Movie tavern thoughts part 2

Movie Tavern has generated a lot of positive discussion over the last couple days. But before we get to that let’s back up a second.

I was elected on a smart growth platform. From the beginning I was clear that meant better growth management. Not stopping growth. You can’t stop growth. And to promise that would have been insincere. I was clear Lower Mac’s strategy needed to be smart growth + land preservation. And that’s exactly what we’ve been implementing.

Here are just a few examples:

Preservation of 55 acres on Mountain Rd.
Lower Macungie commits funds to preserve 55-acre Heim farm
Adoption of official map – a critical preservation tool
With official map Lower Macungie could take more proactive stance on land use issues
Utilization of County municipal match to leverage twp. funds for preservation dollars
Turning $200,000 into $800,000 for farmland preservation Two Lehigh County townships in pilot program to save farms
Update of our comprehensive plans
www.planswl.org 

I also believe we need to hold development in appropriate locations to higher standards. Not be afraid to vote against projects that would have negative impact. I’ve done this having voted against and pushed back on bad projects.  I’ve said here on this blog many times Lower Mac is open for business in appropriate growth areas but developers should be prepared to bring your ‘A’ game. In other areas where dumb growth strains our infrastructure and resources we must be prepared to put our skin in and game enter the market and get farmland and open space preserved. And we have done that. And will continue to do that.

So that brings us to the Movie Tavern and if the township should support a variance for increased building height to accommodate a 15 ft higher than the roofline marquee that some have categorized as a tower. 

The township currently regulates building height to 50ft. This is by my best guess a fairly old regulation. The question becomes, is this a standard we should dig our heels in on and risk losing what is otherwise a pretty good fit for our boulevard? Or should we work with the tavern like we’ve done for 6+ months now.
First, it’s important to understand what the purpose of the 50ft regulation is. Regulations must have a purpose. I spent some time trying to figure that out last two days. Since the ordinance was written before our current zoning officer and planner were here I can make an educated guess it has something to do with fire safety. When the ordinance was written the LMTFD may not have had the capability to fight fires in buildings over 50ft. Fact is today we can. I confirmed that yesterday with the LMTFD Chief. And of course this was reviewed as part of the land development process months ago as all developments are. Brent Mcnabb our fire inspector sits on our planning commission. Every single land development is reviewed by Brent.

Bottom line is we absolutely should hold developers to higher standards. And we have been last 2 years. To that end the project has seen numerous revisions over 6 months. Largely because the township requested certain improvements. In fact Movie Tavern officials have said to me “Lower Mac is the hardest review process we’ve ever had to go through”. But they also agree and have said that the strenuous review will result in a much better overall project. That’s the sort of buy in we seek.

Some of our requests included a complete redesign of the back of the building to eliminate glare, an additional large plaza area if front of the tavern and also allowing the township to hand pick the facade and building prototype that best represented the townships design standards. Movie Tavern volunteered to do all of this. And the review isn’t yet finished. The height issue relates directly to the Movie Tavern component. But the rest of the project is subject to a conditional use hearing that is yet to be held. Even today I have issues with other aspects of the property and of course will attempt to address them.

What I don’t want to do is regulate good projects to death. That’s not my purpose. As a whole this is a decent project. Not great. But within the scope of the overall project a Movie Theater is one of the best aspects. This is mostly based on measurable impact.

Fact is, the tavern IS the best use for this location. Understand, this commercial center is allowed under zoning. Since it’s grandfathered that cannot be changed. Something is going to be built at this location as an anchor for this commercial center. If it’s not a Movie Tavern it would likely be some else. Probably box retail. And box retail would almost certainly have more impact both on the community at large and also neighbors. Purely traffic conversation. The theater is an anchor that will generate mostly evening and weekend trips. Anything else would likely be AM/PM peak day trips. That is exactly what we want to avoid.

I will also say having attended the hearing it was clearly demonstrated with site line drawings that the tower would not impact neighbors. I think this could have been addressed even further with enhanced buffer plantings along the back of the building.

