2014 Lehigh Valley Planning awards

Tonight had the pleasure of attending the 2014 Lehigh Valley Planning Awards. Thanks to William Ahlert/HDR Engineering for the table and the great company of some folks from RenewLV.

The inaugural award ceremony is an initiative of new(ish) LV Planning Commission Dir. Becky Bradley. The event was held at Lehigh’s Iacocca Hall high above Bethlehem and was packed with attendees able to take in one of the best views in the Valley.

The purpose was to celebrate projects, plans, policies and people who show exemplary scholarship, leadership and inspiration in planning and implementation. Recognizing exceptional initiatives is important. As we know the Valley continues to grow at a rapid pace. Because of this we have our share of mundane, cookie cutter and plain old bad projects resulting from a lack of vision. That is exactly why it’s important to celebrate those leaders, builders, architects and engineers who build and lay the groundwork for special projects and initiatives. There is great stuff happening in the LV and it needs to be celebrated. Doing so hopefully leads to emulation by other communities.

It’s a goal of mine that LMT’s East Texas Village Center Project will warrant consideration at the 2015 awards in the community ordinance category.

Some highlights: 25 honorees and winners in 9 different categories. The projects below are ones stuck out to me the most as being really great. Take a minute to check out the links to learn more about them.

Community plan category
Borough of Portland Comprehensive plan.

Open Space Project 
Nevin Park Revitalization, City of Easton
Lands at Kirkland open space preservation, Upper Mount Bethel
Prydun/Mickley Farm Acquisition, Whitehall Township

Revitalization Project
Iron Works Site Master Plan, Catasaqua

Transportation project
West End Allentown Streetscape

Multi-Municipal Cooperation
Slate Belt Regional Police Commission. Borough of Pen Argyl, Wind Gap and Plainfield township.

Land Development
PPL Center Allentown

Video-Tony Cimerol

#LVawards2014 #B!LV


Build where the jobs are needed and returns highest. The Allentown re-industrialization plan.

Allentown city officials unveiled the second phase of a long term plan to bring industrial and manufacturing companies back to the region at a public meeting Thursday. The plan is being crafted by Camoin & Bergmann Associates.

This is important on multiple levels: Smart growth is creating new jobs where people need them the most and where the infrastructure already exists.  When we do this we get the highest ROI on investments. When that happens we keep taxes lower.

With a documented (albeit slow) return of manufacturing jobs to the US, Allentown must position itself to compete. We can help accomplish this by removing the costly array of state, local and federal programs built into the development process that encourage growth in costly locations where taxpayers inevitably directly and indirectly subsidize sprawl.

From the WFMZ link – “Bergman Associates’ planner Dan Sundell says ‘You get a lot of tax incentives and assistance by building [in Allentown],” he said. “It’s a big advantage over open land outside of the city.” – This is true, but the problem remains that we now also massively subsidize greenfield sprawl. And by doing this, the taxpayer return on investment is alarmingly low. 

My preference of course is to remove all development subsidies especially ones that culminate at the federal level. If we would do this and allow the market to work then cities would naturally benefit because of their inherent strengths some of which I mention above. (location, efficiency, services ect.) But a nice first step forward would be to simply reduce sprawl subsidies which currently provide more incentive to build on a virgin greenfield by artificially making it cheaper to do so. Developers have the right to build where they see fit, but they do not have the right to subsidies.

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Live blog: LV Business Matters – Fedex vs. NIMBY syndrome – what wins?

This is a “live blog” of sorts meaning that I re-watched the 3/30 taping of Business Matters and I sort of stream of consciousness blogged as I did so writing whatever came up.

Watch the show here: Business Matters – FedEx Jobs vs. NIMBY Syndrome – What wins?

Don Cunningham LVEDC – 2:30 minute mark – NIMBY. “A project is going to happen there”. I’ll throw Cunningham a bone here since I’m mostly critical of the narratives he utilizes. Made this point in a post couple weeks ago. Using the NIMBY term here has some merit. Why? Because the land has been zoned a certain way consistent with regional planning for years. It’s adjacent to an airport and close to the spine infrastructure. Very different from the LMT Jaindl issue where we had a rezoning fight. For 23 in LMT an area was zoned agriculture protected in accordance with regional plans representing smart growth boundaries laid out in the 80’s. People bought homes assuming it would remain agriculture. Also the LMT warehouses are significantly further from the infrastructure spine. Quarry threat plus local officials rolling over were the reasons zoning changed. In our case, arguments weren’t NIMBY but rather about the rights of a community to protect itself.

