Vantage Point: Haunted by the Past

A 211Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

They never die. They continue to haunt us long after they should have been retired once and for all. But once approved, old subdivisions and developments often manage to sustain a faint heartbeat years beyond changes in zoning, changes in topography, and changes in how we want our communities to look and function.

Zombie subdivisions! The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy uses this phrase to describe development plans born in some of our western states during speculation during recent boom times but now struggling or not even begun in the aftermath of burst real estate bubbles and declining real estate lending. The repercussions of plans no longer reflective of current market demand are both economic and environmental.

Incomplete developments cost municipalities and counties dearly in trying to service scattered private owners within these now nearly deserted dream ventures. For projects never begun, many local governments find themselves bound by agreements to extend infrastructure to zombie developments without knowing how long they must reserve capacity and (shrinking) funds. Meanwhile, striving to uphold those old agreements means creating cumulative environmental effects that cannot be amortized over the previously anticipated tax base, so there is less opportunity for mitigation to counteract disturbed soils, drained or rerouted water bodies, and altered floodplains.

Endless extensions of permits to encourage completion of such developments can result in an array of problems while pursuing a balance between current codes and those in effect at the time of approval. This is not a western phenomenon. On the other side of this continent, the City of Brotherly Love, better known as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a few notorious instances of its own.

One of the newer examples is formerly commercial land that has been (by request of developers) rezoned for hotels and apartments, located on what is appropriately known as Venice Island. Ground has not yet been broken for construction of one particular project in the more than five years since the city’s zoning board approval and permit for demolition of existing structures. Such permits require projects to be started within six months and completed within two years of the issued date. Meanwhile the flood maps have been updated and the city’s zoning and planning ordinances have been rewritten since the permits were issued but not acted upon. But the developer claims a right to proceed on the plans already approved. A zombie in the making? The court may need to rule on how dead "expired" is.

In 1961 the Eastwick area of the city, in the shadow of Philadelphia International Airport, was the subject of an agreement between a developer and the city to create the largest urban renewal project in the country. Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Authority wielded its power of eminent domain to condemn 2300 acres of already occupied but semi-rural land in the late 1950s, evicting about 10,000 residents and acquiring approximately 2000 parcels, some being low-lying farmland, most of it being floodprone. In the days before FEMA and Flood Insurance Rate Maps and Army Corps of Engineers’ permits for filling wetlands, there was no one with a strong enough voice to stand up against Philadelphia’s actions and plans.

An estimated two-thirds of the original Eastwick development plan came to fruition under a contract that had no real end and has been extended more than once in the last five decades since it was awarded to the developer. The successor to the original developer–with an option to buy any remaining undeveloped land at a price set back in 1961–now wants to move ahead with completing construction. But instead of single family homes as the area had been zoned for the redevelopment plan (and built as suburban townhouses), it wants to construct 722 rental units and 1034 parking spaces on 35 acres of the last remaining 128 undeveloped acres.

Now we have a zombie of a different sort, one in the midst of a community that doesn’t want to be bound by a 50-year old plan and is willing to protest it loudly. Zombie planning rooted in zombie contracts! It doesn’t help that Eastwick’s City Councilman agreed to introduce legislation on behalf of the developer to rezone those 35 acres, apparently uninformed and out of touch with his constituents, who rapidly organized to raise a variety of significant concerns to substantiate their protests. The Councilman eventually withdrew his proposal after hearing more than one side of the story.

The original Eastwick was a vibrant if small community in the midst of meadows crossed by creeks making their way to drain into the Delaware River, but it was also home to industry and agriculture. The airport was nearby, but had not yet expanded to within its present proximity. The bordering marshes had not yet been federally protected as the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum (originally the Tinicum National Environmental Center), a thousand acres of tidal wetlands on the Atlantic migratory flyway. Contamination and leachates from the abutting oil refineries and landfills had not yet been identified as the causes for localized illnesses.

Present-day Eastwick is already besieged by repetitive flooding, so that many residents sandbag their homes against every pending storm, often unsuccessfully. Studies reporting that flooding will not be worsened by building 51 new apartment buildings in the floodplain don’t begin to placate those who want the situation to improve rather than remain at status quo.

To kill a zombie, you must destroy its brain (unlike vampires, whose hearts must be pierced by stakes). Some zombies seem not to have real brains of their own, but rely on those of others who knowingly or unknowingly lend them life support. Presuming those supporters have not been irreversibly infected by the zombies, the rest of us, alive and vibrant, must let them know how being drawn into the darkness of the past will harm us all. Can we limit extensions on permits? Can we set real expiration limits for construction contracts? Can we pursue more encompassing studies of cumulative effects? What we have learned from our mistakes should advise our plans for the future.

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE, and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 211Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE