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Political Profile: Ward Three Candidate for Commissioner Melanie Vallerio

Ward Three Candidate for Commissioner Melanie Vallerio

Say what you will about Melanie Vallerio, the Republican candidate for commissioner running against longtime Democratic incumbent Harvey Portner in Ward Three, she’s not shy about saying what’s on her mind. And if it goes against the grain of some interest or group, including her own political party, so be it.

As a realtor working in the field for 30 years, she won’t let you pin the anti-development label on her. On the other hand, she figures she knows something about the risky business of unsound development and she wants to stop it in its tracks.

In going door-to-door and meeting people across the ward, which includes Wyncote, La Mott and W. Elkins Park, she has become increasingly concerned that residents are detached from the key concerns in their neighborhoods and feel that they have nowhere to turn when they have a problem. Like any good realtor, she intends to be a conspicuous presence in the community, and hopes to ensure that the concerns of her constituents are fully aired and taken into account at crunch time.

Melanie and her husband Loren, who happens to be running for school board, also a Republican, moved back into town almost 15 years ago from Mt. Laurel, NJ. They lived here briefly on Cheltenham Avenue just after they were married and then took off for Mt. Laurel for job opportunities. Melanie is a Jersey girl who has been completely won over by Cheltenham’s charms and that includes her husband, who was born and raised in Melrose Park, and was delighted to be coming home.

Melanie says she saw first hand what unruly development could do to a community when she lived in Mt. Laurel, with its infrastructure that couldn’t keep up with the pace of new construction, and began wondering if a similar scenario – on a lesser scale – could be in store for Cheltenham. Development here, she says, is being reviewed project-by-project with little concern for the big picture. She believes that recent flooding demonstrates that flood mitigation measures are long overdue and that the sanitary sewer system needs substantial upgrading. She also favors more walking paths and paving stones and less impermeable concrete across the township to stem storm water runoff. Such problems, she contends, eventually take their toll on home values. Poorly planned development in one section of town can easily affect values across town which can lead to a downward spiral. She believes that she would bring a broader perspective to the current board with her street-level understanding of the housing market.

Vallerio is skeptical about the economics of the Ashbourne Country Club development with units, she says, likely to come in with tax bills of between $11 and $15,000, which she thinks could render them unsellable to the 55 and over market. She suggests that the project concept be revamped to open up options like a “Main Street development,” which mixes commercial space on ground floors that can be supported by the residential units on top. She points to the possibility of a catering business equipped with a facility and grounds that could integrate well with the overall development. Smaller units built a few stories up rather than out would offer a more compact design better matched to economic realities.

Realtors, she says are the first to meet the people considering a move into the township and the last to see those leaving town, and her view of the perception in the marketplace right now is that taxes here are too high and the schools are subpar, while quickly adding that the latter is untrue.

“People denigrate Cheltenham until they get here and realize what a great place it is to live. In my lifetime, I’ve moved around quite a bit and I have never lived in a place that has been as warm and welcoming and as accepting as Cheltenham. It’s a wonderful place to live and people should be more aware of it. We have issues but everyplace has issues. I just think that we should look at ours from a different perspective, a fresh perspective.

“When I decided to run I really felt that there were areas of the township that were not being represented. Going to a lot of the meetings, I started seeing what is going on, how some projects have been neglected. I’ve been going door-to-door meeting people and finding people having issues and problems who don’t know who their representative is. Even if you don’t have an issue, you should at least know who your representative is so that when you do have a problem, you know where to go.”

Vallerio has knocked on almost a third of the doors in her ward, and she was a bit disappointed that people often did not know what was being planned for their own neighborhood and whether it was going to enhance or detract from their quality of life.

For instance, she says that there is no way that the SEPTA garage, proposed for Glenside Avenue near Greenwood Avenue in Wyncote, would not cause big traffic problems, adding 600 more cars to the intersection. The parking problem, she suggests, might be solvable if the current train station was moved down to where the bird sanctuary is, next to the Washington Lane bridge. Put a two-story parking garage at that intersection and have a top-feed off of Washington Lane is one idea. Because there are four lanes there, it would allow for a turn lane and traffic lights, and it would take the traffic off of Greenwood and Glenside, she says.

Vallerio thinks that there are opportunities for commercial development that make sense for the township. One that she hopes will be considered is linked to the school district’s facilities plan. Rather than dispose of the Elkins Park School and intensify use of Cedarbrook Middle School, she hopes the district will study the possibility of selling off Cedarbrook because of its attractive location for valuable commercial development.

