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Local zoning practices squandering farmland,
creating sprawl

Hazleton Standard-Speaker
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

By Thomas Hylton

Pennsylvania is the national leader in farmland preservation through the purchase of development rights, protecting more than 4,000 farms and 435,000 acres of agricultural land.   In Luzerne County, 22 farms have been preserved at a cost of nearly $6 million.

Yet this ambitious program, which started nearly 25 years ago and has cost about $1 billion, protects just 6 percent of the state’s farmland, including about a third of Luzerne’s agricultural land. 

Now, funding for farmland preservation is drying up because of the economy.  With the state facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit next year, it is unlikely we’ll have generous funding in the future as we have in the past.

Clearly, we must find other ways to preserve our farmland – and that is by changing our development patterns. Although Routes 80 and 81 have opened the door to development in lower Luzerne County, it is not growth that threatens farmland in its two valleys, but rather the density and location of development.

Last week, municipal leaders representing townships and boroughs in lower Luzerne County discussed ways community planning and design can preserve farmland at a conference called “Your Town: Lower Luzerne County.”  As keynote speaker, I suggested that the best way to protect farmland is to rediscover the merits of traditional towns.

In recent decades, many people have aspired to live on a large lot in the open countryside and drive over uncongested roads to stores, schools, and workplaces.  Such a dream is possible only when a small number of people try to live it.  When the masses move into the countryside, it loses the very qualities – beauty, solitude, tranquility – that make rural life desirable.

Unfortunately, the townships in lower Luzerne currently try to protect open space by requiring a minimum lot size of two or three acres.  Such zoning encourages sprawl, rather than discouraging it, by allowing a small number of houses to break up and fragment huge amounts of tillable land.

True agricultural zoning, as used in Lancaster and York counties, requires a minimum lot size of 20 acres or a sliding scale that might allow four or five houses on a 100-acre farm, with each house situated on the least productive soils on a lot of no more than an acre.

To complement their agricultural zoning, Lancaster and York also promote growth boundaries to define areas where development is desired.  Even large amounts of residential and commercial growth can be comfortably accommodated if it comes in the form of villages and boroughs like Conyngham, Nescopeck, and Freeland.  Through municipal cooperation and good design standards, these boroughs can be attractive places to live and work, while keeping the great outdoors close at hand for their residents.

I’ve lived in downtown Pottstown, a town roughly the size of Hazleton, for nearly 40 years.  Much of what I need to do is within walking distance – the pharmacy, the bank, a small grocery store, the post office, and the newspaper where I worked for 22 years.

Four years ago, a greenway along the Schuylkill River was completed which gives me a direct connection to the farms and forests outside our town.  Pristine farm fields, woods, and river views are now just a 30-minute bicycle ride away.
Nearly every town in lower Luzerne can potentially offer similar advantages.

After decades of sprawling, Pennsylvanians are starting to rethink their lifestyles.  Low density development is costly for government, the environment, and individuals.  We barely have money to maintain our current highways, much less build new ones.  Tailpipe emissions contribute to global warming, and superabundant parking lots intensify stormwater runoff.  As energy costs increase, big houses and constant driving are no longer affordable.  The baby boomer generation – 77 million strong – is now starting to retire and looking for communities where others are close by.    

Traditional towns have been around for thousands of years for good reason – they are practical, affordable -- and the only way, long-term, we can protect our farms and forests.



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