The rapid growth in the Lehigh Valley is a balancing act for those tasked with approving projects and improving roads and infrastructure.
The balance, however, is dictated, in part, by state laws that restrict municipalities from turning developers away if the area of interest is zoned for the proposed project, even if the infrastructure is not up to the increased demand placed upon it.
This is especially true with the rapid growth of warehouses outside of the industrial parks in the valley.
The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission is now working to join municipalities together to coordinate their municipal plans, a move that could place industrial growth where it can be supported while leaving rural areas free from development.
Gregg Adams, planner for South Whitehall Township, said the township has approved five warehouses, three of which are built, one is under construction, and one hasn’t broken ground yet.
“We have newer ones because (the county) is running out of space along I-78 and developers are looking further away (from main thoroughfares),” he said.
Because the properties are new, Adams said the township is not seeing an increase in traffic yet. “Perhaps in five years we’ll have a better idea.”
South Whitehall Township is just one example of warehouses being built on farms or green spaces. The question among residents is “Why?”.
Becky Bradley, executive director of Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, explained that state law mandates that each municipality have a comprehensive plan that allows for all possible zoning uses. If a developer presents a plan that fits in the zoned use, often times officials’ hands are tied.
Adams agreed. “The Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code tells us what we can and cannot do. It lays down the law.”
While municipalities can zone the way they want, Adams said, under the law, they must allow for all types of uses.
“Once we adopt an ordinance, if an application comes in and meets the permitted use, we have to allow it,” she said.
But municipalities’ hands are tied when it comes to infrastructure improvement. Bradley said they can require improvements to roads and buffer zones along the property’s frontage, but nothing more.
“You know when you’re driving down a two-lane road and suddenly it goes to four lanes for a short distance before going back to two lanes? That’s why. We’ve all seen that,” she said.
Bradley said the planning commission has been working on this issue for several years. One way to get around the municipal code is to create a group of municipalities that coordinate their comprehensive plans. That way, she said, high intensity development can be put where it makes the most sense and low intensity or open areas can be preserved.
Right now, 31 of the 62 municipalities in the Lehigh Valley – Northampton and Lehigh counties – are in the process of creating four multi municipal plans.
“These things take time,” she said.
The four groups creating multi municipal plans are:
In the meantime, the planning commission has created a regional plan that shows where development can be accommodated and where it can’t. That plan, though, is just a guide, as the ultimate decision to approve a plan lies with each individual municipality.
Lamont McClure, Northampton County executive, is taking another approach to quelch the influx of warehouses. He’s working to preserve farmland.
Warehouses “are a bad thing,” he said. “I’ve said consistently that we need a balance of job creation with open spaces, parks and land that is useful. The proper place for warehouses is in industrial parks. They are not appropriate in farm fields.”
Pennsylvania is a right to develop state, so a developer can do whatever he wants with the land he owns. “The planning commission has no power, but it does have a role to educate the public about what can and can’t be done,” McClure said, adding that they have started stepping up in the past five or so years.
“We are the sixth-largest region along the Boston-Washington corridor. Because we are so close to millions of consumers and we have so much farmland, we are a target for development,” he said.
Both Northampton and Lehigh counties are on top of farmland preservation, he said. Municipalities can preserve land, but the cost can be high, so it’s up to the counties.
“Many farmers are willing to take a little less money to make sure their farm is preserved,” he said. “It is our job, our duty to do this.”
The growth in the industrial sector started with Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Bradley said.
“It started with grocery store chains, which quickly realized a need for storage of goods. They started building logistics facilities here because we are not in a coastal zone and our taxes are lower,” she said.
Last year, of 13.2 million square-feet of space that was proposed, 11.7 million was warehouse space. “That’s just in one region,” she said. “But municipalities are getting wise to this, and 1.5 million square feet of manufacturing space and 3.5 million square feet of warehouse space was approved by local governments.”
Bradley said most of the projects approved had to be under the current ordinances because the municipalities weren’t in multi municipal plans. “This still leaves quite a bit (of projects) out there to process.”
George Lewis, vice president of marketing and development research for Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, said the Valley’s location and the supply chain issues make it a focal point for industries looking to build.
“It’s inevitable they are going to come,” he said. “We want to help municipalities weigh these options against other industries to come up with the best plan for them. Ultimately, it is their decision.”
The LVEDC, he said, is promoting the Lehigh Valley to life sciences, food and beverage manufacturers, offices and manufacturing.
“Distribution and logistics happen naturally; we don’t need to promote it,” he said.
David Burke, a founding member of South Whitehall Township Concerned Citizens, formed to fight warehouse development, said he’s been interested in the warehouse issue for four years, ever since a 1-million-square-foot facility was proposed in his neighborhood.
It was built because it was zoned for light industrial, he said. It was built on spec, so it isn’t full yet and truck traffic has not been an issue.
“My concern is the amount of traffic we have now and the infrastructure that can’t support it,” Burke said. “I live near the junction of routes 309 and 22. If we venture toward the Promenade Shoppes (at Saucon Valley) between 3 and 6 p.m. we take our lives in our hands.”
As part of the concerned citizens group, Burke attends most Lehigh Valley Planning Commission meetings as well as those in his township.
“We are becoming a valley of trucks. How can we deal with this with the disconnects in each township,” he asked.
“If there was some way Lehigh Valley could say this is how many warehouses we can have and this is where they go, it would be great. But it’s up to the individual townships.”
Burke pointed to the Greentree Nurseries property, where large trees were grown for sale to retailers. Burke said the property was zoned light industrial and was in the family for generations. When the owner decided to retire, he sold to a developer and now the property is a warehouse complex.
“I attended all the meetings and people were fighting against it. The owner angrily told us we were trying to ruin his retirement. South Whitehall went along with the development because the zoning allowed for it,” he said.
Zoning laws will take time to change, Burke said. “I don’t know how easy it is to change the laws and I don’t want to stagnate, but I don’t want overgrowth where the infrastructure can’t keep up.”