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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Thoughts from Lehigh Valley Developer Symposium

Nice event today at Desales. Great work by the organizers. 3 presentations of note. First on economic forecasting, another about the large projects going on in the valley, (Criz, Niz & Chrin) and lastly what I was really interested in was current real estate development trends. #LVBRES

#LowerMacungie was mentioned in the final 1 hour presentation no less then a dozen times due to our explosive growth in the area of Industrial distribution warehouses. One of the panelists was Mr. David Jaindl of the Jaindl Land Development Co. The panel was moderated by Don Cunningham of LVEDC.

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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.

Act 111 reform is needed in Pennsylvania

Last night, the Lower Macungie Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted unanimously to continue with Pennsylvania State Police (PSP) as our primary police provider. This decision came after conducting a comprehensive crime study. Results show we have the 7th lowest crime rate of Pennsylvania’s 35 largest townships. Our rate is 1/3 of Lehigh County’s average.

We have the luxury of basing a decision on data. We’re statistically a safe community and PSP does an outstanding job. Someday however, our community will have to address the method by which we secure coverage. This will happen either when A. crime data rises or B. state requires municipalities pay for PSP. This may happen in 5 years or it may happen in 20 years. No one knows.

Understanding some day we’ll face this decision we must consider all the factors involved. One of those factors is efforts to reform Act 111. Act 111 outlines how municipalities are required to negotiate legacy costs that make local police/fire departments financially unsustainable. 41 percent of Pennsylvania’s population live in municipalities facing fiscal distress. Local police/fire services are the single biggest cost item in many local budgets.

Act 111 arbitration awards contribute to escalating costs by handcuffing local governments. The act requires unions and municipalities to engage in binding arbitration during contract disputes. While the intent is good, the mechanism is 45 years old and needs reform. Act 111 gives unions unfair advantages – reaping large settlements that cost us all.

Until reforms are addressed as one member of the 5 person BOC I am wary about taking Lower Macungie down a path where issues like this are front and center where unelected outside arbitrators have so much power. Someday we’re going to have to address the potential of a local force. Until then it’s a concern that we don’t enter the township into a flawed system 

Here are two examples where Act 111 has led to financial stress and tax increases:

1. In 2013 after a 19 month Act 111 process paid for by Borough taxpayers, an unelected “neutral” arbitrator with no ties to the community rendered a ruling that forced Chambersburg to hike taxes. Here, Act 111 prohibited a locally elected council from managing their paid fire department in the best interests of their residents.  Read more here: From town council to the citizens of Chambersburg Borough.

2. Last year Bristol Twp. was forced into Act 111 Arbitration seeking relief from $85.8 Million in unfunded liabilities including $77 Million in Post-Retirement Health obligations. Bristol received nothing from an unelected arbitrator to help reduce crippling legacy costs. The union was awarded 4% and 3.5% raises. Today the township has 10 less Police officers than it did in 2012. Unfunded liabilities have now increased to $91 Million. The can was kicked down the road and the underlying issues were left.

Act 111 has serious consequences for communities. It removes what should be exclusively local decisions from residents and their elected officials. The system requires municipalities to negotiate in good faith but unions don’t. Everyone wants to see fire and police professionals treated fairly. The intent of Act 111 is good, but as it stands today it’s a 45-year-old outdated law in desperate need of modernization.

There are those seeking fair reform of Act 111. I support these efforts. Our State Senator Pat Browne (R) 16 is one of them signing on as a co-sponsor of SB 1111. The bill was crafted by Sen. John Eichelberger, (R) Blair, chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee.

Senator Browne addressed his position in a statement:After 45 years, it is appropriate that the General Assembly take a comprehensive look at the local government collective bargaining process to ensure it strikes the proper balance between the rights of our important municipal police and firefighters and the taxpaying public,” Senator Pat Browne said. “We should ensure that when labor contract decisions are taken out of the hands of local elected officials and placed in arbitration that the process maximizes transparency and thoroughly considers the implications that any prospective reward will have on both municipal financial sustainability and public safety employment attraction/retention.

This is a large part of what SB 1111 addresses. Highlights of SB 1111 reforms include:

  • Penalize either party for failing to engage in good faith bargaining;
  • Must show ability to pay through justification and consideration of new costs;
  • Start arbitrator selection process between both parties by coin toss;
  • Expand the list from which a neutral arbitrator is selected from 3 to 7;
  • Require the cost of arbitration be shared equally between both parties;
  • Codify the avenues of appeal of an award by either side.
  • Require evidentiary hearings to be open to the public (sunshine law);
  • Prohibit post-retirement health care and pension benefits from being subjects of collective bargaining.

These reforms will inject much needed fairness into the Act. 111 process.

As an elected local municipal official I often have to deal with mandates that take away our ability to make the right decisions for residents of Lower Macungie. I believe that Act 111 reform is essential. The effort currently has widespread bi-partisan support from municipal leaders, business leaders and community development organizations such as the Pennsylvania Economy League, Coalition for Sustainable Communities and the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Commissioners.

