Those of you that follow me on Facebook might have noticed that the Parkhouse issue resurfaced last month.
I am currently working to update the Remember Parkhouse website which will have all of the details from seven years ago, plus the details of the new plan that Dr. Rifkin, the owner of the land, presented at the January 19, 2021 meeting.
Anyway, it seems like as good a time as any to end this latest Blog hiatus. In the meantime, I’ll link the January 19 meeting below, so you can relive being lied to in real time just like it was January 19 all over again. The Parkhouse presentation begins at 1:12:28
I wanted to post today not about Rifkin’s ridiculously obnoxious plan and his transparent attempt at a bait and switch of redundant amenities for more apartments, though we’ll touch on it, of course. For the record: I believe the only thing that will get built on this plan is the apartment complex down on 113, and it will be more units than he initially said.
I wanted to post today regarding the letter Dr. Rifkin conveniently sent to the Township after the Supervisors were bombarded with negative feedback on the plan, and to attempt to expose the political wheels that are already turning behind the scenes. Two supervisors, Helene Calci and Laurie Higgins, admitted that they met privately with Rifkin to see this plan presentation. Calci met with Rifkin last year in her capacity as Chair of the Board of Supervisors. Calci also actively promoted the plan during the meeting, tossing softball questions to Rifkin to assist him in his presentation and asking what the Township “could get instead.” You don’t have to take my word on this; you can watch the presentation in the video embedded above and decide for yourself.
But this new Rifkin letter, Starling’s summary of it, and the politics behind it, require a bit more space than a quick facebook post.
“Nothing to see here”
Before public comment, Chairman Bill Starling made an announcement to the public regarding receipt of a letter from Dr. Rifkin. This was done presumably to head off the public comment lined up about the Parkhouse plan. And these remarks need to be addressed. Starling’s comments begin at 17:00. Here’s what he said, so there can be no mistake:
“I just want to quickly acknowledge there was great interest in the presentation by Dr. Rifkin, the owner of the uh, what’s known as the Parkhouse property, at our January meeting, and uh, he has submitted a letter back to the Board, essentially acknowledging the feedback that we received from the community, and uh, at this point, they’re withdrawing that idea and uh, they’re going back to the drawing board to look at what they can develop under the current zoning of that property, which is their right. And uh, there was never an issue to be voted on by the Board, and I want to put his letter in the record so that all interested citizens can have a look at it in the interests of transparency.”
Amazingly, Starling never reads the letter that he “put into the record.” He just gives a broad overview that grossly misrepresents what the letter actually said. In fact, Starling’s misrepresentation of this letter results in a little intra-Board fireworks between Vagnozzi and Starling in response to a resident’s request to put everyone’s minds at ease and get the Board on record regarding their opinions on re-zoning this parcel. Vagnozzi’s comments begin around 40:44:
“Mr. Starling, at the beginning you said this plan has been withdrawn. That’s not true. That’s really not truthful because this was a proposal that was presented, other Board members saw it, which was fine
but the fact that this appeared at a meeting tells me that there was absolutely, unequivocally, I’ve been doing this for six years. There is no way. If there was opposition by the Board, this plan would have never seen the light of day. It never would have shown up. I would have never, I would have told Mr. Rifkin to go away. I’d have never brought this to the public because if I’m not for it, if the majority is not for it, it’s going to go away. Mr. Starling, by you saying this is withdrawn is misleading. I’m holding here a letter from Mr. Rifkin where he states, “thank you for the time”, and he clearly states, “we are not ready to present any actual plan…we will absorb the input we got and at some point in the future, come back to you either with an updated draft concept or with an actual proposal.” So, folks, the 76 residents watching this, this will come back, I guaranty it. It’ll probably come back the day after election day. There’s an election coming up, me and one of the other supervisors (Ed note: meaning Calci) and there’s going to be other people trying for election. I’m telling you this will come back on November 4.
For you, Mr. Starling, to say that this has been withdrawn, that’s nothing….I didn’t want to say it, but you’re lying, I didn’t want to say it and I can’t believe I’m six years on this Board and I have to say….”
