Lower Macungie commissioners formally are encouraging Lehigh County commissioners to approve the county’s participation in the tax increment financing plan for the proposed Hamilton Crossings shopping center project.
Not only did the five township commissioners unanimously vote to urge their county government counterparts to support the controversial TIF, but they all plan to personally sign the letter of support that township manager Bruce Fosselman will send to county commissioners.
“The Hamilton Crossings TIF project will achieve a clear economic benefit for the township, the East Penn School District and Lehigh County through the creation of new jobs and employment opportunities,” said Ron Eichenberg, president of the township commissioners, who made the motion to send a letter to county commissioners.
The twice-delayed TIF vote by county commissioners is scheduled to take place at their next meeting on Wednesday night. They delayed deciding the fate of the project on May 22 and again on June 12—after it was discussed for nearly three hours.
On May 13, East Penn School Board became the first of the three local taxing bodies to embrace the Hamilton Crossings TIF, with a 6-2 vote. Lower Macungie commissioners must be the last to vote on it, after the county commissioners.
A no vote by the county commissioners will kill the deal, because all three taxing bodies must approve the TIF. And the project’s developers repeatedly have said they cannot build the $140-million shopping center in Lower Macungie without a TIF to help pay for infrastructure improvements.
Atty. Jonathan Hugg, who represents the owners of two nearby shopping centers that oppose the Hamilton Crossings TIF, told Lower Macungie commissioners the Hamilton Crossings TIF is illegal, a misuse of the state’s TIF statute, and an anti-competitive and unfair act.
“This is an ‘ends-justify-the-means’ approach to the law, which my client may have no alternative but to fight in court,” warned Hugg.
When Hugg held up a picture of the site to be developed, he accused commissioners of looking away and not being interested. He said rather than being urban blight as required by state law to qualify for a TIF, the property is “just a field out in the middle of nowhere.”
“You are misusing the law and we may have to go to court in order to remedy that,” said Hugg. “This does not look like urban blight to any reasonable person. If you open your eyes, you would see that.”
Hugg represents Cedar Realty Trust, Inc., owner of the nearby Trexler Mall and Trexlertown Plaza shopping centers along Hamilton Boulevard.
Bruce Schanzer, president and CEO of Cedar Realty Trust, recently told county commissioners if they vote against the TIF and the Hamilton Crossings developers walk away, his company would be happy to build the shopping center without a TIF.
Hugg has been making the rounds at public meetings to warn of legal action if the Hamilton Crossings TIF is approved.
Next to take the podium was Atty. John Lushis, solicitor for the Lehigh County Industrial Development Authority, which developed and would administer the Hamilton Crossings TIF.
Lushis told the township commissioners: “What Mr. Hugg just told you is incorrect as a matter of law. Forty-nine states have TIF legislation. In no state has the TIF law ever been declared unconstitutional.”
Interrupting Lushis, Hugg first accused him of being the township’s solicitor, which he is not, then of being in the same law firm as township solicitor Richard Somach, which he is.
Eichenberg scolded Hugg, saying: “This is not a debate, sir. Let the man finish.”
Continuing, Lushis said the constitutionality of TIFs has been challenged in eight states, but those challenges were not successful.
Lushis said the township’s planning commission determined the property is blighted under the Urban Redevelopment Act of 1945. Lushis said it meets several characteristics of blight under that law. “Atty. Hugg is now coming before you saying your township planning commission was erroneous, made an error of law. As a matter of law, he is absolutely wrong.”
When Lushis told commissioners Hugg’s client also has been the recipient of TIF benefits, Hugg shouted: “That is categorically incorrect.”
Lushis said it is totally misguided for Hugg to tell commissioners what they are doing is illegal or unfair.
Hamilton Crossings developers Tim Harrison and Jeremy Fogel attended the township meeting but did not address commissioners.
Resident Michael Siegel thanked commissioners for supporting the TIF. Siegel said he served on the planning commission when it determined the Hamilton Crossings site is blighted, because of mine wash, PPL easements and severe flooding problems. He said Hamilton Crossings will be a great asset to the township.
Charles Pattrell, who lives along Krocks Road about a half mile from the proposed shopping center, expressed concern about its impact on that road “and the whole area.”
He expects it will double or triple the amount of traffic on Krocks Road, making it a major thoroughfare. He said it is a road with no sidewalks, where children walk and wait for buses. He warned of increased accidents, including fatalities.