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Highway to Growth panel discusses land development in Cumberland Valley

MIDDLESEX TOWNSHIP – Continued development in Cumberland County is inevitable, but it can be done in a way that strikes a balance with conserving green space and agriculture, if municipalities plan ahead, said Jonathan Bowser, CEO of the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corporation. That’s why CAEDC held a panel discussion, “Highway to Growth: Streamlining the Land Development Process,” Wednesday morning at the U.S. Army Heritage Center that brought together local government officials and private industry representatives.  The event was part of a CAEDC initiative to be more proactive about the future of land development in Cumberland County in the wake of debates over Goodman-Bircher’s planned construction of a nearly 3-million-square-foot warehouse along Allen Road, he said. “Our economy is growing,” he said. “That growth is inevitable, and you can see it coming – it’s coming southwest. But I think good planning can … (give us the opportunity) to say, ‘OK, we know we’re growing, and here are the areas that we’re going to plan to grow in, and here are the places that we’re going to protect and preserve for the character of our community.'”
By streamlining the land development process, Bowser said, CAEDC means having community discussions about land development before a specific project is considered. “Let’s be proactive in this process now so that when a developer does come, we’re streamlining it because we already know what we want for our community,” he said.  The panel of public and private land development experts discussed ways to simplify the process for developers and advocated cooperation among municipalities and between governments and developers.

Smart growth

Panelist Jonathan Andrews, of Harrisburg-based law firm McNees, Wallace & Nurick, also thinks westward development is going to be an ongoing trend in Cumberland County throughout the next decade.
“With the path of growth trending westward, I think it would be beneficial for a municipality like Hampden Township, which is running out of developable green space, to look at some of the challenges that the boroughs have faced,” Andrews said. “Silver Spring Township should take a look at what Hampden Township has gone through, because that’s where they’re headed. Municipalities west of Silver Spring Township should look at the challenges Silver Spring is facing now, really as kind of the center point of growth.”
If municipalities plan ahead and work together to develop regional plans and standardize the land approval process, development can take place in a way that does not eliminate the character of Cumberland County communities, but is also not overly complicated for developers, panelists said. Developers tend to be less frustrated about the amount of regulations than about the confusion that stems from the differences in each municipality’s approval process, said Dennis Puko, a planning program manager for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
Although panelists called for a simplification of the land development process in Pennsylvania, they also said some regulation is important to ensure Cumberland County has communities where people want to live. “It’s not just good noble stuff, it’s an economic development factor,” Puko said.
There will likely always be a debate between people who favor land preservation and those who favor unlimited growth, Bowser said. Some form of growth is going to continue in Cumberland County, however, so long-term planning provides the necessary background for the county to strike the appropriate balance between the two perspectives, he said.  “We’re not trying to take the community out of the process, we’re just trying to have the process before there’s a (specific) project,” he said. “Sometimes when you have a project at the table, it can become difficult because now you have people who have an adversarial approach, people who have their interests, so now they’re a little bit more emotional about it. We want to take that out of the process.”

CAEDC plans to hold a series of meetings in upcoming months to bring together local and state government officials and other stakeholders to discuss land development plans, he said.


Coordination

Puko said good coordination between local governments can provide some relief for developers facing Pennsylvania’s land development process, which panelists said can be complex to the point of putting the state at a competitive disadvantage. Given the regulations that exist, panelists called on both developers and government officials to have an open, transparent process and to not begin with a hostile approach to one another. “Recognize that the process is what it is, and don’t go in there to be upset and do battle with what the process is,” Puko said. “Each (side) is trying to do something good, most likely.” Developers are more likely to be successful when they engage in dialogue with municipalities early in the process to identify potential sticking points with local government and the community, said panelist John Mizerak, an economic development manager for engineering firm Tetra Tech. “You know where those hurdles are at, and you know how high you have to jump over top of them,” Mizerak said. Panelists also encouraged local governments to create flexible and realistic guidelines for the redevelopment of old properties like abandoned strip malls and homes.

 

Improving the process

The panel also discussed possible ways the state government could improve the land development process in Pennsylvania. A recent state planning study spearheaded by the Department of Community and Economic Development identified some possible legislative changes that could streamline the process, including a shorter process for final approval of plans and a unified development ordinance that would allow developers to receive conditional uses and zoning variances as part of the land development plan approval process, Puko said. Andrews recommended a change in law to allow municipal staff to approve routine, minor plans without planning commission or municipal government approval. Panelist Kirk Stoner, the county’s director of planning, said pressure needs to be placed on state legislators to improve Pennsylvania’s municipal planning code, which has not been updated since the 1980s. One thing that should not be changed, Stoner said, is the amount of control given to local government bodies in the land development process. “I’m a big fan of local government,” he said. “I think their hearts are in the right place and they want to do the right things for their community.”

 

You can read the article here from the Sentinel.

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