ALLEN TWP., Pa. - Hotly-debated plans for a FedEx Ground distribution center were approved in a series of 3-1 votes by Allen Township supervisors Thursday night.
A Fed Ex representative said the 800,000-square foot building will take two years to build along Willowbrook Road in the Northampton County township and added construction may begin before the end of this year.
Voting to give the $335-million project final approval were supervisors Paul Balliet, Larry Oberly and Alfred Pierce.
Township supervisor Dale Hassler voted no every time.
Before the votes were taken, Hassler said he wants sidewalks installed along Willowbrook Road by the New York City-based Rockefeller Group, which is subdividing the property, rather than deferring the installation of sidewalks.
He explained he is concerned about safety.
A spokesman for the developer said Rockefeller is willing to do that, but none of Hassler's fellow supervisors agreed with him. He made a motion for sidewalks, but it died for lack of a second.
"I am not against the FedEx project," said Hassler. "But I do not want to move forward unless I see the sidewalks. So I'm going to have to vote no."
Supervisor Bruce Frack was absent.
The other three supervisors first approved a subdivision plan submitted by Rockefeller to divide its 375-acre property in the township into three parcels.
Rockefeller is buying that land from the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority.
The supervisors' second major approval was for FedEx's overall plan on its 253-acre piece of that 375-acre property.
The third approval was for the first phase of FedEx's land development on those 253 acres – construction of a FedEx hub that will cover about 800,000 square feet.
That building will be designed to expand as the business grows, explained Bill Connor, manager of real estate for FedEx Ground.
"We have the ability to expand it to about 1.1 million square feet," he explained.
No presentations were made to briefly explain exactly what was being approved before each vote.
Atty. B. Lincoln Treadwell, the township's solicitor, repeatedly said each action had been discussed in detail at previous meetings.
The approvals included a total of 53 conditions imposed by the township, according to Treadwell, as well as approval of waivers.
The Rockefeller property in the township is being subdivided into three parcels – one for FedEx and two more for future warehouses.
About 50 people attended the meeting, sitting at tables in the social quarters of the Allen Township Fire Company along Howertown Road.
Opponents sat at several tables, representatives from Rockefeller Group and FedEx sat at several others.
Rather than booing or applause, the meeting room was filled with dead silence for nearly 20 seconds after the final vote of approval.
Only four people spoke against the plans before the vote, two of them officials from neighboring Hanover Township, Lehigh County.
All four expressed concerns about increased traffic.
The most passionate opponent was resident Kim Nappa, who warned supervisors will have to answer for their actions when somebody's child dies beneath the wheels of a tractor-trailer.
Nappa asked the supervisors why they would approve the project "when the people of Allen Township don't want it."
"Who says they're all against it?" asked Balliet.
Nappa asked everyone in the room who is against the project to raise their hands and a couple of dozen hands went up.
"What about the other people?" asked Balliet.
"The population of the township is measured in thousands," added Oberly, who maintained many township residents do want the FedEx hub.
Nappa said she's attended every meeting but only one person ever stood up to support the project -- and that person was working for the developers.
"We have stood up here for months and months and months, begging you not to do this to us," she told supervisors. ‘This is not right for this community."
Nappa said more opponents did not show up not at Thursday night's meeting because "everybody knows that you're going to vote to put this through, no matter what we say. You don't listen to us."
Responding to Nappa, who was applauded by some in the audience, Treadwell said: "It's not a question of whether the individual members of the planning commission or the board of supervisors want this development. That's not how the process works."
"Each of those individuals is required to follow certain rules," continued the solicitor. "It's not a question of ‘I want to FedEx to come here or I don't want FedEx to come here.' It's a question of following the rules. That's what I advised the planning commission to do and that's what I advise this board to do. And I believe that's what they're trying to do."
Hanover Township sought delay
The other opponents unsuccessfully urged the supervisors to do no more than grant the project preliminary approval at the meeting and require that additional traffic studies be done before granting final approval.
They included Atty. Jackson Eaton, solicitor for Hanover Township, and Bruce Paulus, chairman of the Hanover Township Council, who focused on the impact on the Route 22/Airport Road interchange in their township.
