Valley can't afford another 20 years of sprawling development
Allentown Morning Call
Sunday, March 24, 2013
By Thomas Hylton
Facing challenging economic times, the Lehigh Valley is trying to encourage development by subsidizing it in all directions. This is short-sighted and unsustainable. Growth is good, but only in the right places.
Fifteen years ago, after Bethlehem Steel shut down, Northampton County invested millions of dollars in a new road and other infrastructure improvements to create a business park on a remote part of the 1,800-acre steel complex. Tax incentives were offered by the city .
Shortly thereafter, another public subsidy technique, Tax Increment Financing, was employed to help develop another 160 acres of former Bethlehem Steel land adjacent to the Fahy and Minsi Trail bridges. The TIF land has since become home to the Sands Casino Resort complex and the SteelStacks cultural arts center.
Redeveloping vacant and underutilized land in the heart of traditional towns is smart growth. Smart growth increases the vibrancy and appeal of established towns. It promotes health by making it possible for people to walk. It reduces the need for costly new infrastructure, and it protects open space.
But now Tax Increment Financing is being used to build a $40 million interchange on Route 33 at Main Street in Palmer Township, which will open about 700 acres of pristine farmland for development.
An interchange already exists on Route 33 just two miles south of the new one, in Lower Nazareth Township. There’s plenty of farmland adjacent to this interchange also, but 650 acres of it, comprising seven farms, can’t be developed because Northampton County previously bought the development rights as part of its farmland preservation program. In fact, taxpayers have spent more than $51 million during the last 25 years to preserve Northampton farmland.
To be viable over the long term, farmland should be massed together in contiguous areas isolated from development, not surrounded by it. So what does Northampton County want? Farmland preservation or farmland development? Tax dollars are working at cross purposes.
Meanwhile, Lehigh County has contradictory development issues of its own. Three years ago, a special law allowed Allentown to create a 127-acre Neighborhood Improvement Zone in the downtown and along the nearby Lehigh River. A variety of state and local taxes paid within the zone will subsidize new development there. Plans include a minor league hockey arena, a hotel, office buildings, retail, and apartments.
Last December, construction began on a $46 million bridge over the Lehigh River that will provide a direct link from Route 22 into downtown Allentown via the American Parkway. The parkway will also connect to a proposed 26-acre office, residential and retail complex along the river in the Neighborhood Improvement Zone called The Waterfront.
All this is more smart growth, encouraging walkable lifestyles, maximizing existing infrastructure, recycling land.
But now Tax Increment Financing is proposed to support a $115 million, car-dependent shopping center along Route 222 in sprawling Lower Macungie. Five miles to the west, on the fringe of Lehigh County’s developed area, businessman David Jaindl proposes to build warehouses, homes and businesses on about 700 acres of farmland. He’s not asking for a taxpayer subsidy, but he did persuade the Lower Macungie commissioners to rezone the land from agricultural preservation so he could build on it. This is in a county that has spent more than $65 million in recent decades to preserve farmland.
Developers can be expected to propose projects anywhere the market might support them, but the government shouldn’t be giving handouts and zoning changes to create more sprawl.
At present, a consortium of nine regional organizations is in the midst of a $3.4 million, three-year effort called Envision Lehigh Valley to plan how the area should grow over the next 20 years. About 145,000 new residents are expected. They can be the catalyst for the revitalization of the valley’s cities and towns, or they can fuel more car-dependent, land-consumptive development.
The Lehigh Valley can’t afford 20 more years of sprawl. Concerned citizens should visit www.envisionlehighvalley.org to learn how they can help promote sensible, sustainable development.