The Fed Ex Hub

Yesterday an article in the Morning Call was accompanied by a heartfelt video of residents opposing the mega-project. I’m familiar with these kinds of stories living in Lower Macungie, but I stop short of feeling bad for these folks in this particular case.

Let me re-phrase that. I do feel bad. Folks are hurting because their lives are going to change. Warehouses destroy surrounding neighborhoods. That’s reality. But I don’t feel bad in the same way as I do for residents of Lower Macungie who now face more warehousing in the western portion of our township.

There is a huge difference….. Why? 

In Allen Township land was earmarked for industrial development for years. The couple in the article purchased their home 2 years ago. When you buy a home near a highway in the northeast and your surrounded by farms the first thing you do is head to your local municipal building and check the surrounding zoning. Then you check the regional zoning and comprehensive planning. If it’s zoned Industrial, think long & hard about the investment your about to make.

Lower Macungie is different. Here I do feel for the residents who were screwed. And I’m sorry for that language but there simply isn’t a better word.

Why? The Jaindl property was zoned agriculture protected for well over 2 decades.

The warehouses are a direct result of wholesale rezoning.  For over 2 decades 700 acres of prime farmland was planned and zoned to be prime farmland. If you bought a house off of Mertztown Rd. or in Heritage Heights 10 years ago and did your due diligence researching surrounding land uses you would have found that your backyard was permanently protected.  In fact, preserved both through zoning and not one but two regional plans.

Property rights are a two way street. Yes, landowners have rights. But zoning protects your neighbors rights. Your neighbor can’t do things that affect your home value outside the scope of what’s allowed in zoning.

If you live in a residential neighborhood someone can’t decide to build a strip club next to you. Not without you knowing it’s a possibility. 

So yes, I do feel bad for the folks in Allen Township because their neighborhood is changing for the worse. But in the end, they should have known. They should have done the research. Here in LMT folks who did the research were screwed.

Local Govs owe it to residents to be up-front what the future holds for certain neighborhoods. People who bought homes in the western neighborhoods are not millionaires. They are everyday people who made the biggest investments of their lives. We owed it to them to protect that investment based on fair and reasonable expectations. Officials in LMT failed.

 

Allentown incinerator thoughts…

Proposed 48,000 square-foot waste to energy facility.

Proposed 48,000 square-foot waste to energy facility.

There is a school of thought that the Delta-Thermo trash incinerator deal is not only a bad deal for the city, but also a bad deal for all the suburban communities. This includes Lower Macungie, Macungie and Alburtis, who may pay a little bit more to send their wastewater to the city sewage treatment plant. Over the past year the deal has generated alot of opposition within the city but not as much outside even though the deal definitely will have some effect on suburban communities. (It’s how some believe that in Allentown this past Nov. an underfunded independent challenger did alot better than expected against a well funded incumbent Pawloski who has a ton of name recognition.)

The increased cost is because of LCA’s new obligations since leasing the Allentown Water and Sewer System. Since LCA provides sewer service to these communities, it’s safe to assume rate-payers will shoulder cost increases associated with the Allentown deal.

The city agreed to pay Delta-Thermo an exorbitant premium to burn the sewage sludge in the incinerator, which was necessary to make the incinerator project financially feasible. Now they passed on the costs of sludge disposal to LCA. Sludge is a byproduct of the sewage treatment plant. The city currently pays to dispose of sludge in landfills. When the Lehigh County Authority won the lease to operate the city’s water and sewage system, it also inherited the deal to sell the sludge to the new waste to energy incinerator.

This is more expensive and the LCA will pass on this extra cost.

So just remember when you finish your business you’re also helping Allentown’s Mayor and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful. Also worth a couple minutes to Google Marcel Groen. He is a Democratic kingmaker apparently who is an investor in the incinerator and also an advisor to the Mayor’ gubernatorial campaign. You’ll find some noteworthy connections.

 

How we make traditional development illegal.

Interested in stunting the re-development of a traditional Main St.? Do you want to make entrepreneurship prohibitively expensive? How do you ensure your Main St. is a ghost-town during prime business hours?

Set up more barriers! Make sure you institute arbitrary parking requirements and require them of all commercial land uses.

Take 5 minutes to watch this case study of a place called Surrey. (From Stroad to Boulevard blog). This really demonstrates the insanity of arbitrary parking requirements.

At 3:30 mark is it coincidence the devolution of Front street occurred with the institution of arbitrary offstreet parking standards?

Main St. Macungie, the downtown business district – 11am on a Tuesday.

Macungie Borough business district 11am on a Tuesday. Parking issues?

Interested in Smart Growth issues in the East Penn area? Friends “FriendsLMT” on facebook! An online smart growth resident association.

South Whitehall should be playing Quarterback with King George Inn Preservation effort

Regretfully I wasn’t able to attend the South Whitehall Township (SWT) Board of Commissioners meeting last night. Sounds like the budding resident group advocating to save the historic landmark had a large enthusiastic turnout.

