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Central Pennsylvania's future hinges on Smart Growth

Harrisburg Sunday Patriot News
Sunday, September 25, 2011

By Thomas Hylton

Last year, the Derry Township supervisors voted unanimously to revise the township’s 20-year-old comprehensive plan to follow the principles of Smart Growth.  There’s no time to lose.

Recent flooding in Derry and elsewhere in central Pennsylvania, the worst on record, makes Smart Growth more urgent than ever.  Decades of auto-dependent development has created huge amounts of impervious surface for roads and parking lots, significantly increasing the amount of runoff in storms, which then overloads streams and the Susquehanna River.

Flooding is just one unintended consequence of sprawling development, which randomly scatters housing subdivisions, shopping malls, and corporate offices over the landscape, forcing people to drive everywhere.  Smart Growth, which weaves houses, stores, and offices together seamlessly in compact communities, encourages people to walk or take public transportation to at least some of their destinations.  This promotes healthy exercise and reduces the need for new roads and parking lots. 

No one practiced Smart Growth more thoughtfully than central Pennsylvania’s most revered figure, Milton Hershey. To support his chocolate factory, Hershey developed a beautifully landscaped town within Derry that placed all the elements of daily life on less than a square mile.

Hershey employees could easily walk to the factory, to downtown stores, a community center, library, and hospital.  Children could walk to the public school.  Workers’ houses were built in close proximity to those of company executives.  The rest of Derry Township remained undisturbed farmland.  For employees living outside the town, Hershey built a trolley system to Palmyra, Hummelstown, and Elizabethtown. 

A few decades after Milton Hershey’s death, as development pressure grew with the opening of the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, the township adopted the kind of conventional zoning that prevailed nationwide after World War II.

Derry Township was carved into separate zones for houses, shopping centers, factories, offices, and the medical center.  Each “pod” of development was connected only to the nearest existing road.  This development pattern now covers a wide area of the township.

If Derry adopts a Smart Growth plan, what might be some of its elements?  First, the township should discourage further development on virgin land.  For example, Boulder, Colorado, has created a “greenbelt” surrounding the city of permanently protected open space through a combination of zoning and the purchase of development rights.

Likewise, Derry could create its own greenbelt in cooperation with the Hershey Trust, which controls the 2,600-acre Milton Hershey School and most of the other open land in the township.  With its open fields preserved, Derry could focus on more efficient and creative use of the land in and around the town of Hershey. 

The redevelopment of the original chocolate factory, to be vacated next year, provides a golden opportunity to restore Chocolate Avenue as the vibrant pedestrian thoroughfare it was in Milton Hershey’s day.  Repurposing the factory for retail, residential, and offices use, while reconfiguring Chocolate Avenue to a pedestrian scale, could help make Hershey more self-contained and attractive for the people who live, work, and visit the town.

Landscaping is an essential element of Smart Growth.  Soon, Derry Township will begin several bricks-and-mortar projects to carry more stormwater away.  But the most sustainable way to reduce runoff is simply replacing excessive asphalt with vegetation and creating a green canopy over developed areas.  One mature shade tree can reduce stormwater runoff by more than 1,000 gallons per year and provide the cooling power of several large air conditioners. 

Derry’s numerous parking lots can be transformed through the creative use of trees.  The footprint of even a huge tree seldom exceeds five square feet, but its trunk can rise up five stories and unfurl a canopy the breadth of a house.  Trees can be distributed throughout parking lots to leave plenty of room for cars at ground level and plenty of shade overhead.

Parking lots were less abundant in Milton Hershey’s day, but he did take care to plant large shade trees along every street in his town.   Only a few such trees remain.  A comprehensive tree replanting program could provide a “green roof” over Hershey and pay for itself many times over.

Derry’s road network is well established, but new pedestrian and bicycle pathways can be created by expanding the township’s magnificent trail system.  The Jonathan Eshenour Memorial Trail, now viewed as a recreational amenity, stretches 14 miles from the southwest corner of the township to Palmdale on Derry’s eastern border.  With a few new linkages, it could serve as a transportation corridor connecting most Derry housing subdivisions with the town of Hershey and the medical center.  Eventually, every Derry resident could be networked within a 30- to 40-minute bicycle ride, maximum, of the medical center, the town, and public schools.

Traditional towns like Hershey are called “heart-healthy” communities because they provide an environment that encourages walking and bicycling.  These positive elements need to be extended to every part of the township.  By teaming up with the medical center and the Hershey Trust, Derry Township can lead the way toward healthier lifestyles and sustainable development in Pennsylvania.

Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is author of “Save Our Land, Save Our Towns.”  He recently addressed Derry Township residents on Smart Growth at the kick-off of the township’s comprehensive plan review in the Hershey Public Library.







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