Water Under the Bridge

Flood of relief at Queen Lane reservoir upon big win for public safety.

This is the story of how a handful of East Falls residents tried to hold the whole city’s drinking water hostage over special treatment they felt they deserved as near neighbors to Queen Lane reservoir. Spoiler alert: they failed! But they also won some meaningful concessions, and demonstrated the power of community activism – by no means absolute, but still remarkably effective.

So the big news went down at City Council’s recent Rules Committee meeting (video below), which was the last chance for new zoning to pass at Queen Lane reservoir before the Council session ends in June. Billions of dollars in critical water infrastructure upgrades hinged on whether the Philadelphia Water Department’s 25-year plan could move forward immediately as required.

An effort of this scale involves hundreds of projects across the city, and of all the many neighborhoods affected by the improvements, only East Falls stood in the way. When Councilmember Curtis Jones proposed his bill for Queen Lane last fall, East Falls Community Council basically reacted as if he and the Water Department were conspiring against them to tank property values and spoil quality of life around the reservoir. 😱😱😱

They lawyered up, and proposed a remedy: 10+ pages of “enforceable” protections to be added to the zoning legislation, including specifications for landscaping, signage, driveways, fencing, and everything else, plus they wanted the war memorial on the corner there expanded with benches and special lighting.

Queen Lane war memorial (2016)

In addition, they sought to designate a community advisory group, chaired by EFCC, to be consulted in all matters of development, especially the “Master Plan,” which PWD needed to hand over immediately, thank you.

⚠️ Problem: PWD doesn’t have those finished plans yet.

Queen Lane is tenth on PWD’s list of major projects in its 25-year plan, construction isn’t slated to begin until 2036, at least (planning won’t happen for another six years). The city’s water system overhaul can’t wait that long! Expert planners and engineers testified to this clearly at the previous Rules Committee hearing in April, as did Philadelphia’s Water Commissioner who stressed the Dept’s commitment to signing a formal agreement and engaging neighbors “at every step of the process”.

That meeting ended with an apparent stalemate, as Curtis Jones moved the bill forward conditionally, while he consulted with Philadelphia’s law department over whether any of EFCC’s issues could be addressed in amendments to his bill. Which brings us to the City’s latest Stated Council meeting on May 16th – where councilmembers voted unanimously (17 – 0) in support of the Water Department’s new zoning bill. 🥳🎉💦

Curtis didn’t completely dismiss the EFCC’s concerns, though. He amended his bill to clarify Queen Lane’s usage and footprint, and allowed that further tweaks could be possible in the future. He also reminded the East Falls neighbors who came to address Council that, while he appreciated their advocacy, he challenged their version of reality in the charges they were making against the Water Department.

“Everybody has a right to speak. Everybody doesn’t have a right to the truth,” he said, “And when you say on public record that you haven’t had input… but we’ve had several meetings with the Water Department going back over a year.” What he said! In these days of alternate facts, it’s hard to describe how satisfying it is when the common good wins over self-serving spin and what sure looks like willful ignorance.

With that in mind, we share this experience as it played out at City Hall. Watch along below, where we’ve cued up @PhillyCityCouncil’s hours-long video to start where this transcript begins.

Big thanks to Curtis Jones for navigating these tricky waters to a successful outcome. Cheers for safe drinking water for all of us! Send your thanks @Mr4thDistrict. Learn more about PWD’s 25-Year Water Revitalization Plan at water.phila.gov and @PhillyH20

TRANSCRIPT: City Council Rules Committee hearing on Queen Lane Reservoir Zoning (Thursday May 16, 2024).

Begin 59:35. Comments have been lightly edited for clarity

<William Hoffner is called to the stand>

My name is William Hoffner. I’m a former president of the East Falls Community Council. On behalf of the more than 150 neighbors who gathered on May 1, and of the 382* petitioners. I am opposing Bill 24- 00-12 in its current form.

On April 8, we appeared before the Rules Committee. And after hearing our testimony, that committee chair said our request for protection sounded very reasonable. But direct outcome of the April 8 session was that Councilman Jones undertook to incorporate neighborhood protections into Bill 24-00-12. We thank him for his efforts to date.

I’m here today with my neighbors because the bill does not yet provide sufficient protections. As I personally gathered dozens of signatures in the petitioning, I feel it was my responsibility to represent the questions I am regularly asked. Questions for which I have no answers.

If the new water treatment facility’s construction will not start until the next decade, why is this zoning change being rushed through now? If there is a rush to passage that is part of a viable plan, where is the plan? How did the PWD get funding for this project without a plan? Okay, so I’m requesting the City Council grant more time for our RCO, Councilman Jones, and the PWD to arrive at a satisfactory negotiated commitment that protects the residential community.

I am presenting a petition signed by 382* East falls residents. The petitioners are constituents of Councilmember Jones and the at-large council members. For district councilmembers, the PWD’s infrastructure plan contains 400 projects, possibly on your district. Please do not find yourself someday regretting that you didn’t use the leverage you’re about to give away. Thank you.