So the issue is, yes I believe strongly (and have demonstrated many times) the township needs to have a commitment to high design standards. On this project we’ve done that. But at the same time those standards need to have an actual purpose. It’s not just obstructionism or throwing up monkeywrenches. With the Movie Tavern we have an excellent use on a decent project in an area identified by long term comprehensive plans (regional and local) for targeted growth.

Residents came with very valid concerns (we need more of this) and I think those concerns were addressed. There will be more opportunities to address concerns during conditional use.

Because I’ve fought bad projects in the past I think some expect me to fight every development project. There are some who just want the township to cease all development. Personally I’m sympathetic.  I wish we could. Would be nice to just put a moratorium on development. But unfortunately, that’s impossible based on state laws. So I’m going to continue to do what I’ve done last 2.5 years. Aggressively advocate for farmland and open space preservation. Continue to hold developers to very high and meaningful standards. And for projects that represent good fits in identified growth areas? Get the heck out the way and help foster higher value growth in the right places. 

I’m sorry that some disagree with me on this. But I made a promise when I ran to always let residents know exactly where I stand on issues. And this is another attempt at letting folks know where my head is at. Disagree? Let’s talk. Contact me at ronbeitler@gmail.com

Movie Tavern thoughts

Last night the zoning hearing board rejected a dimensional variance that would have added 15 ft onto a tower in front of the proposed movie tavern. Movie tavern officials claimed this is a deal breaker. It remains to be seen if that is the case. It’s important to note that the Zoning Hearing Board is a quasi judicial board entity, seperate from the Board of Commissioners. Though I attended the hearing I did not get a vote.

My thoughts are this. Generally, I think our zoning hearing board gives away major variances to large scale developers much too easily. They did this in the case of Hamilton Crossings. And in the past I’ve spoken out opposing such variances both in person and in the form of letters.

However, this is not one I would have personally dug my heels in on. This is after having visited a similar Movie Tavern in Exton PA. I wrote this post a few months ago and included some photographs and video I took. Also after having seen the site line diagrams presented last night that demonstrated clearly that residents over 500 ft away from the tower in Shepherd Hills would not even see it from their backyards.

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So at this point I’m nervous that if this kills the theater we will get another anchor that could very well be much more impactful. Remember, this plan is grandfathered originally submitted almost a decade ago. So the allowed uses are vested. Meaning the theater could be replaced with a big box retailer. That would mean more traffic, more truck deliveries and more parking issues. And likely a much less attractive building design. (The movie tavern really did work with us last few months agreeing to build a large plaza in front of the building with enhanced landscaping and buffers.)

The theater is a good use for this site. I’m not sure what could replace it would be.  I certainly do not want to see anymore strip malls, big box retailers or warehouses. That leaves entertainment uses which is something our recent PCTI study said we are deficient in here in Lower Mac. Entertainment uses typically have much lower impacts. So a win/win for the township.

Now we wait and see. Was this a bluff? Will the tavern walk away? If so, then we need to be concerned with what replaces it.

Bottom line for me is yes, I think our zoners often give away variances much to easily on large projects. And I’m happy to see them actually challenge a request. But this is not one I would have taken a gamble on. The risk/reward didn’t make sense in this case. The reason is because the Movie Tavern is an excellent low impact fit. Now, if we lose it we could end up with something much worse. And will not have any power to stop it.  We often have to play hands we are dealt and put on strategic hats. This was the case here. The Movie Tavern already addressed a number of township concerns including completely changing the color of the back of the building as to reduce glare for neighbors. They went above and beyond. Another user might not be willing to voluntarily do all the things Movie Tavern agreed to do. So at this time the tower wasn’t a fight I would have picked over 15 additional feet. Residents of Shepherd Hills will still end up having to look at the back of a very large building. But the next user might not be so community conscientious as the Movie Tavern was.

written comments sent to PA DEP – Lower Milford Quarry application

Colleen Connolly – Community relations coordinator DEP, NE regional,

This correspondence is in regard to a recent public hearing on 127 acres in Lower MilfordTownship that was the subject of a DEP hearing last week relating to a quarry application. Please consider this a formal submittal of comments related to the Geryville materials quarry application hearing.

