Post WW2 vs. traditional development patterns.

Lower Macungie has for far too long been heavily invested in the post WW2 development pattern. A pattern proven to lead to an inevitable outcome of decline.

I am interested in fostering an environment conducive to a more time tested and resilient traditional approach. This chart breaks the differences down:
Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 5.01.47 PM
We start by eliminating and rolling back arbitrary regulations that actually prevent, outright outlaw and deter more productive and higher value development.

The massive Spring Creek Properties development being constructed now is a classic post WW2 ponzi scheme development. Ultra large in scale. Infrastructure subsidized by massive taxpayer investments with no accounting for long term municipal liabilities. Ultra high risk. High impact. Dependent (So far) on 2 very large scale developers. Feedback upon buildout will be immediate and severe.

Although end of the day a more community friendly project because of a somewhat shared vision (although very much constrained from day 1) due to a genuinely conscientious developer Hamilton Crossings is still classic post WW2 ponzi scheme development. It took massive public subsidies and is therefore by nature very high risk and relatively low reward.

Moving forward we have to foster an environment where we can develop the Boulevard block by block with targeted relatively low cost investments. This represents incremental development on a manageable scale.

Creating value block by block looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 5.20.30 PM

Progressive eye institute is a low impact high value project on the Hamilton Corridor. An example of what the township needs to foster.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 5.39.33 PM

Assessments for calculating property taxes.

After a meeting where the township blindly took on another long term financial obligation to maintain a storm water basin with zero accounting of the real dollar costs…It’s clear the township needs to bring in a professional consultant who does lifecycle value per acre evaluation if we cannot do it consistently in house. We have to make officials responsible for choices they make by demonstrating clearly long term impact. My friend and former Commissioner Deana Zosky was the first and only person who talked about this kind of stuff in Lower Mac. Economic growth should build on a foundation of understanding the tax implications of differing choices. We do not have that foundation today and it was on full display last Thursday.

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 12.23.25 PM

As I write often here, we rarely don’t at all consider land uses in terms of the value/revenue vs. the financial liabilities the taxpayer assumes. The calculus often gets muddled since the school district would love for us to chase certain types of low value greenfield development since it’s “windfall” for them. To that end EPSD is about to sell a chunk of land for low value strip development off Lower Mac Rd. (in part we are to blame since our urban zone allows poor built form) End of the day though, can you blame the district? It’s a logical reaction to a broken system with systemic problems including but not limited to pensions, inconsistent state funding etc. Most of all however it’s the fact the municipality has to pay for municipal services. Not the district. These include roads, stormwater, public safety etc. The township takes on the obligation to provide all this. So with every low return greenfield development the district gets the unencumbered windfall but the township gets the long term financial liabilities. It very much is a rob Peter (township) to pay Paul (EPSD) scenario. Even bigger picture, the windfalls really amount to nothing more than band aids as long as we keep our heads buried in the sand and do not address underlying issues. (enter dog chasing tail visual) But back to topic. . .

Looking exclusively at municipal side. Municipal residential taxpayers are the ones who really get throttled in our system. It’s amplified when we do not account for lifecycle costs. The way we calculate assessed values is one more of many fundamental issues. Assessed value determines what your property tax burden is. In the system we have today there is a fundamental in-balance in terms of how much responsibility is shouldered vs. impacts created. 

Think about this for a second:

An average single family home in a subdivision in Lower Mac:
(used an average assessed house on wheatland dr. as example)
Square feet: 2,128
Assessment calculated at: $256,700
This means the homeowner pays about 120 dollars in assessed value per SF

Example of an existing warehouse in the township:
Square feet: 1,000,000
Assessment calculated at: $24,100,000
This equals 24 dollars in assessment per SF

So basically, a residential homeowner is paying 6X the tax liability per square ft vs. a warehouse. This is insane. A residential single family home maybe generates 4-6 car trips a day. Sits on maybe an acre of land. Compare to warehouses that generate massive public liabilities, create mind boggling amounts of traffic, huge amounts of storm water discharge, require super-sized – and massively expensive road improvements – and most disturbing each million plus warehouse churns up 60 acres of land. In Lower Mac’s case prime farmland. All while generating extremely low jobs and revenue per acre vs. other more community friendly neighborhood commercial uses.

The problem is an assessment calculation system that heavily weights market value as a determining factor. Market value has little to nothing to do with impact. Why should a homeowner be punished for adding a deck? Does that somehow increase the amount of traffic your home generates? The amount of stormwater? The kids you have in the district?

When you dig into this it’s maddening. It is a totally broken and backwards system where the highest liability land uses pay the least amount in taxes apples to apples in relation to the impacts they create. Road wear and tear. Stormwater run-off. Public responsibility to maintain infrastructure. Muni services. Again, this is top of mind since we just blindly took on a new storm water basin with ZERO information about long term costs. A stormwater basin that would have never existed in the first place had the township been able to maintain it’s growth boundaries of the 80’s. Now that we have it I’m interested in how we pay for it. That’s what this conversation is all about. What land uses shoulder the burden.

