LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. - Ron Eichenberg, president of Lower Macungie's board of commissioners, publicly apologized Thursday night for his handling of a developer's zoning change request at a previous township meeting.
If approved, that change could pave the way for a major new development in the township.
"I personally would like to apologize to the citizens of Lower Macungie Township for any of my actions that, although permissible under law, have brought a negative impression on Lower Macungie Township," said Eichenberg. "It was never my intent to create that image. So I apologize to the citizens of Lower Macungie Township if my actions have done that."
The president's apology came immediately after township solicitor Richard Somach cited state law regarding voting conflicts by public officials and said Eichenberg did nothing in violation of that law: "The procedure that was followed was appropriate."
Eichenberg's apology stemmed from criticism about the way he handled a request for a zoning ordinance amendment by Remington Property Group of Montgomery County, which proposes 240 apartments, restaurants, a gas station and a supermarket on 36 acres next to Allen Organ Company, near the intersection of Route 100 and Gehman Road.
At the Feb. 16 commissioners meeting, Eichenberg recused himself from voting to send the matter to the township planning commission because he is a Realtor involved with the project. But some township residents felt he did not go far enough.
After that meeting, three township citizens groups publicly accused Eichenberg of a conflict of interest. They felt he should not have participated in the discussion before that vote, because he stands to gain financially from the development.
Their criticism continued at Thursday's meeting before Somach and Eichenberg spoke.
Representatives of a "joint task force" of the three groups - Friends for the Protection of Lower Macungie Township, Lower Macungie Township Citizens for Change and Citizens For A Strong Community – blasted Eichenberg and the proposed development, which is still in the early stages of the township's approval process.
Resident Ron Beitler said those groups represent thousands of township residents.
Resident Patrick Slattery said Eichenberg's "insufficient recusal behavior" at the Feb. 16 meeting was unethical. Slattery also claimed Eichenberg "afforded no opportunity for public comment before a vote was taken" – a claim later refuted by Eichenberg and two other commissioners.
Commissioner Roger Reis shot down the charge that Eichenberg made "an illegal and unethical motion" to move the issue on to the planning commission. "The minutes of our meeting clearly show Commissioner Eichenberg did not make that motion, nor did he second the motion. That charge is false."
Resident Joe Ludrof said those making "unfair" accusations that Eichenberg was responsible for an unethical conflict of interest "are trying to split the township. "I just don't understand the reason for all this. As a resident of the township, I'm very proud of how far we've come in a short period of time."
After the meeting, Eichenberg elaborated on why he apologized: "I felt it was the right thing to do. Sure, it was an attack against me, but I'm more upset about the image it gave Lower Macungie."
Even after Eichenberg's apology, resident Larry Schneider was not letting commissioners off the hook.
Schneider reminded them that they had not responded to requests from three residents who just asked them to reconsider the Feb. 16 motion and to allow public comment before that vote.
"What is your position?" asked Schneider. "It hasn't been done correctly. Is that going to be your standard?"
No one in the audience responded when Commissioner Ryan Conrad asked if anyone at the Feb.16 meeting did not have an opportunity to be heard.
Conrad said everyone at that meeting had a chance to comment, both before and after the motion was made, but not in the order rules dictate. He said Eichenberg had been on the job for less than two months "and I'm guessing it was probably a mistake."
"I made a mistake," echoed Eichenberg. "Who in the room has not made a mistake at some time or another? But we have not stopped people from making public comment. No one that evening raised a public comment."
Added Somach: "There was no line at the podium, no hands raised."
Reis said Eichenberg just forgot to ask: "Is there any other public comment?"
"I think he's been beat up enough," said Reis. "You guys have made your point. He's apologized. It was an error. Let's move on."
Remington wants the township to amend its zoning ordinance to allow an apartment complex and commercial businesses in the same development.
Commissioner Jim Lancsek said the township's planning commission will now work on the requested change and encouraged residents to attend planning commission meetings.
The next meeting will be 7 p.m. March 13 in the township building.
Resident Robert Hamill warned more residential development will mean more schools will be needed in East Penn School District, which will mean higher taxes for residents.
Scott Bieber of neighboring Upper Milford Township warned the development will lead to increased traffic congestion, loss of open space, overcrowded schools and an increase in crime. "The board of commissioners should reject the Remington plan completely," said Bieber. "We need to have pride in our community. Enough of the ugly sprawl."
Allentown, PA 18102