My name is Ron Beitler and I am a Township Commissioner in Lower Macungie Township. I am speaking from my position but not for the entire board. While others share my viewpoint, our board as a whole did not take formal action.

As you may know, Lower Macungie is a regional planning partner of Lower Milford. As a community we are well aware and sensitive to the fact that air and water quality matter across municipal boundaries. Therefore the DEP ruling – pending the outcome of the local proceedings – will impact Lower Macungie in addition to all our municipal planning partners.

First it’s important to note that the courts have upheld time and time again the notion that a community has a right to protect its natural features. Not only is it a local responsibility, but an obligation outlined in the state constitution. Therefore the issue of Lower Milford being permitted to protect it’s natural resources is, I believe, a matter of regional concern.

Article I Section 27 of the Pennsylvania constitution states: The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
Here are two of the most important points to consider:

  • The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission has listed the Mill Hill area as a high priority preservation site in the regional Comprehensive Plan as well as in the Natural Features/Greenway plans. Mill Hill has over 600 acres of contiguous woodlands with deep woods and wetlands.
  • Bog Turtles as well as several types of breeding trout have been found on or directly adjacent to the site.
In addition to very clear regional implications a quarry at this location would also adversely affect our neighbors to the south of us in terms of compatibility with Montgomery Counties comprehensive plan.
 
For these reasons and others to numerous to list I urge the DEP to reject Geryville materials quarry application. 

Furthermore, Geryville materials should be ordered to cease any activity on the land with the potential to disrupt the regionally significant natural features located on the site.

Thank you for your time,
Ron Beitler – Lower Macungie Township Commissioner

CC:
State Rep. Hon. Ryan Mackenzie 134th district
State Rep. Hon. Justin Simmons 131st district
State Sen. Hon. Pat Browne 16th District

Considering TIF at Lehigh Dairy site – use the “but for” test

Lehigh County Commissioners heard a presentation by the Whitehall Township director of Industrial and Commercial Development outlining a proposal to consider utilizing a TIF on the long vacant Lehigh Dairy site.

Without a TIF would we see desirable economic development on this site?

Without a TIF would we see desirable economic development on this site?

I don’t know much about this site other then it’s the potential centerpiece for redevelopment of a long declining section of Whitehall corridor that serves as a gateway to the City of Allentown with immediate highway access.

As for TIF’s I’ve outlined in detail here over the last year what fundamental criteria for their application should be. That is the “but for” test. The name comes from the expression, “economic development would not occur but for the use of TIF.” In other words do you get desired development in a municipality, or a more specific corridor unless support is available from TIF.  (or insert whatever ‘ABC’ tax tool)

If desired economic development (justified by dollar and cent calculations *not to be confused with a specific proposed development) will happen without TIF, then TIF should not be considered or used because it would cost taxpayers over the long run.

As an example, in Lower Macungie the TIF for Hamilton Crossings was very clearly not at all necessary to induce desired economic growth in our community. Certainly not at all along the Hamilton Corridor. *Note, that today without any TIFs we have sketch plans floating for 2 more new large strip malls. One that could rival Hamilton Crossings in size. Both without using government assistance. Furthermore, after the County refused the Hamilton Crossings TIF and the project still moved forward it became crystal clear – at least for Lower Macungie whose portion was less significant then the county – that our fractional portion of the TIF would never have stopped the project had we not agreed.

Using this as a lesson, the first question County Commissioners need to ask is “but for” this assistance do we get desired economic RE-DEVELOPMENT of this gateway corridor? With Hamilton Crossings, the County got it right. They need to ask the same questions here. I don’t know what the answer to that is. But if the answer is yes, we stop right there. Reserve TIF’s (and other economic development tools) for where they are needed as a last resort. To use them otherwise is picking winners and losers. Not a business the government should involve itself in.

