'Environmental injustice in plain sight': Lower Saucon officials rezone farmland, allow landfills
- Lower Saucon Township Council on Wednesday approved rezoning 275 acres of farmland for light industrial use
- The ordinance involved would allow landfill use as a permitted right, instead of a special exception
- Many residents are outraged, while the majority of the council says it's a fiscally responsible decision
LOWER SAUCON TWP., Pa. — Lower Saucon Township Council is making moves to increase the size of the Bethlehem Landfill, even after hours of heated deliberation at Wednesday's public hearing.
During a meeting that went almost seven hours, the panel voted 3-2, approving a proposal that would rezone 275.7 acres across seven parcels of farmland near the Bethlehem Landfill from Rural Agricultural to Light Industrial. This specific ordinance would allow landfills as a permitted use on the properties, as opposed to a special exception use typically required through the township zoning hearing board.
Council President Jason Banonis, along with Vice President Mark Inglis and member Thomas Carocci supported the ordinance. Council members Priscilla deLeon and Sandra Yerger voted against the motion.
Lower Saucon planners also supported the ordinance during last week's meeting.
Considering the landfill’s location at 2335 Applebutter Road, the rezoned land would include areas to the north of Applebutter Road, east and southeast of the Steel City village, south of the Lehigh River, and to the west of the Route 33-78 intersection.
This motion would also remove site plan requirements for any further expansion of the dump on these parcels but would require state Department of Environmental Protection approval and provisions through a natural resources mitigation alternative plan. Officials said a fee could be paid in lieu of this if a developer wasn't able to dedicate appropriate land elsewhere in the township.
Revised host agreement, conservation easements
A 4-1 vote approved a revised host agreement between the township and landfill, which stated that if a Phase V expansion was ever approved, it would bring an increase in the host fee from $6.90 to $11 per ton of municipal waste, as well as a bump from $9.97 to $13.57 per ton of residual waste.
The agreement also offers a property value protection program, a 3% fee to the township on gross revenue from sales of methane gas, spring and fall cleanup opportunities for residents to take their own trash to the dump at no cost, and even the chance to lease the closed landfill area for municipal purposes.
Council member deLeon voted against the motion.
“What those two properties have on them now is a document recorded against them that is referred to in the title as a ‘scenic conservation easement.' But in the body of those documents, the prohibition basically is those two properties are prohibited from having landfills activities conducted upon them.”Lower Saucon Township Solicitor B. Lincoln Treadwell Jr.
Another 4-1 vote approved the lifting of landfill restrictions on the 197 acres at the Redington and Helms tracts currently owned by the dump, as well as the placement of conservation easements across a different 193 acres and 13 other properties nearby as a result. DeLeon disapproved of this motion.
“What those two properties have on them now is a document recorded against them that is referred to in the title as a ‘scenic conservation easement,’” Township Solicitor B. Lincoln Treadwell Jr. said. “But in the body of those documents, the prohibition basically is those two properties are prohibited from having landfill activities conducted upon them.”
The council also designated Township Manager Mark Hudson to look into a third-party enforcement agent for help in protecting the parcels. Treadwell said this wasn’t an option under the original Redington and Helms easements put in place back almost 30 years ago.
DeLeon voted against the motion.
Recent news from the landfill
The Bethlehem Landfill Co. sent out a press release Tuesday evening that said the potential Phase V expansion would include a smaller disposal footprint than previously planned, going from about 117 acres to around 86.
"Our commitment to the community remains steadfast. We recognize the importance of minimizing our environmental impact while fulfilling our commitment as a trusted neighbor."Landfill spokesperson Amanda Moley, in a Tuesday news release
The release also states the area would be further from the Lehigh River and Bull Run, following feedback from the community and further expansion investigation efforts.
"Our commitment to the community remains steadfast," spokesperson Amanda Moley said in the release. "We recognize the importance of minimizing our environmental impact while fulfilling our commitment as a trusted neighbor."
'Facts vs. Speculation'
Banonis offered a “Facts vs. Speculation” slideshow to address points he said he’s heard during months of the rezoning and expansion discussion.
Banonis said the proposed rezoning and potential expansion of the landfill would be a key way to keep taxes down in the township, saying the dump provides 30% of the budget each year. He said that came out to $2.6 million last year, making it the second-highest revenue source behind the Earned Income Tax.
“The landfill is a very significant source of recurring annual revenue to the township; its importance to the township speaks for itself. The costs that we have in running this township are not going to decrease.”Lower Saucon Township Council President Jason Banonis
Later he said the township police force makes for the largest expense item in the budget, calling for $2.5 million. He said if the landfill stopped pulling in cash, it would put the township in a $5 million swing and raise taxes considerably.
