LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - Two different development projects came very close to being rejected by the Lower Macungie Planning Commission Tuesday night.
Twice during the meeting, planning commission members were stopped while in the process of voting against a requested zoning change for a 142-home development, which is proposed on a hill above the intersection of Cedar Crest Boulevard and Lower Macungie Road in the township.
Planner George Doughty made the initial motion against a zoning change for the age-restricted development on what is called the Farr tract.
Several, if not all, of the seven planners voted for Doughty's motion, but their solicitor interrupted the vote, saying they had not yet asked for public comment.
A few minutes later, planning commission chairman Irvin Keister tried again, saying: "We're recommending that the land not be rezoned at this time. Traffic and open space are major considerations for that."
But Keister was interrupted as he asked: "All in favor?"
Atty. Erich Schock, who represents the developers, told the planning commission he was hoping for more feedback on what he stressed is only a concept plan.
Developer Anthony Maras said they were not looking for a recommendation from the planning commission at the meeting, but only presenting the plan to engage in a dialogue about ways to improve it.
"This was our first crack at developing the plan," said Maras, who is an area president with K. Hovnanian Homes.
Planning commission members agreed to table the matter rather than vote against the requested zoning change.
Earlier in the meeting, planners also were poised to vote against expansion plans for Concordia Lutheran Church at 2623 Brookside Road.
Warren Riggins, Concordia's engineer, averted that vote by agreeing to give the planning commission more time to consider the plans.
But Riggins also implied a bias on the part of planners, saying: "You're limiting how much we can build on that property to share our beliefs with other Christians."
There had been little progress on the church's plans since the commission's last meeting in June, when the church's engineer objected to giving the township right-of-way and an easement without compensation.
The planning commission makes recommendations to Lower Macungie commissioners, who make final decisions on developments.
Two of those five township commissioners, Ron Beitler and Brian Higgins, attended Tuesday's meeting.
Only one house now stands in the middle of the 54-acre Farr tract, which is on the northwest corner of the intersection Cedar Crest and Lower Macungie.
The number of proposed homes has dropped to 142, down from 153 when the concept plan was presented to township commissioners on June 19.
The project applicant was identified as Hallmark Homes by township planning director Sara Pandl, but K. Hovnanian Homes will build the houses.
The property currently is zoned suburban-residential, where 55-and-older "active adult" developments are not permitted.
The developers want it rezoned to semi-rural, which would allow the development.
They also want those single detached homes to be only 15 feet apart, rather than the required 20 feet.
Planners expressed concern about fire safety with homes that close together, with one suggesting the developer consider installing residential sprinkler systems.
But Thomas J. Smith of K. Hovnanian said homes are only 15 feet apart in its Four Seasons at Farmington development in the township.
A "concept plan" for the development shows it would include 30-foot-wide private streets, as well as a clubhouse and swimming pool. It would have public water and sewer service.
Smith said it probably would be a condominium-type of ownership, with common space rather than individual lots.
Planner Neill Dekker objected to streets and detention ponds being privately owned, saying that creates an unfair burden for homeowner associations and unfair taxation for a development's residents who must pay into those associations.
He suggested streets and detention ponds should be publicly dedicated and maintained.
Pandl said her main concern with the proposal is the quality of the open space as shown on the concept plan. She said much of the proposed open space would be used for stormwater basins. "It should not be a majority of the open space area."
She also said the proposed "pods" of open space are narrow in many places – mentioning one was only 20 feet wide -- and not readily accessible, because they often are behind the backyards of homes.
Keister said the township wants residents to have access to open space, with trails. "This doesn't provide any of that. Most of the open space is stormwater control."
Schock said the concept plan does meet the township's requirements for open space, but added it's inevitable that stormwater facilities will have to go in some open space areas.
Township engineer William Erdman suggested stormwater detention basins theoretically may not be needed in the development, because of its proximity to Little Lehigh Creek, but indicated that would have to be studied in detail.
Erdman said road access to the development from Cedar Crest Boulevard and Lower Macungie Road will be the most challenging infrastructure issue faced by the developers.
He said another attempt was made to develop the property many years ago but it did not proceed because of access concerns regarding visibility.
Planner Brent McNabb said the proposed entranceway on Lower Macungie Road is not very safe, because it's in the middle of a very steep hill.
Planner Ann Bartholomew said: "That road ices up so badly in winter that you can't get up or down."
Carla Stephens, the only resident to address the planning commission on the development, warned the narrow Cedar Crest Boulevard bridge over the Little Lehigh already is a bottleneck that causes major traffic back-ups.