Senator Pat Browne letter of support for 222 upgrades

Couple weeks ago I posted a letter from Rep. Ryan Mackenzie in support of Rt. 222 upgrades including grade separated interchanges. (on and off ramps at Millcreek and Krocks) Today we were copied on a formal letter from state Sen. Pat Browne. These letters are in response to a letter writing/petition campaign I started in March.

The de-stroadification of the underperforming roadway would allow for a more free flowing bypass. This is critical to ensure regional traffic flows as Rt. 222 provides a critical connection between the cities of Reading and Allentown. This connection essential on a regional scale as well as local scale to ensure freight traffic can get safely and efficiently in and out of Upper and Lower Macungie. This is a quality of life, economic development and most important a safety issue.

Have you signed the petition yet? It takes about a minute.

Here is a copy of the Senators letter:

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Hayden Phillips ridiculous comment

I had to find a minute to write about this quick today. Northampton County Commissioners are considering an amendment that would use gaming money the county gets from the Sands to put another $750,000 into the county’s farmland preservation program and $400,000 into preserving open space and environmentally sensitive lands. 

farmland development

It looks like the board has the votes to pass this. Great news. UPDATE: 10:00pm Thur – The Amendment successfully passed.

But another part of this story is the Commissioner who dissented and a statement he made that is one of the most ridiculous I have ever heard a public official mutter.

“As we buy up farmland and take it out as a development option, we’re denying people a dream in suburbia.” – Hayden Phillips Northampton County Council

As if by preserving some farmland we are somehow going to take single family homes off the market en masse. Or somehow force people to move into densely packed cities. Anyone who drives around any suburban neighborhood in the Valley can plainly see that this isn’t the case by the number of units available in Surburbia. For those who prefer a suburban lifestyle it is by far and away the most abundant choice in the Valley. I also instinctively dislike anyone trying to force a narrowly defined worldview on me. I live in suburbia and like it but not everyone does. I have no right to define the American Dream.

Everybody has the fundamental right to live wherever they choose. What they don’t have is the right to have that choice be subsidized by others. Single family home subdivisions cost more in services than revenue generated. Always. Commercial development is how we fix that problem. Farmland however, is the most effective way. It’s about balancing revenue & liabilities. That is the most fundamental accounting task local governments are charged with. Balanced budgets. 

Farmland generates no crime. No traffic. Increases quality of life. (matter of opinion) Increases property values. (matter of fact) Doesn’t add new kids into school districts. Definite and clear long term ROI. ect. Even with Act 4 programs Farmland generates far more in property tax revenue than liabilities in services/infrastructure.

Letting opportunities pass to aggressively invest in preservation now will certainly lead to higher taxes down the road. Smart growth is not just about consumer demand for more livable communities, and not just about supporting congestion-mitigating transportation options such as complete streets it’s also about seeking growth that pays for itself and isn’t dependent on ether *constant growth (where you eventually run out of land) or direct/indirect subsidies.

*The Growth Ponzi Scheme

Bottom line is farmland preservation doesn’t somehow magically force people to live in cities. In fact it achieves the opposite. By creating a balanced mix of residential, commercial (preferably together as traditional neighborhoods) and most importantly farmland we keep the suburbs affordable. This enables those who choose that lifestyle (as I do) to be able to afford it.

 

 

Changing the conversation locally

I am not against spending money to improve our community on items identified through community planning projects. I am against spending money in a rushed an inefficient fashion. This is especially true when a place is faced with a one time windfall of money.

At the local level we need to change the conversation. That is where it all begins. 

Far too often we skip the step on the left leaping to the step on the right.

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LMT Open Space Preservation Funding Proposal

At the end of last night’s budget workshop I outlined a proposal to bank all previously collected & future real estate transfer taxes  associated with the Jaindl Spring Creek Properties rezoning for preservation initiatives to offset the loss of protected open space. All together this would roughly generate 500,000 dollars.