(*East Falls has a population of about 10,000 people – Ed.)

<Frances Bourne is called to the stand>

My name is Francis Bourne and I’m testifying in opposition to Bill 240012. And as I said in my testimony to the Rules Committee, I was told by a wise man, “Your urgency is not my emergency.” That gentleman was East Falls’s own councilman, Curtis Jones.

East Falls neighbors at City Council Rules Committee meeting (4/8/24)

I don’t understand why this change to the zoning for the Queen Lane water treatment plan is being treated as an emergency if the planning process will not even begin until 2030. I don’t understand why Council is not concerned about the other as-yet-unknown impacts of a project of this scale and duration may have on all of the residential neighborhoods that boarder the plant including Abbotsford, Ridge Avenue, Hunting Park, and Allegheny West.

And I don’t understand why City Council is not more interested in the Water Department’s city-wide plans for how it will be spending an estimated two and a half billion dollars over 30 years. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want a master plan for this major undertaking.

And I don’t understand why the community protections that haven’t been incorporated in this bill can’t be rewritten into an enforceable agreement. “Trust us” is not an agreement you would accept any more than we should. And I don’t understand why the residents of East Falls have to work so hard to make their concerns known and why we’re being shut out of further discussions. We deserve to be more than just a checklist on PWD’s to-do list. Please explain it to me.

<Paul Elia is called to the stand>

My name is Paul Elia. I’m an architect and a member of the East Falls Zoning Committee. I oppose bill number 240012 which would provide a by-right zoning for the reconstruction of the Queen Lane Treatment Plant. However, I’d like to say we’re in favor of that work. It’s just not the way it’s being mismanaged.

In my 35 years of experience as a design professional, I’ve never seen a project of this scale not have to submit a master plan for approval. A fine example as to why a master plan is needed. The Water Department is going to have large generators — emergency generators — we understand that. And they’re going to need monthly testing, we understand that as well.

We don’t understand why, without a master plan and an agreement, we can’t get a hospital-grade acoustical attenuation package included in the zoning. This requirement could be part of the binding contract with the Water Department.

We don’t understand why there is no requirement for producing a plan. We have the opportunity now without delay to impose this type of a requirement. And as a condition of the rezoning. Please hold the bill until the Water Department commits in a binding agreement with a master plan. You can amend the building code to require it. We asked you to legislate like you live there. Thank you.

<The Chair recognizes Councilman Curtis Jones>

Thank you, Mr. President. I want to recognize my great constituents from East Falls. The reason why that’s a great community is because of their work. And everybody has a right to speak. Everybody doesn’t have a right to the truth. And when you say on public record, that you haven’t had input, or there was no discussions — we’ve had several meetings with the Water Department going back over a year.

So let me take you back a little bit, so that everybody has context. Remember when we had that water emergency? And we had to go buy bottled water? We had to buy bottled water because there was not a system that allowed the Water Department to switch from Belmont to City Avenue to be able to, in a seamless way, cut off contaminants that could have infiltrated our water.

I love the fact that they use my quote, “Your urgency does not constitute my emergency.” Like it, love it. However. The urgency is that we are at risk of losing tens of millions of dollars from the federal government, if we do not demonstrate that we are moving this plan. They are right. It’s 10 years from now.

So what we were able to do in the negotiations that we never had was to say “Here are the things that you’re concerned about”, of which we produced about a dozen. All of them could not go into the amendment we are introducing today, because the law department said we can’t do that.

So they got things like pathways and the width of it, where the lights can be, where the generators have to be, what type of insulation to keep sound from going into those homes that would devalue the real estate that they purchased.

But to say that we haven’t had any negotiations, to say that there’s no real need for moving this amendment. This amendment doesn’t close the door. We can have double-a amendments, Mr. President. So if we can get more of their concerns into the actual legislation, because that’s what it is. They don’t want the promise made today to not be kept 10 years from now.

You know, it’d be a different Water Department Commissioner, it will be a different situation. But they want their rights preserved in this bill. To the degree that we could, it’s in these amendments. Now, those amendments have been circulated to all members of Council. And I always found out – you know, I’m the second OG here in Council — that when everybody’s a little bit pissed off, it’s probably a good piece of public policy. That’s what I have to say. Thank you, Mr. President.

❓🤔What do you think? Please leave your comments below or email editor@nwlocalpaper.com

Questions? View/download the PWD’s 25 Year Water Revitalization plan here. PWD also has a special email for community concerns: WRPsupport@phila.gov.

For previous Local coverage on this issue, see:

VIDEO: Water Plant Worries (Dec 2023)
Water We Thinking? (March 2024)

View the amended bill #240012 here, and EFCC’s list of desired protections here.

🎥 WATCH IT 👀 – City Council’s youtube channel, @PhillyCityCouncil, is an incredible resource for civic empowerment. All their public meetings are streamed live so you can watch along remotely, and then afterward the meetings remain available as videos you can come back to watch anytime. The best part is you can skip around, if you want, replay certain parts if you need to. You can also look up digital copies of any legislation here.

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