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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Big Step Forward for Preserving Some of Lower Macungie's Open Space

I really wasn't expecting to update last night's blog so soon. But at tonight's Lower Macungie Board of Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Jim Lancsek, who had previously spoken against efforts to preserve open space, presented a proposal to move open space preservation efforts forward.

Lancsek's proposal, which will have to go to the Board of Commissioners' Budget & Finance Committee for review and then a recommendation back to the board, suggested taking advantage of historically low interest rates for a bond issue or other financing options and possibly using surplus funds to preserve three key properties in the township. Lancsek said he doesn't support preserving open space without a functional purpose.  But he would support buying development rights for farms that, if fully developed with three or four single family homes per acre, would create excessive traffic problems for the township. He also said that he thinks it would be appropriate for the township to purchase in fee simple parcels adjacent to existing township parks so that those parks could be expanded.

The township's Environmental Advisory Council, which I chair, sent the commissioners a recommendation in spring of 2013 to allow a voter referendum to ask the residents whether they would support a fractional increase in our Earned Income Tax for a 5-year period to fund open space preservation. That recommendation was stuck in the Budget & Finance Committee until tonight when the Budget & Finance Committee recommended to the full board that no action be taken on the EAC's 2013 recommendation. Likewise, another potential open space funding recommendation that the EAC sent to the commissioners last year, which involved earmarking all real estate transfer taxes from a 700-acre commercial and residential subdivision that was previously zoned for Agricultural Preservation, was finally rejected by the commissioners. And I couldn't be happier.


I'm happy because the commissioners themselves looked for and found a viable means of funding preservation of some key properties in the township.  The EAC had discussed recommending a bond issue to get all of the needed funding up front to preserve several properties at once, but we thought that incurring debt would be frowned upon by more people than would take issue with a minor Earned Income Tax bump. And when I say minor, I'm talking about the price of one large two-topping pizza per month for someone earning the median income in our community. But that route would not have accumulated enough money to move forward with acquisitions for a few years. Mr. Lancsek's proposal could potentially get the money needed to preserve two properties borrowed and in the budget for next year.

This new proposal isn't a slam dunk by any means, but it is a very encouraging sign that one of our Board of Commissioners' biggest critics of open space preservation over the past three years has finally acknowledged the residents' wishes and stepped forward with an aggressive proposal that could make a real difference in what Lower Macungie will look like when we are fully built out in 20-30 years.  In three decades we might just have a few green patches remaining to separate the warehouses and cookie cutter houses from each other.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why are Some Politicians Afraid of Voter Referendums?

I've blogged previously about my efforts with Lower Macungie Township's Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), which I chair, to try to get a formal open space preservation program up and running in our township.  We sent a recommendation to our township's Board of Commissioners back in April 2013, urging the commissioners to authorize a voter referendum about whether we should initiate a modest increase in our earned income tax (EIT) for a five-year period to fund open space preservation in our community.  That proposal has been hamstrung in the commissioners' Budget & Finance Committee ever since.
An endangered way of life in Lower Macungie Township
(photo credit: Morning Call).

Specifically, what the EAC wants to do is have the township partner with the county's Bureau of Agricultural Land Preservation to be able to make offers to township farmers to purchase the development rights for their land. The county's farmland preservation program has a cap on how much they can offer per acre for development rights. In some of the more rural northern townships in Lehigh County, they might be able to offer enough to get a couple of farmers interested. But here in Lower Macungie, our undeveloped land is some of the most expensive in the county.  The county program cannot compete here in Lower Macungie, so the township needs to ante up if we want to buy development rights for any of our remaining farms. When a farmer sells their development rights, they would still own the land and may use it in any manner than want. They just cannot subdivide it for a housing development. So when they eventually sell the farm, it would be sold as a farm rather than as building lots. We think it's the ideal free market solution to preserving some of our remaining farms. It is totally voluntary on the land owners' part. If they don't want to see their family farm bulldozed and built on but they need money to fund their retirement, selling their development rights and keeping their farm is a great option.

But Lower Macungie needs a source of revenue to be able to work with the county to make offers to our farmers for their development rights. We have proposed a temporary, 0.25 percent increase in our EIT for a period of 5 years, which could preserve a few of our farms. This exact funding mechanism has been approved in voter referendums in seven of 10 Lehigh Valley townships that have put it on the ballot. And the only way the EIT increase could continue after 5 years is by another voter referendum authorizing a finite extension. But before anything else, we need to get the question on the ballot to ask the Lower Macungie voters. I'm very disappointed that some of our commissioners are refusing to let the residents have a voice at the polls on a matter than most of the commissioners really don't seem to care about.

The two commissioners on the Budget & Finance Committee are unashamedly pro-development, so I don't think there is any interest in that committee in preserving farmland. In fact, one of those commissioners has publicly said that we already have enough open space. That statement is either incredibly naaive or incredibly arrogant. Because most of the farmland that we see when we drive around Lower Macungie has been zoned for several decades to allow either 12,000-square-foot or 18,000-square-foot residential lots. All it would take is the farmer holding up the white flag and saying, "I've had enough. I'm ready to cash in."

Three of our commissioners have also said that they oppose voter referendums for any reason at all. One of them has famously said that they are elected to make the tough decisions, and that not enough voters turn out at the polls for a referendum to mean anything. But using his logic, we could just as easily argue that the voters who turned out to elect each of them are not sufficient to constitute a mandate for them to make this sort of decision.


