LOWER SAUCON TWP., Pa. - The proposed expansion of the controversial IESI landfill in Northampton County took a big step forward Thursday night.
The Lower Saucon Planning Commission voted 3-2 to recommend that the township's council approve zoning changes that will allow the landfill to expand and keep operating for at least another decade.
Voting yes were planning commission members Craig Kologie, Tom Maxfield and Scott Kennedy. Voting no were John Landis and John Noble.
The first vote came when Noble made a motion that the planning commission should not change the current zoning, but only Landis agreed with him.
The planning commission has seven members, but two were absent. The vote came after two hours of discussion and debate.
At the center of the debate is the 224-acre IESI landfill along Applebutter Road. Its operators predict the landfill will be full in less than four years if it cannot expand. And it can't expand unless the township changes zoning on nearly 140 acres just west of the landfill.
Skyline Drive runs through the center of the area proposed to be rezoned. IESI already is buying up properties in that sparsely populated area. "The landfill owns almost that entire stretch," said Maxfield.
Thursday marked the second time that the planning commission has reviewed the proposed zoning changes. It began its first review in the spring of 2012.
Last September, the planning commission voted 6-1 to recommend to borough council that the zoning should not be changed. Thursday night's vote reversed that recommendation.
The planning commission meeting was so crowded that extra chairs were brought into the meeting room in the township municipal building, yet some people still had to stand.
Planners listened to the public for well over an hour before voting.
There was plenty of applause whenever someone stood to address the commission and others agreed with it. But it was not a one-sided audience.
About a dozen employees of the landfill also attended and several spoke. Some indicated they want the expansion approved so they can keep their jobs. Even a couple representatives of companies that do business with the landfill spoke in support of the expansion, as did a couple of residents.
But other residents said they don't want it to expand because they want to protect their homes and families.
One IESI employee got up and said: "Hello, my name is Scott. I work at the landfill. Don't throw anything at me."
Landis and Maxfield repeatedly asked hecklers the audience to remain quiet while others were speaking.
"This meeting has all been irrelevant," shouted one angry resident, who accused township officials of being in cahoots with IESI.
"You're done," said Landis several times.
A second look at rezoning
The planning commission took another look at the zoning amendments proposal it rejected last year because the township council has voted to restart the process to approve that rezoning.
Thursday's vote rejects a late July recommendation from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission that the township's zoning should not be changed for the landfill.
Noble got the first round of applause of the night when he said he didn't have a change of heart since the last time he voted against changing the zoning.
Kologie said changing the zoning to allow the landfill in that industrial area "is not the easy decision, but it's the right decision." He indicated his opinion might be different "if we didn't have a landfill here already."
The next step in the process will be a public hearing on the proposed rezoning, at 7 p.m. Sept. 25 in Saucon Valley School District's administration building.
Priscilla deLeon, a member of the township council, said she opposes the landfill expansion. But Maxfield said deLeon voted for the last expansion of the landfill "and that encompasses everything that everyone is complaining about here now. Why was it okay then?"
Responded deLeon: "I approved that because it already was in the L-I zone and it allowed for landfills. That zoning district already was established." She also stressed township and state Department of Environmental Protection officials worked hard to make sure the previous expansion was done properly.
Strings attached to recommendation
The planning commission's recommendation for approval came with a few stipulations.
It is recommending to township council that 300-foot buffer zones be established along both property and zoning district boundary lines around the landfill, rather than the 100-foot buffers now designated in the proposed zoning amendments ordinance.
Another recommendation is that if the landfill "disturbs" land containing designated natural resource areas, and gives the township money rather than replacing that land acre for acre, the planners want that money earmarked only to purchase land for preservation of "quality" open space.
Planners also recommend reviewing a zoning district boundary so it does not put resident Richard Gardner's 24-acre farm into two different zoning districts.
No one took issue with one resident's statement that 30 percent of Lower Saucon's annual budget comes from IESI revenues. If the landfill closes, that revenue goes with it.
"We're not going to discuss township budgets," said Landis early in the meeting. "That's not what we do. But it obviously is a consideration.
"Economic issues shouldn't be the sole reason for making a decision, but it does have to be part of that decision," said Kologie. "We have to plan for a sustainable community. Everybody lives here because of the quality of life."
Landis said nothing else probably will generate as much revenue per acre as the landfill. When he was loudly applauded by landfill supporters, he added: "That doesn't mean I'm in favor of it, but it's probably reality."
If the landfill must close because it can't expand, one IESI employee warned residents: "Your taxes are going to go up."
One of the biggest concerns of the night was that an expanded landfill will have more detrimental impacts on nearby residents.
Before anyone addressed the commission, Landis, its chairman, noted planners already heard many concerns about expansion of the landfill at previous meetings – including noise, odors, traffic, threats of groundwater contamination, water run-off, damage caused by blasting, disturbing natural resources, appearance and impact on property values.
Landis said he hoped to hear other concerns. Yet resident after resident stood to reiterate those same issues.
Residents argued that expanding the landfill will bring all those problems closer to their homes. Many of them live in the township's Steel City neighborhood, which is separated from the landfill by a ridge.
Resident Russell Sutton came to the meeting with banner-sized photos of the landfill and a nearby forest, which he said will be changed by the expansion. He claimed the landfill now is 750 feet high, "the highest point in Lower Saucon."
Sutton said 237 homes are in Steel City, "in the shadow of this landfill."
Landfill manager Samuel Donato came with his own photos, including one he said showed the landfill "has no visual impact on the residents of Steel City."
"Bull crap!" said one woman.
"Want to come to my backyard?" asked another.
Donato presented the planning commission with a petition he said contained 100 names of people who support the zoning change that will allow expansion of the landfill.
"This area is the industrial district in Lower Saucon Township," said Donato.
Both Donato and Atty. Maryanne Garber, who represents the landfill, maintained "each and every" health and environmental concern raised by residents was addressed by expert consultants at a township meeting last October. Garber said those experts concluded there were no significant operational issues with the IESI landfill.
Garber said the planning commission did not have the benefit of that information when it voted against the rezoning in September 2012, "but now you have that information."
She generated loud grumbling when she maintained many residents from all over the township support the rezoning.
The proposed zoning amendments
The night's discussion began with Atty. Lincoln Treadwell, the planning commission's solicitor, reviewing the history of the proposed zoning amendments and a point-by-point explanation of their contents.
Treadwell stressed the commission's recommendation should be based only on planning and zoning principles.
If approved by the township council, most of the area will be rezoned Light Industrial.
Now most of it is zoned Rural Agricultural and Light Manufacturing, which does not allow landfills.
Treadwell explained rezoning that area of the township will allow landfills as a conditional use rather than as a special exception.
He said a conditional use is reviewed and approved by the township planning commission and township council, but a special exception must be approved by the township's zoning hearing board.
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