Column: The height of stupidty — 60 feet

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Dispute over Unionville High Auditorium making for fun headlines, lousy government

By Mike McGann, Editor,

An NBC-10 video journalist shoots images, Friday, of the Unionville High School auditorium — the focus of a dispute between East Marlborough Township and the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District.

EAST MARLBOROUGH — When I saw the videojournalist from NBC10, I knew, officially, that things had gone off the rails into stupidville.

The videojournalist (I’m old enough to have been called a camera man when I hauled a Hitachi FP-10 and tape deck for Westinghouse, back when I produced a daily local news show a gazillion years ago) was there to shoot video of the new auditorium for Unionville High School.

I don’t want to alarm you, but if you read the press reports, watch TV, or listen to some local officials, it popped up suddenly, looming over the township, blotting out the sun and placing democracy itself under attack. The building is 60 feet high — 60 feet! — and above the township’s height limit (or it’s not, if you ask the school district, which has some new math take on it, which I’ll get to in a minute).

And resolution of this horrific dispute is virtually impossible, according to today’s issue of The Daily Tyrannosaurus Rex (who knew you could buy four-inch wide newsprint, suitable for taping to the front of your iPad?), getting a zoning variance is rare and would set an ugly precedent, leading to, I dunno, skyscrapers dominating the skies of Willowdale. And some, gasp, say the building may have to be torn down.

All of that is such a high-quality pile of manure, a mushroom farmer would sell his soul for it.

On the record, both sides — the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District and East Marlborough — aren’t saying much, noting that this little tiff is a matter of litigation. But…being the pest that I am, I managed to dig out the issues in this special little exercise in miscommunication, confusion, politics and mind-numbing stupidity, figuring somebody needed to explain this mess.

Like every building project, the entire site plan for the renovations went before the township, including site elevation plans. They were approved — but, and here’s the confusion: how high is 39 feet? That’s the height limit for building in the township under the zoning ordinance.

Well, much like President Bill Clinton’s definition of “is,” it kind of depends. Measured from the east side of the building, at the highest elevation of the property, the auditorium is 35 feet tall. Measured from the ground by the auditorium, it’s more like 60. Oops.

So here’s the crux of the dispute: the township says the building violates the township’s zoning ordinance and the school district says the building exactly matches the plan presented and approved. And it appears from here both sides are right.

Of course, the metal framework for the building went up last August, and yet, it took until a few weeks back for someone to notice — understandable, as the building is hidden away there where no one could possibly see it — a couple dozen yards from Route 82, a couple of hundred yards from the township building.

So, let’s see. The township missed this detail and the school district was probably just a little too cute by half and tried to sneak something through that was iffy at best.

Obviously, the sane solution is this: ask for a zoning variance. And the township should grant it, allowing both public entities to return to coping with slightly more important things.

Yeah, I know. The school district doesn’t want to admit there was anything wrong with the original design, but, to be honest, common sense tells you the auditorium is 60 feet higher than the ground it sits on, so at minimum, the design violates the spirit of the ordinance if not the law. A good neighbor would file for the variance and move on.

And township should, without a whole lot of bluster, grant said variance. Can the district prove hardship? Yup. The township approved the original plan and allowed the district to spend many, many millions of dollars (our tax money, by the way) before raising a stink about it. Voila! Grounds for a variance and to make the whole thing go away. Sure, you can’t give out variances like candy on Halloween — but they’re pretty common and are reasonably typical when it comes to site development.

Ironically, had the township caught the issue in the first place — and so many eyes, both those of township employees and elected officials, saw these plans long before the first shovel hit the ground, that no one is really in a position to point fingers — the variance would have been a tougher argument.

Will it set a scary precedent? Only if other property owners sneak, uh, creative design elements into their plans and the township whiffs on noticing them. It’s safe to say that future plans will get pretty vigorous vetting from here out.

That’s how it should happen, if common sense trumped politics.

But, nope. Instead we have a hearing Tuesday night — more than likely one where not much is going to happen, the issue will drag out and attorney bills will continue to mount — with the same outcome: the auditorium isn’t going anywhere, fingers will be pointed and much will be made of next to nothing.



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