A Look Back

A Look Back

The end of this month will mark my 18th year with D.L. Howell & Associates.  I thought it would be interesting to look back at all the changes that have occurred during that time and the evolution that has occurred in the industry and in technology.

On August 27, 2001, I started my first day with Denny.  Up until that time I had spent most of my working career in the construction industry.  Having just turned 30 and two weeks away from marriage, I figured it was a good time to make a career change, as my body was already feeling the effects of a blue collared life.  At that time AutoCAD was quickly becoming the go-to program in the industrial world, replacing Terra-model (or as we like to call it, “terrible-model”) and Micro Station.  Digitally, we had very little information available and many architects and engineers were still drafting plans by hand.  I can remember calculating drainage areas with a device called a planometer, which rolled around on wheels and was calibrated to the drawing using a triangulation of points.  Looking back, the accuracy was probably only 90% to 95%.  Our computers had 500MB’s of RAM and we had to print single sheets of plans (which took about 3 minutes per page), then run them through a photocopier and collate.  Putting together 10 sets of 25 sheets was an all-day endeavor.  At that time, faxing was still the best way to send documents and phones were still analog.  Nextel flip phones were the rage, with the “push to talk” button that worked like a walkie-talkie.

Flashing forward about a half dozen years, everything was changing fast.  Our computers had a lot more RAM and processing speed, our plotters were now pumping out a sheet or two a minute and you could plot a whole set of plans with no need to use that photocopier.   That same set of plans now could be plotted in just a few hours.  The internet had come a long way as well and we now had access to imagery online, thanks to Google Earth, that we could screen capture and insert into our drawings.  The iPhone with touch screen was introduced to the world, arguably the greatest invention of all time behind fire, the wheel, electricity and of course sliced bread!  (Why is sliced bread such a marvel??)  During this time, I also bought my 1st home and had a couple of kids.  My life was now changed forever!

From then until now it all blurs together.  I’ve endured many sleepless nights with my kids and experienced the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, but have experienced many things, mastered many skills and met many amazing people in this industry.  We now have a plotter that is capable of plotting 6 to 8 pages a minute and in color.  We can access recorded plans, deeds, high resolution imagery, street views and elevated topography, all online and for free, making our once archaic sketch plans so detailed that they often get confused for approved engineered plans.  Everything is digital and accessible from anywhere and our phones allow us to do work and email clients while sitting on the beach with our feet in the water, if we so choose.  I’m excited to see what the future will bring and can only imagine drafting will be performed with mind controls rather than keyboards and mice.

To be continued…


Local Government

Local Government

Our localized governments are referred to as Municipalities. Municipalities are collective, contiguous parcels of land that are regulated and maintained under a common set of ordinances which have been voted on and adopted by its residences. In Chester County, we have 73 municipalities which are classified as either Townships, Boroughs or Cities. Each of these entities is governed a little differently from one another, although much of the regulation is the same. So, why the different classifications?

In short, the differences are mainly in their population size and the structure of their elected and appointed officials. In the late 1600s, William Penn established townships by dividing areas with at least 10 families living relatively close to one another. As the population continued to grow, townships were further divided into two classes. There are “First Class” townships, which are generally defined as lands with at least 300 people per square mile and have petitioned and voted for first-class status. All other townships have “second class” status. In today’s politically charged environment, I’m sure this could easily be looked upon as some sort of social discrimination, but it refers to the structure of their government and population size rather than the character and social status of its people.

Next, we have Boroughs. Boroughs were born out of Townships with at least 500 people. The Borough government structure is a little different in that it has a Mayor and a Borough Council rather than Supervisors or Commissioners. A Borough Mayor typically lacks the political punch of that of the city mayor as its primary duties are more of civic/social responsibilities. However, they are often influential with its council and have the ability to break ties and/or veto the council’s decision. Chester County has 15 such Boroughs with West Chester being the most prominent, as well as the most populated. According to the latest census, there are now more than 18,000 people living within the 1 square mile of its boundaries. Modena, on the other hand, is the smallest in size, at 0.34 sq. miles, and least populated with only 535 residence according to the latest census.

Last, but not least, we have Cities. In Chester County, there is only one municipality with this classification which is the City of Coatesville. Ironically, the population per capita is significantly less than that of West Chester, with approx. 12,000 residents within 1.6 sq. miles. As far as the government goes, in cities, the Mayor has a much more influential position and pulls rank on its Council Members unlike its counterpart in the Borough system. Originally, there were 4 classes of cities. There were 1st class cities which have a population of 1,000,000+, 2nd class cities which have a population of 250,000 to 1,000,000, 3rd class cities with populations under 250,000 and then there is 2nd class ‘A’ cities with a population of 80,000 to 250,000 that elect, by ordinance, to be classified as such. Changes to the class of a city requires a majority vote of its citizens, as well as changes to its population that has held true over two consecutive censuses.

Most people may not think about what type of municipality they live in, or even care, however, the mere title often incites an immediate stereotype to the type of community. Like myself, I think that most people assume Townships to be rural, Boroughs to be quaint, and Cities to be crowded.

Gold Standards

Gold Standards

Well, its October again which means a couple things: The World Series, Octoberfest, Halloween, and most importantly, the start of the Gold Rush season! If you haven’t watched the show before, it’s a reality TV show that follows the day to day activities of small gold mining crews in Alaska. And just like the clients of D.L. Howell & Associates, these miners need to prepare plans and obtain Permits from the local municipal, State and Governmental agencies before they can stick a shovel in the ground. This is very similar to obtaining the necessary environmental permits to do Land Development Projects in Chester County.