8:30 minute mark – Here Cunningham refers to a community needing to adjust infrastructure. He refers to Bethlehem Steel infrastructure on former Moravian farmland. Unfair comparison. Warehouses are different then a mega manufacturing hub located in a growing city core. When Bethlehem Steel was built new infrastructure served the city not just a single project. It was inevitable that Bethlehem would expand. New infrastructure serviced entire neighborhoods surrounding the plant. It was efficient use of community resources. Excellent ROI. The locations where warehouses are often built is often the very definition of sprawl. They are frequently directly (or indirectly) subsidized by taxpayers at a premium since the infrastructure serves only one purpose. I get where Cunningham was trying to go here. But using Bethlehem Steel was a major stretch. The political economy of sprawl.

Bethlehem Steel at its height employed over 31,000 people. It maximized the city’s infrastructure investment in a way we just don’t often see today. Allentown’s city center project would be today’s example of this kind of transformative project. The comparison of Bethlehem Steel to warehouses is totally ridiculous. 

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Mcall point counterpoint – Should Gov’t collect union dues?

“Pennsylvania lawmakers (HB 1507 – introduced by Bryan Cutler) are considering “paycheck protection” legislation to prohibit government agencies from collecting dues on behalf of unions. Supporters say taxpayer resources shouldn’t be used to help unions fund political activity; opponents say it’s meant to weaken unions.”Here is link to the Morning Call point counterpoint

I want to talk about this a little more. Here are thoughts on the topic: First why do public unions so fiercely protect this practice? The obvious question is that this indicates a fear that without automatic deductions by the gov’t body then public union members may not voluntarily continue to pay dues? If the benefits were so clear then paycheck deduction shouldn’t be an issue right? Am I missing something here?

Another argument I’ve heard is that the cost to local bodies is very low and therefore inconsequential. Ok, so if that’s the case then why is it a big deal to ask the unions to take over the cost of collecting dues? Aren’t we then eliminating any question of conflicts?

I will say the one argument I’ve heard that makes sense in favor of status quo is the fact that automatic deduction isn’t required by law but rather bargained for during negotiations. So a local gov’t can simply bargain it out if they feel strongly. But on the other hand to negotiate something away a local gov’t would have to give something up. Should it be a chip?

I have always looked at private unions (where the market is a check a balance) differently then public sector unions.  In the private sector unions compensate for potential uneven bargaining power between owners and workers. Public unions don’t work that way. They aren’t bargaining against owners for a fair cut of jointly produced profits they had a part in creating. Public unions are bargaining against everyone who pays taxes. In the private sector I think workers have the right to organize. The public sector I am wary. They are two different animals. In the private sector if the consumer is unhappy with the costs passed on because of union labor then they can choose not to buy that product. In the public sector of course the taxpayer has no way to opt out.

This has always been the fundamental way I look at this issue. What if anything am I missing here? Either on this specific issue or my general thoughts on private vs. public unions.

FYI In Lower Macungie per collective bargaining agreements, both the Clerical and Public Works Dept use the payroll deduction for union dues. – FYI

Don’t blame the Truckers.

I had another beneficial conversation with a trucker last week. It’s why I’m hyper active on social media. It’s a way to solicit this kind of helpful dialogue. This particular trucker is named John. I met him after he msg’d me in response to a post I made. John has worked on or around trucks his whole life.

John saw a comment I made and took it as an affront to truckers. That wasn’t my intention, but hindsight I can see how he took it that way. Below is the conversation we had. In the end John understood my position and I better appreciated his issues. He’s someone I’ll stay in tough with when I have a truck questions. Truckers are not the bad guys. The failure is a breakdown of good planning.

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King George is saved.

I wanted to write today about the good news. One of the core proponents to save the historic building wrote a nice post on the Save King George FB. It’s better then what I would have written, so I thought I’d just re-post below.

Couple of thoughts first. Total team effort led by a tireless core. Activists including our LMT historical society, local residents & officials and most crucially the developer. Sincerely can’t thank Mr. Patel enough.

Having been immersed in a grass roots resident driven effort before but sadly the disappointing end, it’s great to see residents score victory. I hope the group stays active. When we fought the Jaindl rezoning we made a Facebook page. The “Friends LMT” page was created to raise awareness of the 2010 decision to rezone 700 acres of farmland but still lives on as a smart growth watchdog despite the outcome. During the height of the Jaindl issue the “Friends” group had 400 followers. Today it’s near 1000. We kept the inertia deciding to make the best of it by keeping residents informed of future issues. We hope never again will residents be blindsided by a decision with such wide reaching impact without the chance to weigh in.

I  hope Save the King George inertia also remains as a watchdog and proponent for other historical preservation projects. They succeeded in raising awareness to the point where the developer and local officials had no choice but to hear the valid arguments of preservation. For now the group deserves a victory lap, a huge pat on the back and many thanks for their efforts.