Allen Township's solicitor said approval could not be delayed because all three preliminary/final plan applications before the supervisors would expire on Friday.
Treadwell indicated if the supervisors did not act on all three, approval might be automatic "because you've missed your time period to act."
Treadwell added: "I don't believe the township has the authority to take an application and split it into a preliminary and a final application. The applicant would need to agree to split his application in two."
Eaton disagreed, arguing supervisors could just give preliminary approval without missing any deadline.
After the votes, one female resident blasted Pierce, who made all the motions for approval during the meeting.
She accused Pierce of being rude and unkind to township residents, yelling at them and sleeping when they expressed concerns about the project at previous meetings. "He owes the rest of us an apology," she said.
The woman was applauded. Pierce did not respond.
Ed Deichmeister stood to say he supports the project, adding: "Not everybody in the township was against it."
"Well, that's one anyway," quipped Balliet.
Gene Clater, a member of the township planning commission, also spoke at length in support of the project before the votes. That planning commission recommended approval of the project in June.
Treadwell estimated the township has been reviewing plans for the project for more than 18 months.
Connor of FedEx said residents' concerns about the project were taken into consideration throughout that process. "We want to be a great part of the community. We take pride in that. It's important to us."
Airport co-applicant on subdivision plan
In July, the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority approved selling 260 acres of land to the Rockefeller Group for $9.6 million.
Charles Everett, the airport authority's executive director, was at the township meeting, but did not address supervisors.
Because that land sale has not yet been completed – it needs the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration -- the airport authority also was listed as an applicant on Rockefeller's subdivision plan.
After Rockefeller owns the land, FedEx will buy its portion from Rockefeller.
Rockefeller will have to return to the township when land development plans are proposed for the two parcels next to the FedEx site.
Construction and operation
After the meeting, Treadwell said the applicants will have to revise their plans to meet the township's conditions that were included in the approvals. They also need to get approvals from other government agencies before they can proceed with construction.
Treadwell said FedEx plans three phases of construction.
"We potentially could start construction this year and be ready to open in the summer of 2016," said Connor.
But he said the FedEx hub won't open until 2017 if there are delays in obtaining the necessary pre-construction permits, including an NPDES pollution control permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Connor explained it will be a two-year project: "The building construction is about a year and then the installation of equipment that goes into the building takes about a year."
The company estimates it will spend $175 million to construct the building and make off-site improvement on Airport Road, Race Street and Willowbrook Road.
It will spend another $160 million to install "state-of-the-art material handling technology" that initially will sort about 30,000 packages per hour.
The plant will employ nearly 700 people when it opens, but more than half of those jobs will be part-time. When the hub operates at full capacity, it will employee as many as 3,200, according to FedEx.
Once the hub is operational, Connor stressed all tractor-trailers will only be allowed to go south on Willowbrook, then take Race Street and Airport Road to reach Route 22. He said tractor-trailers will not allowed to go north on Willowbrook, not even if Willowbrook is blocked by an accident south of the distribution center.
The FedEx Ground hub is projected to increase traffic on Willowbrook Road by 28 percent when it opens and by another 50 percent over the following 15 years, as it moves toward operating at full capacity.
As for Route 22, the company states that FedEx vehicles "will add about 1,200 total vehicle trips a day to the existing 194,000 daily trips on the highway."
Paulus of Hanover Township told the Allen Township supervisors the Route 22/Airport Road interchange already is very congested during peak travel times.
Paulus said his township is concerned about the ability of Route 22, and Airport Road north of Route 22, to absorb increased traffic from the new development.
Before the vote, Oberly noted: "Much of FedEx truck traffic associated with this project is already on Route 22, to access facilities of current FedEx ground operations in both Lehigh and Northampton counties."
Clater of the township planning commission said anyone concerned about the Airport Road/Route 22 interchange should call for a moratorium on all development that will put more traffic on Route 22, including the American Parkway bridge Allentown is building over the Lehigh River.
"Everybody is fixated on FedEx," said Clater.