costs by $100,000, B&L estimates. And the developer calculates that lost revenue for the first year will be $274,000 and a loss of property appreciation may be $140,000.

B&L calculates the loss of building value, loss of property income for 20 years and loss of appreciation for 20 years will be more than $10 million. The company, therefore, is asking the court to require the appellants to post a bond of $514,000.

A bond hearing is scheduled for Aug. 12.

Indiana council met in special executive session for more than 90 minutes Monday evening for legal purposes, then returned briefly to an open forum and voted to retain Neva Stanger, a Cranberry Township lawyer, to serve as a special land use attorney representing the borough during the appeal process.

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