Saving the King George Inn: 
Using Social Media and Technology for Awareness
By Dean K. Ziegler

As with any hard fought victory, now is the time to savor and reflect. I am amazed at how the nuances of local government came to life with this issue, and what methods were used to accomplish our goals. First, there was no substitute for hard work, networking, and involvement from a core group of people with similar interests. Without this, the outcome would have been very different, I am sure. Countless meetings, both public and private, with elected officials is what got the job done. But, without social media sites, like Facebook, and modern communication technology, I doubt the awareness of the King George Inn situation would have happened on the magnitude that it did.

I first saw the news on a Facebook post. Someone had commented on a post of what a shame it was to have the King George Inn demolished for developmental purposes. My incredibility and perhaps ignorance made me comment that the current owner would never let that happen! Being publically corrected made me realize what was going on. The King George Inn had not only been sold, but was scheduled to be demolished. My next thought was how was this injustice going to be corrected? With that in mind, myself and a few other Lehigh Valley residents started this journey of local government intervention.

Facebook let us put out feelers as to who was organizing what in order to save the King George Inn. A brief meeting at the Lehigh Historical Society gave us the inspiration that we needed. Nancy Lloyd and Susan McDermott chaired the meeting, as well as a representative from another historical organization. The events that needed to happen seemed a bit intimidating. We could either convince the proposed owner not to demolish, find another buyer, or have local government officials step in. Our work was cut out for us.

I started the MoveOn.org petition in hopes of showing our local politicians that our tight knit group was not a fluke. Within several weeks, we had over 1,500 online petition signatures, and you can bet we used this fact in our presentations, first to the South Whitehall Township Commissioners, and then to the Lehigh County Commissioners. The number of signatures later swelled to over 2,000. Every single one of them was in touch with us by e-mail, courtesy of MoveOn.org’s protocols.

After the petition was started, we formed the Save the King George Inn Facebook site. This was invaluable for notifying the public about what was going on, sharing newspaper articles, and hopefully, some recognition by the affected politicians that we were not a group that would go away quietly. McDermott and Lloyd, and a host of others sent a flurry of e-mails to everyone. We received countless suggestions from non-affected politicians, retired government officials, and even the builder who completed a very similar project of utilizing an existing historical structure for commercial purposes.

By being proactive with the newspaper reporters, several key points were included in their coverage. Of course, we cannot claim that we swayed anyone’s writing or opinions. But, little by little, I feel that not only did the politicians grasp what our movement was about, they also had a pulse on public opinion.
I wish Mr. Patel the best of luck in his commercial endeavors. I am satisfied to write that even if it seems that public opinion is just a little cog in the wheel of society, once in awhile it plays a significant role in our community.

Thoughts on Saucon Valley teacher negotiation

I generally stay away from school board politics. It’s not my wheelhouse and I only follow what I read in the papers for the most part. I try to make it to my local school board meetings but do so only a couple times a year.  I have nothing but the utmost admiration and respect for people who run for school boards. Totally thankless position. Time consuming and completely volunteer.

Saucon Valley

I have been following from with interest from afar the negotiations in Saucon Valley. Interesting read in today’s Morning Call: Saucon Valley teachers refuse to change vote against proposed contract

As a casual observer regardless of my personal feelings about unions it really does seem as if the teachers in Saucon Valley and their union reps are now losing the public perception battle. They are coming off as inflexible and unreasonable. The pendulum has swung.

One friend who is a parent with kids in that district commented when I posted a link to the article: “The general sentiment is that the teachers are seen as inflexible and pushing waaaay too hard. The situation is out of control. I personally find it very disturbing.” I’ve heard similar from others with kids in the district.

We’re at a crossroads as a nation as far as our public unions. I have been and continue to be an advocate for fair and equitable reform of public unions that affect local municipalities. More often no one, not even public union members deny reform is desperately needed. But on the extreme end there are those who seek to completely dismantle public unions. Count me into the reform camp rather then the dismantle camp.

That being said when perception swings as far as it has in Saucon Valley unions are doing themselves no favor by giving extremist elements such great fodder. Is there anyone without a stake in the game who thinks that the last deal on the table was not totally reasonable?



LVEDC calls for 1 cent Lehigh Valley Sales Tax.

Lots of reaction on social media this morning to this Mcall story posted last night. Here are some initial thoughts and questions.

You can read the report in it’s entirety here. The LVEDC paid around 100k to the Georgia firm  “Garner Economics” for the report.

LVEDC Website

First what made the headlines is the report high priority recommendation for a 1 cent sales tax which would generate 33 million a year. LVEDC’s current budget is 2 million. Knee jerk reaction is that this proposed tax increase would create a bloated slush fund for a nebulous board with unelected leadership lacking checks and balances. There were some recent reorganizations of leadership and structure of LVEDC in 2013 and I’d like to learn more about them. But from what I understand decisions in the past were made in private with a public component that was understood to be nothing more then a rubber stamp.