“The landfill is a very significant source of recurring annual revenue to the township; its importance to the township speaks for itself,” Banonis said. “The costs that we have in running this township are not going to decrease.”
Commenting on landfill matters, Banonis added that the dump is inspected weekly by DEP and the township post municipal inspector, calling for around five times per month on average. He said the inspection checklists feature around 200 items.
“I also continue to have confidence that DEP will provide the appropriate oversight for any potential expansion, any possible harms associated with the construction and operation of the landfill,” Banonis said.
With a recent civil suit hitting the township and dump on behalf of eight Lower Saucon residents, Banonis said he’s “not afraid of litigation.”
“We cannot choose when people choose to sue us,” he said. “We can only choose how to defend against these frivolous claims.”
He said the council’s position in all of these situations is a tough one, and they can’t satisfy everybody but must move forward in a positive way for the township. Some audience members had begun crying at one point in the meeting.
“We see the pain and we see the hurt. But we also see the misinformation, the propaganda and the politicization of these issues."Lower Saucon Township Council President Jason Banonis
“We see the pain and we see the hurt,” Banonis said. “But we also see the misinformation, the propaganda and the politicization of these issues.
“And that’s really unfortunate, because this is what divides us as a community.”
After a question from the audience about campaign financing during the previous council election, Banonis said his campaign received no money on behalf of landfill officials. He said he would “swear on a Bible” of that being the case.
Other comments from the panel
Council Vice President Mark Inglis said there are others in the township who felt the opposite of the mass dissent usually flocking to the meetings.
Audience members then shouted, wondering where those people were if not at the meeting.
“They don’t choose to come, for better or worse,” Inglis said. “And I think you’re naïve to think there was nobody that supports this.”
“This is a devastating abuse of land entrusted to council by the voters,” deLeon said. “ … In my opinion, we are a laughingstock, not only in our community, but in the Lehigh Valley and Saucon Valley areas.”
She then referenced the recommendations against the land rezoning from a recent meeting of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. Council member Carocci said LVPC is just a recommending body and has no legal authority over the township’s decisions.
Carocci later referenced LVPC, saying the entity has shared an outlook that has called for “a lot more housing, a lot more traffic and a lot more trash.” He said the people speaking against the rezoning and landfill expansion aren’t environmentalists, they’d just rather have the garbage go somewhere else.
Robert Blasko, a township resident who’s also part of the recent litigation against Lower Saucon and Bethlehem Landfill, said the revised host agreement wasn’t in the township’s best interests.
“This host agreement is exactly what it says: The landfill is the parasite, and we are the host,” Blasko said.
Maia Simon, another local, said the changes to the conservation easements should be placed as a referendum on the upcoming ballot.
Simon also said the majority of the public comment was contrary to what the council was looking to do, based on past votes. She left the podium with three words: “Appearance. Of. Corruption.”
“If you vote to rezone this landscape to Light Industrial, you’re voting to destroy it."Dru Germanoski, Lower Saucon resident and Environmental Advisory Council member
Dru Germanoski, Lower Saucon Environmental Advisory Council member and Lafayette College geology and environmental geosciences professor, spoke more on the township’s forested slopes, streams, rocks, ridges and other open space landscape features.
“If you vote to rezone this landscape to Light Industrial, you’re voting to destroy it,” Germanoski said. “You’re voting to remove its hydrological function which recharges aquifers which feed the Lehigh River and Bull Run.
“You’re destroying the wildlife habitat that thrives in that landscape.”
Township local Andrea Wittchen said the vote would be “exacerbating environmental injustice in plain sight,” citing Chapter 1, Section 27 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:
“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.”
“We have stood in front of you time and time again. We have presented every fact involved with destruction of the land and our environment. We have shown you again and again our emotional attachment and despair. But you have shown us that you don’t care. You don’t care how many residents’ lives you ruin, both physically, emotionally and financially.”Ginger Petrie, Lower Saucon Township resident
Ginger Petrie, a property owner living on property abutting some of the recently rezoned parcels, echoed previous sentiments about the council seeking monetary gain. If an even larger proposal as presented and discussed back in June was to later go through, her parcels could be affected even more directly.
“We have stood in front of you time and time again,” she said. “We have presented every fact involved with destruction of the land and our environment."
“We have shown you again and again our emotional attachment and despair. But you have shown us that you don’t care. You don’t care how many residents’ lives you ruin, both physically, emotionally and financially.”