At this point, the limitations of the Zoom meeting become painfully apparent as Starling begins to shout over Vagnozzi calling for order. He also, without a hint of irony, tells Vagnozzi to “Stop campaigning during a Board meeting,” as if what Starling’s done by lying about what Rifkin’s letter said isn’t a lie in direct service to Calci’s re-election campaign. Then, as Pearson did a few moments before, Starling attempts to provide cover for his fellow Board members by hiding behind the letter of the law, saying “there was not plan to vote on.”
Vagnozzi, however, is having none of it.
“Folks, pay attention. It’s going to be back.”
I had to request the actual letter from the Township the next day, and Vagnozzi sent it to me immediately. Read for yourself:
So as you can see, Rifkin never once said he was withdrawing the plan, or that he was going back to the drawing board. In fact, in this letter, Rifkin is still selling the plan as a “wonderful environment for families” and “a serene and warm community setting for raising children.”
Rifkin thanks the Supervisors for the opportunity to present their plan to “solicit input from the Supervisors, township staff, and community members.” I would say that the Supervisors failure to make even the most cursory effort to inform the neighbors about this plan presentation belies that input from the residents was solicited, let alone desired. Rifkin also talks about an alternate universe where the discussion on this plan was a “great success” that didn’t devolve into Rifkin eventually whining about his rights to develop the property.
Neither Calci, who lives right across the street from Parkhouse, nor Starling, Higgins, or Pearson told a single person about the Parkhouse plan coming in to a public meeting. Vagnozzi gave me a heads up about the plan and I told the folks I thought could get the word out quickly. The fact that they told no one was outrageous to me. And if you watch the February 16 meeting, which I have embedded above, you’ll get an idea of just how outraged I was during public comment.
During my first year on the Board, there were a lot of developments and zoning changes active in the Oaks section of the Township, which just so happens to be where I live. Knowing the angst in the neighborhood regarding these proposals, I orchestrated a joint Board/Planning Commission meeting, which we held at the Oaks Firehouse dedicated solely to the developments happening in Oaks. I had mailers sent to residents and informed as many folks as possible in advance of the meeting to attend. We filled the Firehouse and had upwards of 150 people in attendance. Not everyone heard what they wanted to hear, but they left the meeting informed of what was actually being proposed. Minds were put at ease and rumors were dispersed.
Now, I’m not saying this Board had to make the effort I did. But given that the sale of Parkhouse was the most controversial and emotional sale of land in Montgomery County history, you’d think that in the interests of transparency, at least someone other than Al Vagnozzi would have told a resident about it. You’d think someone who actually lived across the street from Parkhouse—and I’m looking at you, Helene Calci—may have mentioned it in passing to a neighbor or two.
But no. That’s an opportunity that was lost. Calci, who is up for re-election this year, took a lot of heat from the public for this omission in the intervening month, and for good reason. As revealed during the January 19 meeting, and confirmed during the Zoom chat question I posed (since disappeared and not part of the Zoom record—another fault of the platform) and again through Laurie Higgins’ emailed “Board statement,” Calci and Higgins had in depth knowledge of this plan for several months.
And told no one.
Now a convenient letter from Rifkin arrives, and Bill Starling is hoping a misleading paraphrase of this letter will cool emotions and salvage Calci’s re-election chances.
It was clear that Rifkin is in love with his plan. He thinks that the farm setting is totally unique, and that basing the apartment complex design on Colonial Williamsburg—Awww! That’s where he spent his honeymoon!—is terribly quaint and desirable. At one point in the letter, Rifkin states that:
“I am only going to build one community in my lifetime, and I would like to be able to feel that I created something that I could point to with pride. There is a similar community in Georgia—Serenbe—that has been an internationally recognized success in creating this type of lifestyle.”
This is the largest parcel of property left in Upper Providence and it sounds to me like our 180 acres of previously designated open space is to become a hobby/vanity project for a man who lives two states away and has never developed a single property in his life. I’d almost feel better if Toll Brothers was developing it instead. At least they know the property is NOT in Royersford.
Let’s take a moment here to note that the zoning on this property is Open Space Conservation with an Institutional Overlay. This means that according to current zoning, an institutional property such as a Shannondell-type Continuing Care Retirement Community or other institutional use, such as a hospital, school, church, etc., could be built there “by rights.” Rifkin’s Wonderful World of Williamsburg-lite is not conforming with our existing zoning. In fact, while the property was being sold, the County Planning Commission analyzed the property and expressed a bit of concern that, because of the steep slopes, the wetlands, and the open space requirements, only about 10% of the property could be developed (and it’s right where that apartment complex is on the proposed plan down on 113).