As I always ask: Whose subsidizing who?

It’s not just about fundamental in-balance. Again, in the current system if you take a dilapidated building and fix it up. Or start a business and consider converting to commercial. What happens? You get punished for it tax wise. But the greenfield developer who gobbles up huge amounts of land, requires new public infrastructure, creates very low jobs/acre and revenue/acre vs. other other massive liabilities. They get rewarded.

RELATED: Gaming the system makes it worse – Big Box stores ringing up property tax discounts.

There are very real underlying financial issues where the deck is stacked in favor of greenfield development and other stealth subsidies that drive sprawl. The way we calculate assessments is one aspect. We need to calculate assessment based on land + Impact. Not buildings or building improvements or building quality.


What is a complete street?

Recently I wrote a letter to Congressman Dent urging him to consider supporting the “Complete Streets Act of 2013”. (see below)

What is a complete street? Like many planning concepts it’s best described with photos!

Take this auto-centric roadway:

10 lane roadway without bike lanes, pedestrian crosswalks or signals, street trees, or ample buffer between the roadway and sidewalk. The roadway’s current design is not inviting or safe for pedestrians or bicyclists. Sure it has some token sidewalks which were probably a “feel good” effort to pay some lip service to walkability… but do you think people will actually walk this corridor?

Vs. this street below which accommodates cars and pedestrians

Complete Street example with on-street parking, striped bike lane, and sidewalk with buffers protecting the pedestrian from automobiles. Transit facilities are not provided since service does not occur along this corridor. Note the buildings are built with additional parking in the rear creating a pleasant environment both for cars and pedestrians. In this environment everyone wins whether you choose to walk, ride or drive.

Which of the above is a place you would rather take a stroll with your family to visit a restaurant of shop? We’re currently studying the Hamilton Corridor with the goal of making old 222 into more of a walkable “Main St.” concept. Which photograph above best represents what you would prefer Hamilton Boulevard to be in the future?

Too many of the roads in our country are designed solely with drivers in mind. The risks of such design are evident in the number of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths and injuries we see every year, and often discourage more people from considering other transportation methods.

More resources:

Smart Growth America – What are Complete Streets 

Tour of a “pedestrian friendly” diverging diamond – Designing via checklists and incorporating walkability as a “feel good” afterthought = complete failure. This is one of my absolutely favorite videos.

 My letter to Congressman Dent Re: Complete Streets Act 2013

Congressman Dent,
My name is Ron Beitler and I’m a constituent from Lower Macungie Twp. I’m writing to ask you to support The 2013 Safe Streets Act which is currently in committee.

Millions of Americans are walking, bicycling, and waiting for public transit along roads that are inadequate for their needs. These streets are incomplete – they lack sidewalks, safe space for pedestrians, and make little accommodation for people with disabilities. They hinder healthy, active lifestyles; limit transportation options; and lead to more hard earned money going to fill up the gas tank. Worse, they are often dangerous for everyone.

Currently, the notion of complete streets is a big part of Lower Macungie Townships smart growth planning. Our local Gov’t is currently undertaking comprehensive smart growth planning as well as specific corridor planning. (Hamilton Boulevard). The notion of building complete streets is a central theme in both exercises. Both initiatives have wide reaching public support.

Complete streets are also proven to be economic engines. When a street is accessible it becomes a magnet for commercial activity. Additionally traffic congestion costs us all money. As a proponent for Complete Streets I believe that as a community becomes safer, more attractive, and provide more transportation choices, local economies have a better chance of thriving and property values rise.

Thank you for your time.
Ron Beitler
5540 Lower Macungie Rd.


What is a walkable neighborhood?

In the coming months the LMT planning commission will take up the creation of a new mixed use ordinance. It’s my hope that this ordinance is firmly grounded in smart growth principle encouraging walk-able communities.

So what exactly does a “walk-able” neighborhood mean? This short 4 minute video is an excellent introduction to the concept.

The goal is to encourage pedestrian-centric vs. a typical automobile centric design. Think classic neighborhoods you can live, work and walk to many services.

We are a automobile society. Thats a fact that isn’t changing. But more often people are interested in having the option to walk. We have tons of “big box” commercial in the township with more on the way. And this is not bad inmoderation. Personally, I’m excited for Hamilton Crossings (Target)! This won’t be typical “big box.” Our planners did a great job ensuring the character is more “lifestyle center.” But the point is, we’re approaching the tipping point of “the right mix.”