The unfortunate rezoning of the “Jaindl property” resulted in the loss of 700 acres of previously protected farmland in the western portion of the township.

It makes sense to save one time money associated with the sales of subdivided lots within Jaindl Spring Creek properties to offset the loss of previously protected open space by permanently preserving other parcels elsewhere. Smart growth and preservation initiatives are supported by a majority of residents. This is based on elections, polling & surveys. It’s also reinforced by multiple adopted and pending comprehensive planning documents including smart growth and parks & recreation comp plan. Moving forward this is the best way to fund that initiative. The time to do it is now.

Banking this money moving forward gives us the flexibility to debate it’s precise application for a variety of types of open space projects including:

  • Farmland protection via easement
  • Acquisition for park expansion
  • Critical future greenway connections

My preference is easements on currently farmed properties with a focus on those with the highest residential development potential. This kind of preservation is the best way to keep taxes sustainably low over the long term by reducing the need for more services and infrastructure. It’s well documented that over the long run residential subdivisions do not generate enough revenue to mitigate new liabilities.That strategy is my preference but all these can be debated and considered over the next year. 

Today the township has an unfunded farmland preservation initiative. With the exception of Commissioner Lancsek who is openly opposed to preservation efforts, all Commissioners are on record stating preservation is an important goal. Each year that we do not actively pursue preservation we lose out on thousands of dollars of matching county funding which could go away at any point. The township has in the past been proactive. In 2007 supervisors unanimously passed an Act 4 ordinance allowing for the exemption of millage increases on preserved properties. This is a very powerful incentive that has been under promoted by the township since 2010.

Across the Valley communities are making preservation a priority but LMT lags severely behind. This despite our availability of parcels worth preserving and public support.

At the mtg last night Commissioner Brown supported the open space preservation “lock box” concept. This likely gives me a second to make a motion to formally propose the concept at the Nov. 6th BOC meeting. The initiative is also supported by the township EAC.

Jim Lancsek opposed. Commissioner Higgins and Conrad did not comment.  It’s time to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk with open space preservation.

 

EAC's 10/21 letter regarding open space preservation funding

EAC’s 10/21 letter regarding open space preservation funding

 

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

 

Wehr Dam – South Whitehall Township

I’ve been following this issue with interest over the last couple months. Primarily through “Molovinsky on Allentown“. The blog’s author Mike Molovinsky is a state house candidate running as an independent in the 183rd. Mr. Molovinsky has long been a champion of preserving Allentown Parkways historic WPA structures. Here his focus turns west to South Whitehall Township.

The Dam and Bridge are visually linked as the centerpiece of South Whitehalls flagship park.

The Dam and Bridge are visually linked as the centerpiece of South Whitehalls flagship park.

First, generally I support Dam removals. There are numerous environmental reasons and rationales. I also think historic preservation is important. So here, in this unique case we have competing historic and environmental arguments. Both things I’m concerned with. In this case I think the dam’s aesthetic and historic significance trumps the environmental concerns.

Like covered bridges, Mill dams are a part of our history. As Mike points out, we don’t build em anymore. Our area once had many. Some have been removed and more are likely to be. If there is one case for a single century old dam to be preserved I think that case can and should be made at Wehr.

I spend a good amount of time in this park since it has one of the areas best novice disc golf courses. I play it a couple times a year. So I’m familiar with it. I for one would definitely miss the dam since it’s clearly visually linked to the covered bridge as the centerpiece of this beautiful park.

Wildlands has stated the dam is neither historic nor aesthetic. As a general supporter of the wildlands and the work they do, I feel compelled to call them out on that statement. Seems a little insincere. Wildlands does important work. But I’m sorry, No one goes to that park without focusing their eyes on that Dam and Bridge. 

I do acknowledge the scientific arguments. But believe use of a little common sense in this unique case dictates recognizing that this dam/bridge combo is unique. Basically, there are lots more dams for the Wildlands to remove. Let’s keep at least one in the name of historic preservation.