King George Inn Supporters Implore South Whitehall Commissioners – Mcall

Few thoughts:

First, the board is correct to state they cannot stop the demolition. As I’ve written I don’t believe in strict compulsory regulation as the best path to save historic buildings. Regulations should only be utilized in the most compelling cases. I believe in incentives.

What SWT should be doing is making preservation the path of least resistance. No, Commissioners can’t stop the wrecking ball but they can work with the developer. They should be playing quarterback in the effort bringing parties to the table. They can and should stand with residents who overwhelmingly want to see this building saved. They should also stand behind their comprehensive plan which calls for historic preservation. They have the moral responsibility to do so.

Again, here is an example. – Lower Providence adaptive reuse project resulted in preservation and incorporation of historic structure into a new development.

Working with elected officials, township staff, county planning
commission, and local interest groups, a site design and
village commercial zoning were created to save and reuse
the historic inn and allow the construction of a new
CVS drugstore. The property’s location at a congested
intersection posed many design challenges. Additionally the site had significant drainage issues. (Sound familiar?)

I know the gentleman who was a director of community development in Lower Providence when a similar activist group formed to save the Audubon Inn. (pictured above) Like SWT he was ready to sign the demolition permit. After hearing concerns he and other officials began working directly with the developer, county planners and interest groups.

No, SWT officials cannot stop the wrecking ball but they do have the moral responsibility to play the quarterback role leading the charge for preservation. Additionally the Zoning Hearing Board needs to do it’s job and put the burden of proof on the developer who must prove he has explored all possibilities to build this project without variances. Variances should be the exception not the norm. Developer must show a hardship. Based on what I’ve heard from previous meetings, the developer has made zero effort to explore incorporating the building into the development plan. This alone is reason to deny the requested variances.

 

 

King George Inn Preservation Meeting Tonight

Those who support the preservation of the King George Inn are meeting tonight to discuss options to save the historic building which is on the national register of historic places. 

The meeting will take place at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum tonight at 6:30 PM . (Thursday)

Photo from Wikipedia

I had a chance to read the recently adopted (2009) South Whitehall Comprehensive plan this AM. While the South Whitehall zoning ordinance has no protections in place for historic structures, the South Whitehall comp plan encourages adoption of historic preservation protections. There is a whole 3 page section outlining a plan for protection of historic inventory.

There are four sites and structures in South Whitehall Township listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Dorneyville Crossroads of which the KGI is a part of is one along with the townships 2 covered bridges and Haines Mill.

A couple of the items outlined are mechanisms I favor for encouraging rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of historic structures. Remember we shouldnt be regulating protection but rather we should be streamlining the process to save buildings. Make it the path of least resistance.

The township created and adopted a great comprehensive plan. By adopting it they “bought into” the concepts laid out in it. Here is one of those moments for some followthrough. Is South Whitehall township another municipality that just goes through the motions of comprehensive planning or are they actually going to buy in and follow through.

 

Penndot makes Whitehall take down flower boxes

Busy Saturday but had to write about this quick. When I read this story about a month ago I thought it was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever read. Metro rips out phantom planters flowers at Dupont Circle.

Until this…

From Mcall story.

All Whitehall Township Mayor Ed Hozza wanted to do was add a splash of color to his township’s main retail corridor when he personally placed 12 flower planters in the median strip….
….The boxes of cannas, roses, yellow day lilies and climbing vines planted in the southern portion of the strip created a potential traffic hazard, PennDOT spokesman Ron Young said. The department told Hozza he had until Friday to move his garden.

I often cite the Macarthur Rd. strip wasteland as the absolute opposite STROADiest example of what I hope our commercial corridors do not evolve into here in LMT. It’s a fear that if LMT Commissioners continue to approve strip project after strip project it’ll lead to Hamilton Corridor becoming MacArthur Rd.

In Whitehall, we have Whitehall Mayor Ed Hozza Jr. spending his own money in an attempt to de-STROADify and beautify his community. The benefits include traffic calming, proper scaling and creating a gateway. It’s smart growth road diet treatment 101.

The safety argument presenting by penndot is so weak. “Young said the planters were blocking what’s supposed to be a “mountable curb.” Why? So if a distracted driver veers into the center we have a head on collision instead of a dinged planter?

What’s more frustrating is I drove past the planters a couple weeks ago. I loved them.  I almost stopped my car to pull over and take photos. Even made mental note to learn about how they got put out there. Then I read yesterday they are removed. I was going to post about them here on my blog as a nice example of “tactical urbanism“.

This represents why bloated bureaucracies that lack common sense are so problematic. The article mentions that people complained. That’s crazy. I’d be willing to bet this was angry curmudgeons who complained first about taxpayer money being spent before learning it was paid for by the Mayor.

Good read: Here is another take.

I plan on writing Mayor Hozza a thank you for his efforts to beautify the corridor. I definitely appreciated his efforts even if they ended up being temporary.