Do we want the “right mix” or do we want to become MacArthur Road? This mixed use ordinance can be a big part of our future. Here are the basic principles that make a neighborhood walk-able:

  • A complimentary mix of uses that integrate with one another. This is essential and includes not only a mix across the parcel but mixed use buildings. Think “Main st. USA” vs. sprawl. The goal is matching the character of historic villages and borough’s creating a pleasant live-able community.
  • Encouraging walk-able streetscapes and complete streets. In newer suburbs likes ours it’s difficult to walk from place to place. Pedestrians who attempt to are forced to dodge cars and walk through parking lots. To create a friendlier, attractive, more walkable landscape, a mixed use district requires small-scale commercial buildings with frontage facing streets. Additionaly, garages and parking areas must be located to the side and rear. Also streets must be deisgned to be complete. We’re currently participating in a study of the rt. 222 corridor on how to make it a more “complete street,” featuring walk-able characteristics. Sara Paindl (Lower Macungie Director of Planning) and our planners deserve much praise for facilitating this!
  • Central open space providing active recreation areas, focal points for the community, and saving environmental features. A good mixed use district should requires at least 20 percent open space, preferably located centrally, in village greens and other types of central open space.

Ask yourself a simple question. What do you want LMT to be? Like every other sprawling area or do you want it to be exceptional? I grew up here. Long gone in many parts of the township is the rural character I grew up with and loved. I’ll fight to preserve what can and should be preserved. (Jaindl and warehouses)  But I’m equally excited for what has to be developed to be done so in an planned way.

The great thing about this sort of planning is it is not theoretical. It’s being successfully developed nearby. Here are a few great local examples:

Woodmont, Lower Moreland – Montgomery County – 49 acre tract
Sunnybrook Village, Lower Pottsgrove – Montgomery County – 52 acre tract

Storm water is treated at new Penns Meadow Basin


Map of the Stormwater Basin at Saurkraut and Willow!

Ever wonder what’s going on with the stormwater area at Willow and Saurkraut lanes where the trees were planted and ponds created? Most recently some final touches have been added with the installation of mulch paths.

This project represents a complete conversion of previous ‘dry’ detention basin into a ‘wet’treatment basin. Wet basins are artificial ponds with vegetation around the perimeter.

Dry basins do not do a very good job of treating stormwater. They only  temporarily store the water after it rains and eventually discharge the bulk of the flow into the Little Lehigh.

‘Wet ponds’ have two main benefits.

They are much more effective at slowing flow (decreasing flooding) and filtering pollutants. In addition, there are also long term savings in maintenance. The basin is only mowed once a year to prevent trees and shrubs from establishing in the areas intended to be meadows. The upper portion of the project has been planted with 150 native trees to create two woodland areas.

The whole project has a path system where students from Willow Lane Elementary School can learn about ecology in a living classroom. The retrofitted basin becomes a park-like setting and woodland for habitat and passive recreation whereas dry basins are large sterile areas often fenced off needing mowing throughout the summer and often treated with herbicides.

Here is a brief description of the system that was installed at Penns Meadow: (see picture)

There are three points where stormwater from Penns Meadow flows into the basin. Through various systems this water is filtered and the flow rate slowed.

For example, from the second input water flows into a forebay and then through a constructed wetland area and finally to the wet pond. The entire basin is fitted with an impermeable liner so unless there is a major storm event, all water that enters the basin is either is used by vegetation or evaporates. Only in extreme rain events does water flow to the Little Lehigh and even in these cases it is better filtered and slowed then in dry basins.

This is a fantastic and much needed project in our township. The Environmental Action Council would like to see more retrofits of sterile dry basins. In the upcoming review of our comprehensive plan the BOC and planning commission need to incorporate more best management practices for future developments instead of large sterile basins that require mowing and herbicides.

Smart Growth Alternative to Warehouses on Prime Farmland

I’m outspoken in my criticism of the township supporting warehouse development.

My reasons are many. This type of development represents more unsustainable growth for our suburban township. It affects our quality of life (tractor trailer traffic on local residential roads not designed to handle it), and it’s the least environmentally friendly development possible considering paving over of regionally significant farmland.

I’ve been asked before a very valid question. If not here then where? Came across an article today that shows in practice what has been my reponse. We have significant brownfields locally. The old Mack Truck plant in Allentown and remaining Steel property in Bethlehem are examples.This is where distribution centers and warehouses belong. What’s best for the region? Not what puts the most money in certain developers pockets.

A great example of Brownfield redevelopment locally, the planned Majestic distribution hub located near the Hellertown exit of Rt. 78 is an excellent example of where this type of development should be encouraged. This is a great project for not only Bethlehem but the entire region.


Majestic Distribution Hub – 800,000 foot facility on undeveloped former Bethlehem Steel property. This area has existing infrastructure already well on the way to being able to handle increased truck traffic.

Some of the major benefits of building on this existing brownfield:

  • Adaptive reuse of a former industrial facility from a previous era. Great example of smart growth principle in practice.
  • The ideal location next to the intermodel cuts down on drayage.
  • Direct access to I-78.
  • The building will have LEED & US-EPA Smartway Transport Design certification.
  • Direct accessibility and access to labor. This is where jobs are needed!
    • According to the NJ Institute of Technology, executives interviewed note increasing difficulties in recruiting and retaining workforces for facilities. Brownfield sites provide better access to labor markets because of location. Brownfield sites tend to be located in more developed, urbanized locations, with greater access to the region’s transit system and labor pools