LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - After nearly three hours of discussion, Lehigh County commissioners again delayed deciding the fate of the Hamilton Crossings shopping center in Lower Macungie Township.
Before them on Wednesday night was an ordinance approving the county's participation in tax increment financing –TIF –for the $140 million development.
Developers of the upscale shopping center maintain they cannot build it unless they get TIF support, which will help cover the cost of road, storm water and electric utility improvements.
If the commissioners vote against the TIF, they will kill the deal.
The controversial TIF plan was before the commissioners for action at their May 22 meeting. But that night they unanimously agreed to wait until Wednesday, to get first-hand information about why the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission opposes the plan.
On Wednesday, they voted to delay again – but not unanimously – until their June 26 meeting. One commissioner warned they may again defer action on the TIF plan that night.
For more than an hour, 14 people – residents, planners, Lower Macungie officials and even a competitor – stood at the podium to address the commissioners about the project and its TIF plan.
For up to 20 years that TIF would divert 50 percent of real estate taxes that normally would go from the new shopping center to the county and East Penn School District. (Lower Macungie currently does not collect real estates taxes, but may do so in the future.)
That diverted money would help pay debt on multi-million-dollar infrastructure improvements around the 63-acre shopping center, which will be built on both sides of Krocks Road between Hamilton Boulevard and Route 222.
Bruce Schanzer, president and CEO of Cedar Realty Trust, which owns the nearby Trexler Mall and Trexlertown Plaza shopping centers, told commissioners that if they vote against the TIF and the Hamilton Crossings developers walk away, "Cedar Realty Trust would be happy to do this development without the TIF."
Schanzer maintained the TIF would only impact financial returns on the project by 1 percent. "The TIF doesn't make or break the project."
Schanzer also claimed on the day the shopping center is completed, the developers "will have captured a profit of at least $30 million to $50 million."
Allentown resident Joe Hilliard told commissioners: "If any of you vote for this tonight, you're committing a gross dereliction of duty."
"A no vote would be tragic here," said Lower Macungie resident Mark Spangler, who said he opposes bad land deals in the township but lives near the Hamilton Crossings site and supports the project.
After 11 p.m., Atty. Blake Marles, who represents developers Tim Harrison and Jeremy Fogel, was the last person to take the podium.
Said Marles: "It is late in the evening. If there is information commissioners want that they don't have, the developer would be quite willing to have the board defer, for the board to get those questions answered. If you would like to submit them in writing, we could respond in writing so the information could be made public."
Defer or table?
"We've heard some compelling arguments on both sides tonight," said Commissioner Percy Dougherty. "Some of the information we got tonight is entirely new." He said the commissioners need time to analyze that information.
He said commissioners also should get information from the state Department of Transportation about Hamilton Crossings' impact on Route 222, a major concern of the LVPC.
Dougherty made a motion to defer action of the TIF for two weeks "pending additional information."
But he said deferring doesn't necessarily mean the commissioners will make a decision in two weeks. "It may be much longer than that."
Lisa Scheller, chairwoman of the commissioners, suggested they could table the TIF, which would delay action indefinitely until a motion would be made "to take it off the table."
But Dougherty preferred deferring because it would give PennDOT, the developers and other entities "the heat under their feet to get them moving on this."
After the meeting, Dougherty said: "I don't think we're going to settle this in two weeks. But I figured if we tabled it, nothing will get done."
Commissioners approved deferring until June 26 by a 5-4 vote.
Voting no were Scheller, Vic Mazziotti, Scott Ott and Michael Schware.
Commissioner Thomas Creighton, the last to vote, surprised many at the meeting when he voted yes, because he often votes with Scheller, Mazziotti, Ott and Schware.
"I'm independent," said Creighton later.
Voting with Creighton and Dougherty for deferral were Commissioners David Jones, Dan McCarthy and Brad Osborne.
Scheller said she personally was disappointed by the 11:13 p.m. vote, but only because it ended "discussion of the bill for this evening." She said she wanted to continue the discussion among the commissioners and potentially defer it later in the evening.
Humor and frayed tempers
Ott got one of the few laughs of the night when he suggested the state's TIF program "was designed to help people in beleaguered areas -- to generate economic development to help lift them out of that condition -- and here we are using this kind of an incentive to bring latte to the troubled upper-middle-class people of Lower Macungie."
Ron Eichenberg, chairman of Lower Macungie commissioners, also got a laugh when he noted he has not been re-elected to another term: "I'm up here promoting a community from which I've been fired."
Eichenberg said residents of both Upper and Lower Macungie townships are looking forward to Hamilton Crossings as a great benefit.
He indicated people in other communities are incredulous that the Lehigh Valley might reject a Costco or Whole Foods Market, two of the anchor stores in Hamilton Crossings. He said many other communities would do anything to get those two retailers.
Eichenberg asked commissioners to approve the TIF subject to Hamilton Crossings getting a highway occupancy permit from PennDOT.
Tempers frayed as the night wore on. When Scheller struck the gavel as Jones was speaking, because other people were waiting to speak, he told her: "Don't disrespect me by banging that."
Mazziotti and Atty. John Lushis of the Lehigh County Industrial Development Authority got into an angry argument when Mazziotti, who served on a TIF committee, accused Lushis of being an advocate for the Hamilton Crossings TIF "from day one."
Lushis "respectfully but aggressively" disagreed.
The TIF discussion began with a presentation by David Berryman and Joseph Gurinko of LVPC, who had been invited by the commissioners to explain why LVPC opposes Hamilton Crossing and a TIF for Hamilton Crossings.
LVPC did an advisory review of the project for Lower Macungie Township, as it routinely does on proposed developments. But Schware, who served on Allentown's planning commission for six years, said he doesn't recall ever seeing another LVPC review letter "as strongly worded as this one."
"LVPC does not have an issue with development of this property," said Berryman, its chief planner. "It's the scale and size of this project the planning commission has concerns over. It creates impacts, not only on the road, but on residential properties.You're not looking at a neighborhood shopping center; you're looking at a massive, regional shopping center. It's almost 600,000 square feet."
Berryman said the Route 222 bypass was built six years ago to relieve traffic congestion on Hamilton Boulevard. And the state purchased access rights along Route 222 from property owners along it, to control access, protect the flow of traffic "and not recreate Hamilton Boulevard."
Berryman said Hamilton Crossings is only "the tip of a large iceberg of development," explaining it is the first of 28 projects that could affect the Route 222 bypass.
He said if Route 222 is "cracked open" to allow access for Hamilton Crossings, that will affect all future development along that highway. He said PennDOT is reviewing the impact of all those developments.
Berryman explained LVPC opposes a TIF for Hamilton Crossings because the TIF will be "aiding a project that has not demonstrated it can mitigate its impacts."
Hamilton Crossings developer Tim Harrison told commissioners his most recent traffic studies show there will be even fewer traffic delays on Route 222 if his development is built than if it is not built, because of improvements he plans to make.
While project supporters said Hamilton Crossings is not taking away farmland, others mentioned they have seen photos of corn growing on that site.
Harrison said mine wash that will be remediated on the site, a former open pit iron ore mine, contains arsenic.
"It is real contamination, it is a real brownfield situation," said Scott Alderfer, chairman of the Lower Macungie Environmental Advisory Council and a professional geologist.
He said the site may have green vegetation, "but if you dig down into the soil and don't wash your hands, you could have some problems a couple years down the road."
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