Rifkin’s closing statement is most revealing:
“We recognize that change would be difficult for those living in the immediate area. Unfortunately, the world does change for many reasons. What worries one person might become a wonderful place for another to raise their children.”
Ok, so let’s set aside the fact that this does not sound like Rifkin is thinking about looking at what he can build per existing zoning, even though he mentions that it would be a “strong opportunity.” Rifkin wants his pet project, because that’s what’s going to make him the most money and perhaps put him in the “international” Developers’ Hall of Fame along with the development down in Georgia.
Upper Providence is mostly a collection of bedroom communities surrounding some large industries centered on Route 29. We have a great school district and lots of terrific amenities for families. We literally are a township full of a lot of great places to raise kids. Rifkin’s plan brings absolutely nothing new to our community.
Zoom instead of the Room
On January 19, much to the chagrin of at least four of the Supervisors, about 110 people showed up for the Zoom meeting. The Upper Providence Board of Supervisors is still hiding behind Zoom meetings, which allows the Chairman to mute the audience. The reactions from residents, in the form of facial expressions, murmurs of dissent, and the effect of a collective gasp of disbelief from the audience when a particularly bold lie is told, is completely absent. Residents cannot see each other, nor do we know who else is there, or how many others are in attendance, unless one of the supervisors mentions it. The audio and video quality is poor and it is often garbled and difficult to understand, especially when more than one person is speaking or there is background noise. The Supervisors are hiding behind a virtual fire wall from being held accountable by their constituents by citing “safety concerns” about COVID, even though other municipalities—and our own school board—is currently holding in person or hybrid meetings.
Our newly constructed Township meeting room, which holds 200+ people, was deemed “wasteful” by Pearson, Higgins and Calci when they were first campaigning for office in 2017. What’s “wasteful” is not actually using the room the public paid for.
It would be simple to hold a hybrid meeting, limiting the number of in-person attendees on a first-come, first serve basis. And since they are requiring residents to register for the Zoom meeting beforehand, they could also run the registration process beforehand for in-person attendance, thereby eliminating the possibility of people showing up for a meeting but being denied admission.
Furthermore, the Public has a right to expect in-person meetings according to PA Municipal code:
“The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, 65 Pa.C.S. §§ 701-716, requires agencies to deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting. It requires that meetings have prior notice, and that the public can attend, participate, and comment before an agency takes that official action.The Office of Open Records (OOR) does not enforce the Sunshine Act, but it does provide training on the law. Following are answers to the most frequently asked questions the OOR receives regarding the Sunshine Act.”
Holding meetings via Zoom makes it that much easier for Starling to enter a letter “into the record” of a Board meeting without actually, you know, entering the content of it into the record. It’s just another attempt to avoid accountability and deflect heat off of the Supervisors, particularly Helene Calci, for their ham-handed handling of this critical issue. You cannot really enter your inaccurate paraphrase of a letter into the record, even though that’s exactly what Starling did.
There’s really no way to soften this. Bill Starling lied about what this letter said. But why? Why didn’t he read it into the record on the night of the meeting?
Gentle Readers, you know your Humble Blogress has a theory on this.
A plan like this does not make it on to a public meeting agenda without the buy-in of the majority of the Board of Supervisors. True, it’s not an “official” plan, but that’s so much the better. This plan was supposed to be presented at a sleepy January Zoom meeting with little to no public attendance. Then when it came up as an actual plan to be voted upon, the Supervisors could point to their great “transparency” and say they held a public meeting on the proposed plan and no one showed up or registered a complaint.
This is the exact same strategy that Josh Shapiro, Bruce Castor, and Leslie Richards used 7 years ago when they touted their own “transparency” in placing the Parkhouse issue on the agendas for meetings that took place at 10 am on Thursday mornings, when most people were at work. The Commissioners actually had the chutzpah to blame the public for not showing up to public meetings, as if that was the only way to register our disapproval of the sale, which was no secret after nine protest rallies, and numerous letters to the editor around the county.