On the question of the age-restricted zoning option that the township is reconsidering, Vallerio questions whether many of the five-acre parcels that would qualify would be appropriate for development of up to eight stories, which the proposed ordinance would allow. If, for example, a parcel was assembled including, hypothetically, what is now Wyncote Elementary, it could, under the ordinance, be large enough to qualify for an eight-story building. But, she says, the resulting level of traffic on the corner of Rices Mill and Church Roads would be unbearable.

Vallerio emphasizes that the impact of development be looked at from the standpoint of the township as a whole. “I find that some of the current commissioners are primarily interested in what’s happening in their ward to their benefit and I don’t think that that’s the right way to look at things. They should represent the township as a whole. They may be more in tune to their own neighborhoods but as we’ve seen with the flooding, a development in one part of the town can adversely affect another part of the town.”

Vallerio is enthusiastic about the idea of introducing at-large seats on the board. In fact, she would prefer to have all seats elected at-large. She is concerned that the current structure impedes “the ability to sit down and discuss issues as a township rather than, as one commissioner has said, ‘I have to watch out for my people.’ . . . Right now, people feel blocked. This is my block, this is my commissioner. And if s/he is not responding, there’s no place to go. And I don’t think that’s the way it should be. If you’re my commissioner and not responding to me, I should be able to go to the next guy and not have him send me back to the first one who wasn’t paying attention in the first place.”

On the question of what to do about the fiscal impact of the myriad non-profits in the township which are exempt from taxes, she says she recognizes the dicey aspect of requiring them to pay, especially religious institutions. But she would like to see some limits, perhaps through zoning, on non-profits buying up property and then not paying taxes. She also suggests that some non-profit service providers could use their facilities and expertise to provide services as a donation to the township. For example, she notes that Arcadia University has a physical therapy department and asks whether the university could provide a physical therapy clinic to the township in lieu of taxes.

Vallerio sees importance in the potential for a direct citizens’ voice on some governance matters. She was in favor of the 2010 charter change question that would have reduced the number of signatures required for ballot questions. On the practicality of citizens being able to put questions on the ballot, a right granted by the home rule charter, she argues that “it is ludicrous that it would take only 15 signatures for me to run as a commissioner and thousands to get a question on the ballot.”

More generally, she says government representatives on the local level should pay more attention to the views of their constituents, saying, “I’m not all-powerful and all-seeing. I can’t tell you what everybody wants unless I go out and listen. Government is for the people, by the people, not just by the elected officials deciding only what they think is right. I strongly feel that an elected official should vote based on the way constituents feel, not necessarily by how they feel.”

With regard to her opponent, Portner, she says, “He has served this township for many years and I admire the fact that he has done that, especially at his age. I’m running on my merits and not someone else’s shortcomings. But I have not been pleased as a voter by his lack of appearance at meetings involving constituents,” citing the recent one on flooding. “If Chaka Fattah and Larry Curry can make it to a meeting involving people affected from his ward, then . . . I was very disappointed that more commissioners were not there.” She also points to his absence at the “Meet the Candidates” event last week. “Maybe he thinks he doesn’t have to worry about running a campaign and talking to the people and showing up at meetings . . . I think it’s very important to do that.”

On the question of waiving taxes and/or fees to attract businesses, she would consider extended payment plans for businesses with up-front cash problems, but is not in favor of abating taxes due to the township’s perennially shaky budget.

Vallerio is squarely in favor of the proposed Human Relations Commission that would protect locally against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as race, religion, ethnicity and age. “I think all people should have the same rights and protections. I don’t think that one group should be excluded from fundamental rights that other groups have,” she says.

Melanie feels good about the positive response she’s gotten as a candidate and win or lose, she hopes to stay active and work to improve things in the township any way she can. She’s enjoyed going out and meeting people all over the ward and the township and hopes to see more people get involved.

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  1. David Flaks

    Thank you Melanie Vallerio for your unequivocal support of a Cheltenham Township Human Relations Commission. As a resident of Ward 3, it is refreshing to hear a candidate who believes in the simple but powerful principal that all people deserve the same basic human rights.

  2. Mavra Simon Iano

    Thank you Steve for this article about Melanie
    Vallerio’s campaign. Informative and very comprehensive.