Cheltenham residents fear proposed housing would increase flooding

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Cheltenham has a long history of flooding, including in the residential areas adjacent to the proposed development and downstream along Tookany Creek. The US Army Corps of Engineers reported in 2015 that urbanization in Cheltenham has resulted in “increased stormwater runoff and floodplain recession, resulting in reduced carrying capacity of Tookany Creek”.

Zoë Slutzky has been living with her parents in a house next to the planned development for 31 years. Flooding is common on the property due to the overflow of Tookany Creek, Slutzky said.

Water used to fill her basement before her family built a stone wall between their house and the creek.

But Slutzky has wider concerns for her community and those living downriver from her home.

Addressing the concerns of Cheltenham residents, Slutzky said she believes there is an “instinctive feeling” in the community that the proposed construction would harm the neighbourhood. “To make this development here, no matter how insignificant it seems, people know the fragility of that point at Elkins Park and at Cheltenham,” Slutzky said.

Elkins Park residents (from left) Zoë Slutzky, Tom Conway, Betsy Conway and Eileen Rudnick are concerned about a development they believe would increase flooding along Tookany Creek. (Kimberly Paynter/WHY)

“There’s this greater fear that worsening climate change, aging infrastructure, community talk about sustainability is ushering in something extremely destructive. Both on a visceral level you can understand it by looking at the site and by delving into the site [development] Plans.”

Sidney Kahn has been involved with the plans as a member of Cheltenham’s Environmental Advisory Council and a community resident.

Kahn said he helped write Cheltenham’s Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO), which the development is expected to conform to.

“It is very clear to me that even if they think they are complying with the regulations [SALDO]which is very doubtful, they certainly do not correspond in any way, shape or form to the spirit of it,” Kahn said.

Slutzky said she thinks it’s a little more cut and drier.

“At the public works meeting, it was made clear that the community is considering allowing leeway to allow the developer to try to meet the requirements as best they can,” Slutzky said. “But that’s not the law.”

Cheltenham Township Commissioner Mitchell Zygmund-Felt, chairman of the Public Works Committee, said the township expects the developer to “broadly comply” with the SALDO pending submission of the final proposal.

For David Berstein, that’s not enough. Bernstein also resides near the proposed project and is the previous owner of the property. He sold the land before he knew the buyer was planning to develop the eight homes.

He said the misstep was due to “lack of care” on his part.

“I made a mistake. Shame on me. Bottom line,” said Bernstein.

222 Church Road, in Elkins Park, where a developer plans to build eight homes. (Kimberly Paynter/WHY)

Now, he said, he is “appalled” by the plans and has hired a private engineer and lawyer to conduct an analysis of the developer’s proposal.

Bernstein’s engineer and attorney both concluded that “to the greatest extent practicable” the current plan does not conform to Pennsylvania’s Stormwater Best Management Practices (BMP) manual. That’s just part of a 19-page list of problems the engineer found in the developer’s plans.

Slutzky said it all feels like the community is moving backwards.

“The community has long been promoting their sustainability plans. The entire district has this “Vision 2040″ and is talking about renaturing sealed areas and protecting endangered areas. This does the opposite. It’s kind of like rewinding a lot of these advances,” Slutzky said.

Tom and Betsy Conway look on where eight new homes are being developed near their home and Tookany Creek in Elkins Park, PA. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)
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