That back-up is partially caused by traffic turning off the bridge onto Lower Macungie Road, which often blocks drivers who want to continue north on Cedar Crest.
Doughty said the community cannot even accommodate the existing traffic.
"Any action by this commission or the board of commissioners to increase the number of residential units is folly," said Doughty. "We do not have the ability to handle the traffic."
In addition to "what is being defined as open space," planner Maury Robert said he has a problem with the proposal to build three units per acre.
"It sounds like a significant increase in density," said Doughty, who later maintained a single-family development on that property would not have anywhere near that many homes.
Doughty also said: "We're not getting much open space in this proposal."
Concordia Lutheran Church plans to add 11,000 square feet of space to its existing sanctuary building, in two phases.
The major outstanding issues are dedication of a 50-foot right-of-way to the township from the center of Brookside Road and giving the township an access easement to inspect stormwater management improvements that will be made on the property.
Riggins, Concordia's engineer, said the church wants "just compensation" for any "transfer of real property rights."
He added: "Easements are considered to be real property as well."
Chad Peters, the township's engineer on the Concordia project, said a third "critical" unresolved issue is the need to show all stormwater management improvements on the plan.
Said Robert: "Without full design of the stormwater plans, we can't approve the plan."
Riggins acknowledged not all stormwater design details are shown on the church's plans.
"If the stuff is not fully designed and not fully shown on the plans, it's an incomplete submission," said Robert. "There's no way that we can recommend it for approval."
Robert also said the township has a legal responsibility to inspect the church's stormwater facilities, so it needs an easement so someone can go on the church's property to make such inspections.
"Granting an easement is the granting of real property rights," said Riggins. "The law does not require the township to enter onto the property to inspect it. If they believe the system is not working properly, they could ask the landowner to come take a look at the stormwater system."
The engineer added if the landowner denies that access, the township could "go to a judge, secure a warrant and entering onto the property."
Atty. Peter Lehr, the planning commission's solicitor, told Riggins no other developer has had an issue with having such a stormwater maintenance agreement with the township.
Lehr said he did want to get into a legal argument with the engineer, but reminded Riggins that, at the June meeting, he had invited him to provide any legal documentation to support his position.
Lehr noted: "I didn't see any."
The solicitor advised the engineer to consider "whether or not you want the plan to move forward."
At one point, Riggins requested the commission give the plan preliminary approval.
But Robert said Riggins requested preliminary/final approval, "that's all we have before us. We're going to go up or down on preliminary/final and my vote will be for down."
Keister warned Riggins: "If you want us to make a recommendation tonight, we can do that, but as Maury has indicated, it would not be positive."
Keister said the commission had to take action on the church's plan Tuesday night unless the church offered a letter of extension giving it more time to review the plans -- and giving Riggins more time to complete his designs for the stormwater system.
The planning commission chairman suggested an extension letter would be "the easier solution" than the commission voting against the church's plan.
Riggins said the church wants to work with the township, so he agreed to offer the planning commission an extension until Sept. 30 "so we can work this out."
Said Keister: "Hopefully we can move forward positively."
But other issues also remain unresolved.
Pandl, the township planning director, said trees are proposed in front of the church, but not within the right-of-way.
Riggins said the proposed trees will line up with trees with the development north of the church and the Hillside School south of the church.
"Street trees are supposed to be in the right-of-way," said Robert. "If they're not trees in the right-of-way, they're not street trees and don't meet the ordinance."
"The trees, by ordinance, should be located between the bicycle path and Brookside Road," said Riggins. "Unfortunately, because of the overhead utility lines in that area, that was not the best place to put those trees and we requested a waiver from doing that."
Robert also said if the right-of-way is not dedicated to the township, the church is not in conformance with Lower Macungie's ordinance associated with the expansion plan.
"So noted," said Riggins.
Doughty said the church's "intense focus on granting property rights seems to not be in the spirit of working together and not in the spirit of what the church should do in terms of its citizenship in the township.
"If you're going to be building things, there are obligations you have to meet. Giving up right-of-way for an access that may never be used seems to me a pretty small matter. It's time to rise above ideology in this regard."
Responding, Riggins said: "We do have the right to request just compensation for that property. By dedicating that property, it becomes public domain. And the public has shown that whenever a Christian wishes to express their beliefs in public right-of-way, it's wrong.
"Why would we take land that we own by right and give it to the municipality only to have our rights reduced at the same time we have less land?
He said having less land limits how much can be built on that eight-acre property "to share our beliefs with other Christians."
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