As Dr. Rifkin states in his letter, he has a lot of “thought, research and consideration of the community” invested in his plan. He also has a lot of money invested in this plan. A lot of money. It’s not coincidence that four of the five supervisors are tap dancing around their position on this plan rather than plainly stating where they stand. Not a single supervisor—besides Vagnozzi—registered an opinion on whether they thought this plan was a good fit for our community. Not a single supervisor—besides Vagnozzi—remarked upon the zoning change for the property that would be required for Rifkin to development. Instead, there was a lot of CYA and deflection in the form of the “Board Statement” issued on behalf of the Board by Vice Chair Laurie Higgins.
This canned response was sent out to residents up to and including February 16, the day of the Board meeting. Rifkin’s letter was dated February 4. If this was indeed a “withdrawal” of the plan, as Starling stated at the public meeting, why would they still be tapdancing by sending Higgins’ letter and instead just answer residents with, “Rifkin withdrew the plan?” Or better yet, just send them Rifkin’s letter?
I know that at the very least, Higgins and Starling are monitoring the “Remember Parkhouse” facebook page, as they both “liked” a heresay post claiming Calci is a “no” on rezoning. In fact, a great deal of effort has been made via second-hand sources to assert that Calci is not in favor of rezoning. This after she met with Rifkin in private and promoted the plan throughout the initial presentation. Whatever she says now can only be in service to her re-election later this year and her fellow Supervisors Higgins and Starling are just giving her cover.
And while the four members currently scrambling to cover their respective butts on Parkhouse are all Democrats, it’s important to remember that the sale of Parkhouse was a bipartisan affair. Yes, Democrat Josh Shapiro, the face of the Parkhouse sale, and his co-Commissioner Leslie Richards, are both Democrats. But Bruce Castor was a Republican. And double agent Mike Vereb was Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Committee and one of Upper Providence’s State Representatives at the time of the sale. His sell out of this community landed him a six-figure tax payer funded job in 2017 working for none other than Josh Shapiro as his “legislative liason,” where he remains to this day.
The fact that Upper Providence Township changed its entire system of government four years ago, expanding the Board of Supervisors from three members to five members, was specifically to dilute the power of any one supervisor for this particular issue. The five member board push was also a bipartisan affair, as Upper Providence
First Worst was populated with folks from both sides of aisle, including Democrat John Pearson, Democrat Bill Starling, our “Republican” tax collector and “Republican” committeeperson, Julie Mullin (whose children donated $500 to John Pearson’s campaign in 2017), 2017 Republican supervisor candidate Bill Kasper, and Republican gadfly and wanna be mover and shaker, Jim White. Upper Providence First Worst five member board talking points were co-opted by the Democrats’ Fresh Perspectives team of Pearson, Higgins and Calci during the general election in 2017. The community was sold on this Board expansion with the promise of “more sets of eyes” and “more ‘fresh perspectives’” on issues, yet what we’ve mostly seen is lockstep voting according to party affiliation (I’d link instances, but about 90% of this blog is already devoted to calling out this kind of nonsense, so feel free to browse at will).
The fact that the Board members who are particularly squishy on taking a stand on Parkhouse are all Democrats is merely coincidental. The Trump rage that fueled our last four elections had people voting Democrat just to send a message to Washington, even though Washington could care less about what happens in our little corner of Montgomery County. Rest assured, this is a bipartisan issue.
In this election year, I fully expect that the Vagnozzi campaign will pay a price for his outspoken stance on Parkhouse; I also fully expect that the Calci campaign will not. At the end of the day, election year shenanigans only matter if they are successful on election day. Hopefully, this blog will be instructional to expose the shadow agendas in the days and weeks to come.
Because I personally believe that the Board of Supervisors was expanded, and four of these Supervisors were elected, specifically to facilitate Rifkin’s multimillion dollar hobby project. I base this on personal experience and knowledge. And nobody is ever going to change my mind on that.
Many, many lies were told in service to the sale of Parkhouse. And many, many lies will be told in service to its development. This is the most politicized land issue in Upper Providence history. A development of at least 500 apartment units and 150 additional housing units will have repercussions throughout the entire township and beyond. Most people won’t be able to see the political maneuvering behind the scenes, but it’s happening, even now.
Because this is a municipal election year, I can pretty much guaranty that more shenanigans are coming.
It’s not over. In fact, it’s just getting started.