Four Lower Macungie Twp., Lehigh Co., commissioners unanimously approved a settlement agreement Thursday night that ends a lawsuit brought against the township nearly three years ago.
At the heart of that lawsuit is Spring Creek Properties, a 700-acre subdivision planned by developer David Jaindl.
A small group of residents intended to appeal Lower Macungie’s 2010 zoning law change -- which led to township approval of that subdivision -- all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. They considered it unlawful rezoning. Jaindl could not develop his land until the case was resolved.
The settlement agreement ending that lawsuit was signed on March 21 by three couples who sued the township and by Jaindl, who joined in the suit.
The key to the settlement is that Jaindl voluntarily will scale back on the amount of development in that subdivision. His changes are laid out in the agreement. The commissioners’ vote amounted to an endorsement of the revised proposal for the subdivision, which Jaindl calls Plan B.
“In my heart, this plan is ultimately good for our township and I’ll be approving it this evening,” said Ron Eichenberg, president of the commissioners. He quoted former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, saying: “Do what is in your heart. For you will be criticized for whatever you do. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
Before the commissioners voted, Jaindl reviewed his Plan B. It includes major reductions in the number of proposed homes and in the amount of commercial development, which will mean less traffic. It also includes more park land and open space, two acres set aside for a future township fire station, more berms and vegetative screening separating roads and existing homes from new industrial development, and turning an extension of Sauerkraut Lane into a private road that will serve proposed warehouses and distribution centers – as will rail lines.
“With Plan B, the township and its citizens are gaining an awful lot,” said Atty. Joseph Zator, Jaindl’s lawyer. “The financial negative of doing Plan B as opposed to Plan A is enormous. Mr. Jaindl did that because he thought it was best for the community.
“He’s given up quite a lot of value in going forward with Plan B and all its attributes.”
But resident Jane Fretz, representing Friends for the Protection of Lower Macungie Township, said warehouses that will be built in Jaindl’s subdivision will take up too much open space, provide few jobs and produce heavy truck traffic.
Resident Ron Beitler noted the “gargantuan” subdivision is bigger than the borough of Alburtis, which lies just south of it.
“We don’t have the option of keeping this farmland,” said Commissioner Ryan Conrad before the vote. “I’m sorry that’s the case, I don’t want that to be the case, but that is the reality.”
Fretz said the commissioners initially forged the development plan with Jaindl without significant public input. She said her organization gave commissioners two opportunities to avoid litigation. She told them: “You should have pushed the pause button.”
But attorney Robert Rust, who represented the appellants, told commissioners that from early on, Jaindl continually attempted to talk to his clients about a way to settle the case. “Those entreaties were in large part spurned in the earlier years because there was hope we would prevail in court, which proved to be not the case,” said Rust.
Rust reviewed the history of the suit before commissioners voted.
Jaindl originally presented Plan B at a Jan. 17 township meeting in January, and offered it in exchange for the appellants dropping their lawsuit, which they hoped would be heard by the state Supreme Court. But they refused.
The turning point came last month, when a Lehigh County judge ruled the appellants would have to pay Jaindl $275,000, plus his attorney fees, if they didn’t succeed in having their case heard by the Supreme Court.
Fretz said the commissioners’ defense of Jaindl’s subdivision cost taxpayers $135,000 in legal fees.
But Commissioner Roger C. Reis said it is not the commissioners’ fault that $135,000 had to be spent to defend the township against the lawsuit. “I don’t buy for a minute that it’s our fault,” said Reis. “That rests squarely on the Friends for the Protection of Lower Macungie Township. They brought a lawsuit against us, we were obligated to defend ourselves and, in the end, we were vindicated.”
“We did what we thought was right and lawful,” said Conrad, adding the courts ultimately agreed.
Conrad said despite personal attacks on the commissioners, and even their professions, by some political activists, “we maintained our professionalism and treated the residents with respect.” He said it’s been a tough couple of years for the commissioners “but this is the job we signed up for.”
“We were accused of back door dealings, which never happened,” said Reis. “I don’t think it was necessary to attack our characters.”
Reis added: “I certainly am disappointed in the amount of animosity this has engendered among our residents. It’s time to move forward, time to put this behind us.”
Jaindl’s Plan B will have to go through the township’s approval process, as will each individual building project proposed within the Spring Creek subdivision. Commissioner Douglas Brown, who spoke last before the vote, said that plan still has a long way to go, adding approvals could take years.
Both Conrad and Reis said Jaindl’s Plan B is better than his already approved subdivision plan for this property. They also said that subdivision plan is preferable to a quarry, which Jaindl proposed for his land at one time.
Conrad said he’s not a big fan of Plan B but he supports it, saying: “At least it’s better than a quarry. I didn’t like a quarry. The community didn’t like a quarry. We got a quarry off the table.”
“I don’t think anybody was in favor of the quarry,” said Reis.
Commissioner James Lancsek was not at Thursday’s meeting.