Beyond the big picture issue I took some time reading about what exactly the report outlines be done with 33 million. Some of it is good.

For example, regionalization studies. PA has 2500 individual municipalities and 600 school districts. No other state comes remotely close. This is a big reason why we face some of the statewide problems we do. Here is what the report says:

The Lehigh Valley alone is comprised of two counties and 62 municipalities. The scale of perceived—and, as noted by the taxpayer (businesses interviewed), real—inefficiencies in providing community services is significant. Oftentimes, to a non-resident, there is no separation of lines when traveling from one municipality to another.

No, I am not in favor of forcing individual muni’s to give up local control. As a bottom up government proponent I believe local gov’t to be the most efficient taxing body. Locally a resident can account for every dollar brought in and every dollar spent. A local dollar goes much further then sending your dollar to Harrisburg or Washington to be re-distributed through a broken system. That being said I agree we should conduct studies to identify where compelling cases for consolidation are. Then, if muni’s willingly see the economic and fiscal benefits (in some cases would be a no-brainer) we should make it easy to re-organize.

It’s my understanding Alburtis at one time initiated a study of this subject on it’s own. Remember, Alburtis raised taxes again this year. Macungie raised taxes again this year. Small borough’s often find themselves in tight fiscal jams and their leaders often worry about financial future. This has nothing to do with leadership but everything to do with small size, small population and redundancy of services. Take police protection. In EPSD there are 5 individual police entities operating in one geographic area each with it’s own facilities, union and overhead. I believe in voluntary regionalization and resource sharing initiated from the bottom up.

Another issue cited is the LVIA: I truly have mixed feelings about subsidizing the airport. It is a compelling argument why. The report states:

“Focus group participants and electronic survey respondents noted the need for
additional air service and more affordable rates out of the Lehigh Valley International Airport (ABE).”

Can’t argue with that. But the answer is how do we get there? How do we get a fully operational LVIA? Is the answer more subsidies distributed by another level of bureaucracy? I honestly don’t know.

Lastly here is one example of something that scares me. It deals with infrastructure subsidies. Here is one line:

“Sustainable funding source to allow for mega site development, municipal water
and sewer in more areas of the counties, broadband connectivity in the rural areas, deal closing opportunities, and more.”

This is rural sewer line expansion. That means one thing to me. Sprawl subsidies. More sprawl Industrial complexes paving over cornfields in the outskirts of the valley. More mega strip centers and suburban office complexes. These practices represent the very lowest economic ROI on valuable land. Sprawl subsidies skew the land market. Without subsidies companies will build close to the people who need the jobs and where the infrastructure already exists. Not where the land is justifiably cheap cause it’s in the middle of nowhere.

It boils down to more subsidies for a wildly inefficient development pattern. Sprawl subsidies will encourage local muni’s looking for a quick windfall to build new infrastructure with no accounting on if they can actually afford to maintain it over the long run. After the subisidies dry up and greenfield developers move on to the next field local taxpayers are the ones left holding the bag. We pay for the ongoing improvements and maintenance for projects that were big ole feathers in the caps of local politicians. In many cases unfortunately new liabilities created far exceed the new revenue generated. It then becomes a simple issue of math. Sprawl is financially unsustainable over the long run.

This is definitely something to keep an eye on. I’ll say this sales tax probably has absolutely zero chance of being approved either by Lehigh or Northampton County councils. Def not with their current legislative boards. I do need to learn more about the LVEDC and this study. I’m interested in hearing from folks who have alot more knowledge on this subjec then me. Arguments for and also against. Please feel free to contact me at ronbeitler@gmail.com.

Mackenzie – Increase penalties for municipal theft

We know all too well in Lower Macungie the damage a crooked public official can cause…. A former supervisor was accused of stealing $2.5 million in township sewer funds over a period of seven years. She later died before she was prosecuted and the township never recovered the full amount stolen. This disaster ended up being the driver for a successful resident led effort to convert Lower Macungie to a 1st class township since the 1st class code prohibits Commissioners from also being township employees.

Also this: Former South Whitehall Employee, Husband Charged with Embezzling Nearly $1M from Township

This is good legislation by Representative Mackenzie who represents Lower Macungie and South Whitehall in the 134th.  Elected officials who abuse the public’s trust should receive most severe penalties.

From Rep. Mackenzie’s facebook page. Mackenzie explains why he feels increased penalties for those who steal from municipalities make sense.

County BOC directs administration to remove County as agent for Unions

Last night, the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners directed the Administration, in all future negotiations between the County Of Lehigh and employee bargaining units (including meet and discuss units), to remove the County as dues collection agent for any third-party membership organizations. The motion was sponsored by Commissioner Mike Schware and was approved by a vote of 6-2. The vote was along party lines.