A controversial proposal to develop 328 luxury units in 13 four-story buildings around Stokesay Castle will be discussed Wednesday night at the Lower Alsace Township Planning Commission meeting.
It will be the first public look at the latest attempt to develop the forested mountainside property belonging to Jack Gulati, owner of the Stokesay restaurant and banquet facility.
The meeting is set for 7 p.m. at 1200 Carsonia Ave. There will be no public comment accepted because the plans are being informally presented, according to Township Manager Don Pottiger.
Gulati is presenting the concept to the planning commission and will answer questions from its members. He then can take the feedback to revamp the plans for formal submission at its Oct. 6 meeting.
“Hopefully, it (the presentation) will calm down some of the concerns and misinformation,” Pottiger said. “Everyone is curious about what is going on there.”
The proposed development is near the Reading Liederkranz social club and across Spook Lane from land owned by the Mount Penn Municipal Authority.
The development has already gained opposition from some neighbors who had mobilized as Save Our Mountain against a 2015 plan that called for 206 units.
A third plan to build a 108-unit boutique hotel and conference center at Stokesay was approved by the township in 2011, but Gulati said he no longer intends to build it.
Neighbors are raising concerns about the effects of logging and stormwater runoff from the mountaintop development.
Gulati said the current proposed housing development would be age-restricted to those 50 and older. There would be 13 four-story buildings with 24 “hybrid luxury” units each and 1 “half-hybrid” of 16 units. Hybrid refers to the units’ ability to either be leased or sold as part of a condominium community.
Each floor in the building has six units that would cost $250,000 to $325,000, Gulati said.
End units will have 2 bedrooms and a total of 1,460 square feet while middle units would contain 3 bedrooms and 1,570 square feet. Each building would also have an unobstructed view of the valley, he said.
Gulati said that unlike the previous proposals, this will not host a hotel or banquet facilities. It is strictly residential units with a shared clubhouse.
The cost of the proposal was not known but Gulati estimated construction will create 265 jobs and would likely be done in phases. About 25 permanent jobs for management and maintenance would follow, he said.
Unlike his previous proposal, Gulati is not seeking Tax Increment Financing from the county, which was another sticking point for opponents.
Gulati said he returned to the age-restricted community concept presented six years ago due to the low inventory of housing in the region.
“We have done market studies and the demand for 50-plus housing is very high right now,” Gulati said. “Studies have shown that there’s a deficit of 1,600 units of 50-plus units in Berks County. Typically, 70% of your homeowners come from the local area, 30% come from outside Berks County. That means you have a deficit of approximately 2,000 units currently, so we think there’s a big demand for it.”
He said the Stokesay property is well situated near amenities.
“There’s a medical clinic in Exeter within 10 minutes, all kinds of drug stores, all kinds of shopping, restaurants, all on 422 and even closer on Carsonia Parkway,” he said. “Five-10 years ago, many of those were not available at the time. Now we can provide hair, medical, shopping, restaurants, all within a matter of 10-15 minutes.
Save Our Mountain members Andy Shean and Joseph Boyle said they are concerned about the tree-cutting that is already happening on the land. They worry that without the trees, structures down mountain will experience added stormwater runoff.
Stokesay Castle is on about 10 acres and is surrounded by about 20 acres of forested properties owned by Stokesay Village LLC.
Shean lives next door to Stokesay. From his backyard, he’s watched trees come down and that worries him. Trees and vegetation prevent water from running down the hill into homes and into Crystal Lake.
Stormwater runoff carries dirt and debris with it, said Boyle, who is vice chairman of the Mount Penn Borough Municipal Authority and chairman of the Source Water Protection Program.
His concern and opposition to the project stem from a desire to protect Crystal Lake, the drinking water source for 30,000 households in Mount Penn, St. Lawrence, Lower Alsace Township and part of Exeter Township.
Crystal Lake is a 10-acre spring-fed body of water and focal point of the 27-acre Carsonia Park.
Stormwater collected in the two townships and emptied into the lake contributed to pollution and sediment build up, and helped cause long-term damage that could threaten water quality, Boyle said.
The sediment buildup has reduced the depth from 10 feet to 3 to 4 feet.
The state and federal grant-funded lake improvement project will include a series of storm sewer management measures, including the installation of water quality units, planted swales and a sediment catcher.
The runoff issue
The project also includes removal of accumulated sediment from the lake bottom, repairs and modifications to the lake spillway and the planting of native species to reduce shoreline erosion.
The Berks County Conservation District has investigated recent complaints about logging on the property and found stormwater management practices acceptable.
In fact, the practices are better than some sites they’ve inspected, said Dean Druckenmiller, executive director. Property owners do not need permits or plans to log less than 20 acres of land.
Boyle and Shean said they worry about the long-term impact of building on top of the mountain. That’s something that is usually evaluated by professionals during the approval process.
The conservation district evaluates stormwater management of construction projects.
Gulati said the plans call for three retention ponds to prevent water from flowing down the hill.
“In fact, that is required for the development plan, so residents should not have to worry about that,” he said.
The logging issue
As for logging, Gulati acknowledged he has hired a forester from Lebanon County. Gulati said the forester is cleaning up vegetation to prevent it from choking growth of the forest.
“We’re taking great care to not destroy the view from Spook Lane or Stokesay Castle Lane. So, if you drive down those, you’ll see all the major trees that were there are there and will be there,” he said.
Lee Olsen, project architect, said the logging that’s visible from Spook Lane is to clear the way to realign the entrance to Stokesay away from the Reading Liederkranz driveway.
“What I understand has come about is people in the neighborhood and people in general when going up have seen clearing of the road and clearing of the forest itself,” he said. “When I’m up there, I see it as it’s on the site of a proposed location of a new driveway going in. The other thing is the driveway will become a boulevard. It will become a single lane going in, one lane coming out. Separating the lanes will be a boulevard of trees.”
Olsen said there’s been no earth relocation to his knowledge.
“Whatever contours were there still remain,” Olsen said.” It was all done the way it was supposed to be, and I don’t expect anything else from Jack and his team.”
Olsen said the development team will follow all laws and regulations.
“Rules and regulations for land development are pretty entrenched,” he said. “There’s nothing anybody can do or, pardon the expression, get away with,” Olsen said. “There’s the Clean Streams Act, the Clear Air Act. Municipalities are constantly upgrading their role in soil conservation and doing the right thing.”
Pottiger said after planning commission review, the plans would go to the supervisors and ultimately the zoning hearing board.
He declined to say why the zoning hearing board would need to review the plan. The area is zoned rural residential with a special overlay. R-1 allows for single family homes per 20 acres or a cluster development with a density of a half unit per gross acres, which have to be a minimum of 20 acres. The Spook Lane Overlay specifically allows for age-restricted housing.
The intent of the R-1 zoning district is to “preserve and enhance ecologically fragile, environmentally sensitive and aesthetically valuable areas of Lower Alsace Township and Mount Penn Borough. Specific features to be preserved and enhanced include, but are not necessarily limited to groundwater, steep slopes, woodlands, scenic vistas and scenic corridors.”
Gulati said his intent is to keep the mountain beautiful.
“We came in here and bought Stokesay Castle in 2009 and everything that’s been done has been done to beautify the mountain,” he said. “That’s the kind of people we are and I can assure residents this will be done in accordance with the township.
“I believe once the residents see the plan they will feel more comfortable with it.”
Source: Berkshire mont