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?”