The question of whether to fund a farmland preservation program is actually much bigger than whether the township should buy a new dump truck, install a new traffic light, or even install an expensive artificial turf athletic field. Because whether or not we decide to fund preservation of our remaining farmland is a decision that will mold, one way or the other, what the township looks like in 20 years when there are no more buildable parcels of land bigger than 10 acres. In 20 years, will we still have a few open farm fields here and there? Or will we have nearly continuous expanses of vinyl boxes clustered around cul-de-sacs spitting out more cars to clog our already inadequate roads? The residents have a lot at stake here, because a fully built out township, and the traffic nightmares and crowded schools that accompany that scenario, will certainly devalue our properties. Isn't that something that the Lower Macungie voters have a right to decide for themselves?  Or maybe this will be the year that our elected officials surprise me and step up with their own plan to preserve open space in Lower Macungie. I'll keep you posted.

Monday, November 3, 2014

How New Development Can Help Fund Farmland Preservation

It seems like an oxymoron, but there is an opportunity to score funding for a municipality's Farmland Preservation Fund when a greenfield is sold to a developer. At least there is here in Pennsylvania with how our real estate transfer tax is divvied up after a property sale. In PA, the buyer and seller each pay a 1% transfer tax. Of that 2%, the municipality gets one half and the local school district gets the other half. For larger municipalities or places with large commercial or industrial properties that change hands from time to time, the local cut of the real estate transfer tax can be a nice supplemental revenue stream.

Back Story
I've blogged previously about a seemingly shady land deal that happened in 2010 here in Lower Macungie Township, so if you've already read about this back story please feel free to skip to the next section.  Lower Macungie is 22.6 square miles and is home to nearly 31,000 people. Over the past 20 years, we've experienced a lot of farmland being lost to developments - mostly residential, but some commercial and light industrial too. In 2010, the township's Board of Commissioners entered into a closed-door re-zoning agreement with the owner of the largest contiguous tract of agricultural land in our township, about 700 acres, nearly all of which was zoned for agricultural preservation. That land is now zoned as light industrial, highway commercial, and residential.

What did the township get out of that deal?  The guarantee that the land owner, one of the largest land owners and speculators in the two-county Lehigh Valley, would withdraw his proposal to build a quarry on that land. But that quarry proposal was just a bluff. If he had built a quarry, which was allowed under the agricultural zoning, it could only have been a fraction of the size he originally proposed, because: (1) there is a major petroleum pipeline easement running directly through the tract; and (2) I doubt that he could not have gotten approval from the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) to dewater the quarry to a workable depth without completely dewatering the adjacent Little Lehigh Creek, designated by PADEP as a High Quality Cold Water Fishery.  But the board of five commissioners at that time included three Realtors. The Realtors would be getting more inventory into the local real estate market if the land was developed, so it certainly worked out for them. Let's not even start talking about how the local farm roads cannot currently handle the truck traffic from the nearby warehouses that have already been built in the area.  

A Warehouse Grows on a Farm Field
Part of 700 acres of land in Lower Macungie Township that used to
be zoned for agricultural preservation but is about to be developed
into several large warehouses. (photo credit: www.mcall.com)
Three light-industrial parcels that were subdivided from 700 acres of formerly preserved agricultural land have been sold to a developer and are going through the approvals for construction of large warehouses. These will be the first of several light industrial parcels and commercial parcels sold and developed. Eventually there will be 400 new homes as well. All of these new greenfield projects are thanks to our previous Board of Commissioners that facilitated the sweetheart rezoning deal for our local land baron, who has an industrial-scale turkey farm that he tends to when he is not planning his next greenfield development project. Over the last several decades this nominal turkey farmer, and his late father before him, made a habit of buying thousands of acres of local farmland, farming the land for a while, and then selling the land off to developers when the time seems right. At least half of the 700 acres involved in the 2010 rezoning deal had already been zoned for agricultural preservation when the land baron originally bought the land. And he has the clout to get Realtors who moonlight as local politicians to bow before him, kiss his ring, and rezone land - without even requiring him to pay to upgrade the local roads that would service the land he wants to develop. But this is all in the past now. So how do we make lemonade out of this lemon of a rezoning deal?


Plans for new warehouses on land formerly zoned for agricultural preservation
in Lower Macungie Township. (photo credit: WFMZ.com)
By the time the 700 acres of formerly preserved farmland is fully developed, the township's total share of the real estate transfer tax revenue could be as much as $600,000. So far we've already seen $120,000 come into the township coffers from this revenue stream.  Since the residents of Lower Macungie were shafted on this rezoning deal that will convert 700 acres of farmland to sprawling warehouses, strip commercial boxes, and 400 homes with kids to burden the local schools, shouldn't the proceeds from the real estate taxes be used to offset that loss of open space? All real estate tax revenue from these former 700 acres of preserved farmland should be designated for a farmland preservation lockbox and used to help to purchase development rights from other local farms.

Unfortunately, $600,000 will be a drop in the bucket to purchase enough development rights to make a difference, but it is critical that we begin with the real estate tax revenue from this poster child for poor land use decisions and use it as seed money for a deliberate and defined effort to slow down the pace of greenfield development within our community. If we can start with earmarking this real estate transfer tax, we can then have a more serious discussion about a referendum to ask voters to authorize an earned income tax to more fully fund farmland preservation in our community.  Save it or pave it.