Opencast mining quarry with machinery at work. Digging equipment, industrial landscape

Being familiar with the challenges in obtaining permits from agencies, such as the Chester County Conservation District and DEP, to disturb environmentally sensitive areas, such as woodlands, wetlands, streams and associated riparian buffers, I find it amazing that in Alaska, under a mining permit, you can pretty much bulldoze right through as many wetlands and streams as you want. I’m not talking about guys with shovels and gold pans like the 49-ers, I’m talking 100-ton D9 dozers that wipe the stream bed completely off the map to dig down to “pay-dirt”. Now it is Alaska, and very remote, so there probably isn’t too many homeowners calling the DEP or local Municipality to complain about muddy waters downstream. If a stream gets muddy in the wilderness and no one is around to see it does it make a noise?? I’m sure the proper cofferdams, dirtbags sediment traps are in place and just not shown on TV. It’s also hard to believe these guys can blow through 50 acres of wetlands and streams and our clients need to give up their first born and a pint of blood to cross a stream or disturb 2,000 SF of wetlands?!

The truth of the matter is that mining activities, even in the remote parts of Alaska, are highly regulated and contain frequent inspections. Our buddies at EMCOR (formerly URS) oversee the miners, making sure these guys do what they are supposed to in accordance with all the applicable regulations. And although you don’t see this part of the process on the show, these miners are responsible for escrowing monies for reclamation of the land when they are finished. It may seem like all they do is dig up and sluice tens of thousands of cubic yards of dirt all summer long and then roll out of town but when they are finished mining they are required to remediate the land they disturbed. This includes grading and the replanting of trees & grasses to ensure that the native ecosystem returns to normalcy after they are gone.

Ordinance Autopsy

“clear”,   “clear”, 

This is the sound of a land development project being burned by a section of the ordinance that lacks common sense or could use some remediation.  If you’ve worked in this industry long enough you have experienced one of these first-hand.  I think it’s time to analyze some of the currently adopted ordinance regulations and shed light on the absurd, unrealistic and/or out-dated text of the Zoning Code.

Every time I come across one of these nuisance regulations I think to myself, “Why is this in here and who comes up with this stuff?”.  It’s possible that they made sense at one point in time but advances in technology and/or construction techniques have made them irrelevant and unnecessary, or maybe they were devised out of spite.   Who knows; but either way, they can be really annoying and ruin the developmental potential of a parcel, and even worse, take away from developmental creativity.

The first item I would like to examine is steep slopes.  This is a subject that I’ve written about before and is probably the one that bothers me most.  “Generally speaking”, steep slopes are defined as areas that exceed 15% grade.  They are usually broken down into two categories, precautionary & prohibited, and in most municipalities, they come with a lot of restrictions.  How each municipality defines steep slopes is what’s so problematic.

What qualifies as a steep slope?  In some ordinances, to qualify as a steep slope, the area in question must exist over at least 3 consecutive two-foot contours (or 6 vertical feet), or they need to cover an area of at least 500 square feet, and/or extend at least 50 feet horizontally.   Other ordinances will make exclusions for man-made slopes.  Meanwhile, other municipalities consider “any” area that can be calculated as steep slopes to be governed and restricted no matter how small and even if man-made.

The frustrating part about using “any” area of steep slopes, no matter how isolated or small an area, is that these areas are usually anomalies in the TIN generation.  “What is TIN generation?” you ask.  The person writing that code should have asked that question.  Historically, surveyors would go out to a site and shoot in 50’ foot gridded pattern and along certain break lines in the terrain.  They would then interpolate the contours based on the triangulation of these points.  That’s one ground shot/250 sq.ft. of an area.   This means that an area of steep slopes, 500 sq.ft. in size (+-), may be depicted due to the lack of ground data when it doesn’t even exist.  Same goes for an isolated area of non-slopes in a sea of steep slopes.

If steep slopes truly are unanimously thought of as a valued and protected environmental resource in Chester County, all the municipalities should consider creating and adopting one standardized definition and regulation for steep slopes.

Tattersall by NV Homes

Tattersall by NV Homes

NV Homes is finally open for sales at their newest community, “Tattersall”. NV Homes (a division of Ryan Homes) has done it again and has begun construction on their latest community. Following the success of their last community, “Rustin Walk”, located in Westtown Twp., this 27-lot development will be sold out in no time. If you’re planning on a home purchase this year, and want to be in a great location and get the best value, you will want to put this community on your radar.

Tattersall was originally a 166-lot development located on 450+ acres of some of the most beautiful landscapes Chester County has to offer. Rolling hills, valleys, streams, meadows, woods and plenty of open space surround this community. This final phase, located adjacent to the clubhouse, is bordered by 1st, 4th and 5th hole fairways of the Broad Run Golf Course (formerly known as Tattersall Golf Course). This community offers countryside living but is only a ten-minute drive from West Chester and 15 minutes from Exton and/or Kennett Square.

NV Homes will be offering a half dozen or so of their most popular models which will start around the $590K price range. The elegance and amenities found in these luxuriously crafted homes are worth bragging about. The Tattersall communities really are the cream of the crop when it comes to affordable luxury in Chester County. NV’s product line complements the already existing residences and landscapes perfectly. To contact the Tattersall sales team, call (484) 849-0090, or click on this link Tattersall to visit their website.