After months of bitter confrontations its chairman called “blood sport,” the Bethel Township supervisors voted against a proposal to turn a family farm into a business park at the Nov. 16 meeting in the township building.
Mirroring a 2-1 vote in September, Supervisors Robbi L. Lane and Michael C. Graby voted against rezoning a portion of the Bowman family farm to allow for the development along Route 645, north of Interstate 78. Chairman Jacob C. Meyer voted for rezoning the tract.
The decision, which came after more than a year of bickering over details of a proposed new zoning ordinance, exposed deep divisions in the rural community on the northwestern edge of Berks County.
“There are a bunch of divisive people in this community, and this issue has become blood sport to them,” Meyer said. “This community has been torn apart.”
It was unclear exactly who Meyer referred to, but he appeared to be chastising advocates on both sides of the issue.
“You’re acting like little kids in a sandbox,” he said. “It’s time you started acting like adults.”
The controversy centered on a proposal to rezone about 35 acres of the Bowman farm from agricultural preservation to industrial/commercial. Joined with a portion of the farm already zoned industrial/commercial, the Bowman family proposed to construct a business park with medical offices and restaurants plus three light industrial buildings on the site.
Residents of a neighboring residential development objected, saying the project would alter the rural character of the area around their homes.
The Nov. 16 vote, in effect, puts an end to the proposed Bowman development.
The supervisors authorized solicitor Stephen Price to advertise a proposed zoning ordinance and map that would regulate development in the township for the next decade. In it, the 35 acres on the Bowman farm remain zoned agricultural preservation.
A public hearing on the proposed ordinance will be held Jan. 18 at 6 p.m., an hour before the regularly scheduled township supervisors meeting.
Responding to allegations that Lane and Graby blocked input from supporters of the Bowman project, Price insisted the issue had been thoroughly discussed at public meetings.
“This issue has been fully vetted,” Price said. “There are no secrets here.”
Meanwhile, the township planning commission is reviewing an alternate plan for the Bowman farm that proposes construction of warehouses and agricultural buildings for intensive animal husbandry.
Under the proposal, two warehouses would be constructed on the portion of the farm zoned industrial/commercial, which borders Route 645. Six large chicken houses would be built on the 35 acres zoned agricultural preservation, a permitted use under the zoning ordinance.
Fred Bowman, one of the farm’s owners, said he plans to go ahead with what has been termed Plan B.
Betty Martin, an outspoken opponent of rezoning the farm, declined comment after the Nov. 16 meeting. Her home lies adjacent to the Bowman farm.
Despite Meyer’s reprimand, the division in Bethel Township is not likely to subside anytime soon.
At a recent supervisors meeting, Lane and Graby voted to remove Lisa Hassler from the planning commission.
Hassler was among four commission members who recently voted to recommend the supervisors reconsider their initial rejection of rezoning the Bowman tract.
That potentially divisive move is likely to be debated when the supervisors meet Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. in the township building.