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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.