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Solicitor says Lower Macungie commissioner can also be on planning commission

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 07 2012 05:00:57 AM CST
Updated On: Dec 07 2012 05:17:00 AM CST
Lower Macungie Twp. commissioners
LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. -

A Lower Macungie commissioner legally can serve on the township’s planning commission, commissioners learned during their public meeting Thursday.

Also during the meeting, a big development -- which proposes more than 200 apartments and a Weis supermarket along Route 100 -- took a small step forward.

And commissioners heard details of the 2013 township budget, which they voted to advertise and intend to adopt at their Dec. 20 meeting. That $18.1 million budget again will require no property tax. Refuse bills also will not increase, but sewer bills are going up 10 percent.

Five people have applied for two four-year terms on the township planning commission. Among them is Commissioner James Lancsek, Lower Macungie’s former zoning officer.

Commissioner Douglas Brown asked his colleagues if it would be appropriate for Lancsek to serve on the planning commission.

Brown chairs the planning & zoning committee, which will interview those five candidates on Dec. 13 and recommend two for approval by commissioners.

Brown said he has nothing against Lancsek, but wanted to know “if this something we should allow.”

“We’re jumping the gun here,” charged Lancsek, who called Brown’s question “inappropriate and out of order.”

Brown immediately and repeatedly apologized to Lancsek, said he meant nothing against Lancsek by asking the question and didn’t want him “to take this the wrong way.”

“I’m always concerned about this thing called transparency,” explained Brown. He said “people much wiser than myself” have told him some transparency is lost if a commissioner also is on the planning commission, because that individual might have too much influence over developers and their proposed developments.
Responded Lancsek: “With a seven-member planning commission and a five-member board of commissioners, I don’t feel there’s danger of that.”

“This is the first time we’ve ever had a request for a commissioner to sit on another board, such as the planning commission,” said Brown.

“This is not the first time we’ve done this,” said Lancsek, but he added: “Maybe under the first class township code it is.” He said when the township had three elected supervisors one of them – Dennis Hinkel – also served on the planning commission.

Brown said he was looking for some direction from his colleagues now, rather than having his committee recommend Lancsek and commissioners then having a big discussion about how it would not be appropriate for Lancsek to also serve on the planning commission.

Solicitor Richard Somach said he has researched the issue and determined “it is perfectly legal” for up to two township commissioners to also serve on a seven-member planning commission. “It is done in several other communities in Lehigh County,” added Somach.

“I’ll withdraw the question,” said Brown.

But Commissioner Ryan Conrad said he also has some concerns about Lancsek being on the planning commission, indicating he will bring them up at the committee meeting.

Commissioner Roger C. Reis said Brown’s concern was legitimate, adding: “I had that concern too,” until learning the solicitor had determined it is not improper for Lancsek to serve on the planning commission. Reis said Lancsek deserves consideration “for the wealth of knowledge, experience and training he would bring to that position.”

Both Reis and Ron Eichenberg, president of the commissioners, commended Brown for raising the issue at a public meeting.

Also among the five planning commission candidates is Irvin Keister, current chairman of the planning commission. His term expires Jan. 1.

Commissioners voted to advertise an ordinance that would change its zoning law to allow multi-family apartment units and fuel dispensing stations as conditional uses on lots that cover at least 25 acres in a commercial zone. They expect to take action on that proposed change in January.

The project that most immediately will benefit from that change is proposed on 35 acres along Route 100 near Macungie, between the Allen Organ showroom and Mack Trucks.

The developers want both commercial and residential components on the same property. Specifically, they want to build up to 204 apartment units, relocate the Weis Market that now is on the opposite side of Route 100 and two add pads for other stores, banks or restaurants. The Weis, which will have its own gas pumps, and the other two businesses would be closer to the highway, while the apartments would be built to the rear of the property.

Sara Pandl, the township’s planning director, told commissioners “it’s an appropriate land use” because it’s in a commercial corridor, not a residential area.
She said the township planning commission is recommending approval of the zoning change, after working on the project for nearly a year.

Atty. Kate Durso, who represented the developers, said a township hearing will be scheduled on the proposed ordinance 30 days after it is advertised. Township officials said that probably will happen at the commissioners’ Jan. 17 meeting.

Pandl noted that, even if the zoning is changed, the project still will be a long way from getting approval. Detailed plans for the development, called Grandview Crossings, will have to be submitted for township review and approval, a process that can take many months. She said the developers also will need a conditional use permit.

The lead developer is Remington Properties, although Weis will build the supermarket and Woodmont Properties will build the apartments, explained Durso.
Indicating he has a conflict, Eichenberg recused himself from the discussion and the vote to advertise the proposed zoning change.The township’s 2013 sewer rate increase will cost the average homeowner in Lower Macungie $20-25 more next year, said Conrad.

Regarding the 2013 budget, Conrad said $700,000 will be spent on road resurfacing projects, $500,000 will be used for traffic light improvements and $150,000 will be used to replace township equipment. The roof will be replaced on the township building and the commissioners meeting room will be upgraded or relocated, he said.

Township manager Bruce Fosselman reported two additional employees will be hired for the community center and parks department.