Lehigh Valley experts testify on PA bill addressing warehouse development
- Rep. Mike Schlossberg has proposed legislation that would require developers to conduct impact studies on major projects such as warehouses and truck stops
- Proponents testified local municipalities need stronger tools to steer development, especially when traffic and pollution cross municipal borders
- Opponents argued the legislation would make the Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania less competitive with other markets
HANOVER TOWNSHIP, Lehigh County, Pa. — As trucks clogged the region's arteries Wednesday afternoon, state lawmakers met at the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission to gather testimony on a bill intending to give municipalities more control over major land developments within their boundaries.
Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, has proposed a law that would require developers of high-impact projects to conduct impact studies on the surrounding areas. The intent of the bill is to give local governments more leverage in requesting developers limit the negative consequences of warehouses, truck stops and other large-scale developments. The studies would examine pollution, traffic and safety.
But even the legislation's backers acknowledged to the House's Local Government Committee that their effort to amend Pennsylvania's Municipal Planning Code needs to be improved. Language about what type of development would need to comply needs to be tightened; the bill is not meant to hamper most housing developments, for example.
"This legislation does need work. I love it, I think we need it, but it needs improvement," said Lehigh County Commissioner Geoff Brace, reading Schlossberg's prepared remarks. A family emergency prevented Schlossberg from attending, and Brace, Schlossberg's legislative assistant, spoke on his behalf.
Meanwhile, critics warned its current form would strangle economic growth with more regulations. Kristin Cahayla-Hoffman, vice president of business development and attraction at the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation, said that mandating developers of significant projects to conduct these studies would make the Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania less competitive with other markets.
"The governor wants to streamline permitting and move at the speed of business so that Pennsylvania can compete to win major projects and the jobs that come with them," Cahayla-Hoffman said, repeating a favorite talking point of Gov. Josh Shapiro. "[The bill] creates uncertainty. It puts more obstacles in the way of business."
Lehigh Valley growing pains
In Pennsylvania, property owners have great leeway in how they develop their properties so long as they fit within their municipality's zoning and planning laws. In most instances, municipalities must designate areas for every conceivable use; small boroughs need to zone for an airport and rural communities need to allow for high-density housing.
In the past 20 years, communities across the Lehigh Valley have often been caught off-guard when developers proposed warehouses, some 500,000 square feet or more in size. Not only have municipalities been required to approve the proposals when the development matches the zoning plan, but they often have limited options to demand the developers chip in to improve local infrastructure. That can entail widening local roads to accommodate the increase in truck traffic or purchasing fire equipment to respond to emergencies at these massive new facilities.
In normal scenarios, neighboring municipalities have even less say. While they miss out on the tax base that comes with the development, they often inherit the downsides such as truck traffic and stormwater flooding. The typical development proposal process leaves them with little to no standing to request infrastructure improvements.
Becky Bradley, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, said the region has adapted by creating multi-municipal comprehensive plans where local boroughs and townships band together and create a sort of regional zoning plan. By the end of the year, 39 of Lehigh and Northampton counties' 62 municipalities could be in multi-municipal comprehensive plans, giving them greater control over where things are built and how infrastructure is updated, she said. But that process can take years of planning and often requires hard-fought negotiations between elected officials from neighboring communities.
Even when these plans are in place, the Lehigh Valley is struggling to keep up with the strains of growth. Most local warehouse proposals are made without a tenant in place, so communities have to approve or reject the plans without a clear idea of what type of road, sewer, and emergency service improvements will be needed, Bradley said. Meanwhile, she noted, warehouse developers in the Lehigh Valley are earning $1.22 billion annually in industrial rents.
"With that kind of money to be made, having to provide a little more useful and relevant information is not going to cause a developer to walk away," Bradley said.
Many of those who testified acknowledged there was room for improvement in Pennsylvania's current municipal planning code but pointed out flaws in Schlossberg's proposal.
Charlie Schmehl of the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association said the legislation needs to tighten up its language about what qualifies as a significant development requiring a detailed analysis. As it stands, a group building a medium-sized church in a small borough would trigger the legislation.
Stacie Reidenbaugh, president of the land use advocacy group 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, noted the bill doesn't say who's qualified to conduct these studies, potentially inviting a host of other problems.
"I am all for this, but I think we need to be very thoughtful about how it is put in place," Reidenbaugh said.
But with the bill in need of work, it wasn't clear if it bill had enough advocates to clean it up and push it through a politically divided legislature. While warehouses and truck traffic are a hot-button issue that transcends partisan divides in the Lehigh Valley, that isn't a universal truth across Pennsylvania. Some experts testified that while regions like the Lehigh Valley are looking to limit warehouse growth, others would jump at the economic opportunities they would bring. A common suggestion was to make the legislation optional so communities that wanted to strengthen local authority could without forcing unwanted regulations on others.
"In our area, a bill like this wouldn't be as high [a priority] because I think our communities address this with farmland preservation," Rep. Brett Miller, R-Lancaster, said after the three-hour hearing. "Overall, I'm not sure commonwealth-wide what the appetite is, but I think there's interest."
"This is something that needs our attention, and this is a start," said Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Northampton, the committee chair. "As far as whether there's an appetite for this, I think it comes down to the quality of the product we as a committee might be able to report."