The will of the people prevailed in Bethel Township, though at the risk of attracting pigstys and chicken houses instead of restaurants and a medical center.
Reacting to an outcry of “keep our farmland” from about 700 residents who signed petitions, a joint township supervisors and planning commission panel blocked an attempt to rezone farmland to industrial-commercial Tuesday night.
The panel deadlocked 5-5 on a motion to recommend the supervisors approve rezoning a tract on the Bowman farm along Route 645 and Interstate 78.
Two of the three township supervisors, Robbi Lane and Mike Graby, were among those who voted against rezoning. Unless they have a change of heart at Monday’s supervisors meeting, the proposal to put a complex of light industrial buildings and retail businesses on the Bowman farm will have died.
In an 11th hour move prior to the joint meeting, however, the Bowmans filed an alternative plan that would allow intensive animal husbandry on the farm, which is surrounded by 34 houses on Daub and Little Mountain road. The tract is already zoned for agricultural use.
Jerry Bowman, one of three brothers who own the farm, warned of the stench that emanates from pig farms.
Bowman, who lives in Womelsdorf, estimated 1,200 trucks would haul manure and deliver grain to pig or chicken houses at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week. With no buffer protecting the houses, he added, the animal husbandry operation would be in full view of the neighbors.
John High, who lives near the farm, worried about the stench a pig farm would bring to the neighborhood.
“Can you imagine what it will be like on a hot day in August with a pig farm outside our doors,” he said, urging the panel to approve rezoning the farm.
Bowman and High’s warnings fell on deaf ears among the standing-room-only crowd of 100 in the township building, most of whom opposed rezoning.
Judy Apgar decried the influx of development along Route 645, an area already inundated with warehouses.
They’re not making any more farmland, she said, and once it’s gone it’s gone forever.
“Enough is enough,” Apgar said in opposition to development. “I’m happy to see the property used in a manner that agriculture allows.”
Steve Burkhart asked the panel to slow down development, saying it’s out of control.
“The township people have spoken,” he said. “They don’t want anymore warehouses.”
Thomas Meagher, vice president of Blue Rock Construction in Allentown, outlined the proposed development of Bowman's Business Park on the farm.
The layout included three industrial flex buildings around 200,000 square feet each on the western edge, and a complex of possible restaurants, banks and doctor’s offices immediately off Route 645.
The northern and western edges of the development, which border residential homes, would be surrounded by a 10-foot-high berm with evergreen trees on top. The development would access Route 645 directly without utilizing township roads. Downward reflectors on lights would minimize brightness in surrounding areas.
Anthony J. Fitzgibbons of Lebanon, an attorney representing the Bowmans, gave township officials a list of deed restrictions on the site the family was willing to provide in exchange for rezoning.
“We have designed the plan to address concerns over traffic, lighting, noise and buffers,” Fitzgibbons said.
Connie Bashore, director of the Bethel-Tulpehocken Food Pantry, said warehouses have had a positive economic effect on Bethel and surrounding townships.
Dollar General distribution center in Berks Park 78, she said, donates diapers, toilet paper and toiletries that are distributed to clients of the food pantry.
Moreover, Bashore said, the number of families using the pantry has declined from 120 to 90. The reason, she theorizes, is the availability of jobs at local warehouses.
“In the past, the township has granted privileges to huge faceless corporations,” she said. “Why not extend the same privilege to bring in a medical center that would benefit young and old alike.”
While maintaining neutrality on rezoning, Tulpehocken school board President Oscar Manbeck said warehouses have enabled the district to lower property taxes in the past two years.
Two vacant warehouses alone, he said, will generate $1.9 million in tax revenues to the district. That will enable the district to renovate its high school, or perhaps build a new one, without raising taxes.
“That’s only possible because of revenue from warehouses,” Manbeck said.
Attorney James Smith of Richmond Township, representing residents, said there were two reasons why officials should not rezone the Bowman farm.
One, residents overwhelmingly don’t want it. Two, residents, including the Bowmans, have known what they could and could not do with their property for years.
“The Bowmans are asking you to change things for their benefit at the cost of the community,” Smith said.