CLIFTON HEIGHTS — Borough council unanimously adopted four amended ordinances tightening subdivision and land development in the town - the latest salvo in the town's battle to fend off Upper Darby School District's plan to build a new middle school on their beloved athletic fields.
One ordinance, amending development in the Recreational Conservative District, where the Clifton Athletic Fields is located and proposed future site of an Upper Darby School District new middle school, removes the wording “a public school and school-related uses” as a use by right in the ordinance, changing it to conditional use.
According to borough Solicitor Frank Catania, the borough received numerous land development requests last summer prompting amendments to existing ordinances.
“We realized the need to update the ordinances,” Catania said.
In that vein, four amendments were recommended, reviewed and approved by the borough’s planning committee and the Delaware County Planning Commission, in a 3-1 vote.
According to Catania, the ordinances address the impact on the environment, eliminates ‘use by right’ by the school district, specifies building requirements and land development.
Meredith Hague, of East Berkley Avenue, wanted to know if any money had been set aside for legal fees, at the onset of the public hearing on the ordinances.
“My concern is the cost of a legal battle,” Hague said. “I understand there is a likelihood the school district will win, they own the field. Has any amount of money been set aside for legal fees? I’ll be paying taxes on both sides (the borough and school district).”
Council President Ron Berry informed the woman, “not at the time.”
Attorney Clair Wischusen, from the firm of Fox Rothschild representing the school district, was denied an opportunity to speak due to her non-residency status.
“I’m asking them to be tabled and registering my objections,” Wischusen said of the proposes zoning changes, citing ordinance 869 (building specs) that was allegedly not advertised in accordance with the law.
“You can present written comments regarding the four ordinances,” Catania told her.
“If (the school) was in your front yard and at your front door you would feel different,” said Christina Matsinger, of North Oak Avenue, reflecting again the commonly held belief in the borough that the school sits on "sacred ground," the last bit of open space in the borough.
“This is our one and only green open space for our kids,” said Sherry Rich, of Chester Avenue. “There are other properties Upper Darby could use that are maybe better than our one open field.”
Mayor Joseph Lombardo informed residents of meetings he had with school board President Rachel Mitchell and Superintendent Dan McGarry about using property at St. Eugene’s, on Oak Avenue for a middle school.
“I set up a meeting with the pastor, they met and a presentation was made,” Lombardo said. “I understand they decided it was not a viable option. Why now when it was a viable option and told it would fit on St. Eugene’s?
“When we met with Mitchell and McGarry we offered to buy the fields. We need to own those fields so this never happens again.”
Catania announced that he had received plans for the new school from the school district.
“We don’t have all the information we need to make a decision,” Catania said. “We have to demand reliable information. There are discrepancies in their own (enrollment) figures. We have to confront safety issues. Each of the (middle) schools (Drexel Hill and Beverly Hills, averages one police call per day.”
Timeline for the project schedule, according to Catania, is to start in November for a year long land development study.
The land development application submitted to the borough proposes a new 21st century middle school.
“This is part of the Upper Darby plan to reduce class sizes, modernize school buildings, eliminate the need to hold classes in trailers and help create stronger learning experiences for all Upper Darby students,” the submission to the borough from the district says.
“The school district also looks forward to working with the borough as to the approval process and hopes that the borough will realize the ‘win-win’ nature of this redevelopment plan for the district, the borough and the surrounding community,” McGarry said in the notice.
As she has in the past, Mitchell stressed the new fields and a new gym will enhance Clifton’s youth sports programs, not just take away the fields as they now stand.
“The Clifton Heights PAL and Boys Club will have beautiful new spaces to hold community and sports events,” Mitchell said in the notice.
According to Lombardo, Upper Darby School District has 10 police officers managing the high school and two middle schools.
“If we need two or three police officers (for the school) I don’t know how we would do it,” Lombardo said.
“That’s a topic we have to explore,” Catania said. “There is a lot of information we need. To date we can’t find out how many students from Clifton Heights attend Upper Darby schools and I’m not sure why.”
Councilman Mark Campbell noted the borough lost a seat on the school board in 2015, the (district) started talking about a new middle school in November 2018 and in March 2019 wanted to talk to council.
“We’re a mile long and a mile wide,” Campbell said. “Upper Darby is a monster and they insist on this last green space. We can’t let this last green space die.”