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Churches receive contrasting results from Lower Macungie planners

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 11 2014 06:46:03 AM CDT
Updated On: Jun 11 2014 08:25:22 AM CDT
Lower Macungie Twp. planning commission
LOWER MACUNGIE TWP., Pa. -

Plans for the growth of two different churches were reviewed by the Lower Macungie Planning Commission Tuesday night.

Life Church Ministries got final approval to build a parking lot at 1609 Trexlertown Road -- just north of a former roller skating rink, which it is transforming into a church.

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But Concordia Lutheran Church and School did not get preliminary or final approval to expand at 2623 Brookside Road, primarily because of an unresolved disagreement with the township over property rights.

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Concordia is on eight acres on the east side of Brookside Road, just north of Sauerkraut Lane.

Concordia’s congregation plans to add 7,721 square feet of new office, education and meeting space to its existing building. When completed, that building will cover 11,000 square feet.

“We’re not increasing the size of our facility,” said Warren Riggins of Rigel Engineers & Consultants, Concordia’s project engineer.

 “The use of our site is remaining exactly the same. We are looking for four classrooms that are better equipped to educate our kids. That is the purpose of this wing.”

Riggins said office space also is being expanded, because three people now share one small office and the church’s pastor has another small office. “They deserve better and that’s what we’re providing for them,” said Riggins.

He indicated the expansion also will give the church more space for restrooms, hallways and storage.

A modular building will be removed from the site and parking added where it now stands.

The outstanding issue is dedication of right-of-way along Brookside Road to the township.

The township requires that a 50-foot-wide strip of right-of-way, measured from the center of Brookside Road, be dedicated to Lower Macungie by the church.

The existing right-of-way dedicated to the township is only 40 feet wide along the front of the church property, according to a June 4 review letter by J. Bradley Youst, a township engineer for the Concordia project.

Youst added: “Additional right-of-way shall be required.”

“My understanding is the applicant does not wish to dedicate that to the township,” said Sara Pandl, Lower Macungie’s planning director.

Planning commission member Maury Robert asked why the church does not want to dedicate the right-of-way – “a 10-foot strip of land.”

“It’s a matter of private property rights,” said Riggins. “We feel the value of that land should be compensated for. The law provides us the right to ask for just compensation.”

Riggins explained the Brookside Road right-of-way was dedicated to the township when the church property first was subdivided, but now the township wants more land.

Atty. Peter Lehr, planning commission solicitor, said Riggins was raising “a taking argument” – that the township somehow is taking the right-of-way without just compensation.

He told Riggins: “If your purpose here is to make a taking argument, what would be helpful for us would be to see what legal precedent you have for making that argument, to determine whether it’s valid or not.”

Lehr said he’s not aware of a valid taking argument, but advised Riggins: “If you have case law you want us to consider, we’ll consider it.”

 Riggins argued that the township’s subdivision and land development ordinance only allows Lower Macungie to ask for the land and the church is answering that request by saying: “No, we are not willing to dedicate the land.”

Riggins said the church also objects to the township’s request for stormwater easements on the property. He said Concordia would be giving up property rights “and we do not wish to give up rights.”

 He said the stormwater system on the church property is designed so that all water coming off the roof will remain on the property until it infiltrates into the ground, rather than flowing onto adjoining properties. “Therefore, we believe that an easement across our property is not warranted.”

But Chad Peters, another township engineer, argued it’s a good idea to have an easement on a property so the municipality can inspect stormwater systems to be sure they are operating properly, especially if water from one property is flowing across a neighbor’s property.

Sounding frustrated, Riggins said when he last brought Concordia’s plans to the planning commission, he asked for preliminary/final approval because he thought it was a very straightforward plan, but added: “I came away from that meeting confused.”

Riggins asked for preliminary approval Tuesday night, but the church’s plan was tabled.

Irvin Keister, chairman of the planning commission, said he could not see moving forward until the right-of-way issue is resolved.

The township has a macadam multi-use trail running along the front of the church, apparently within the 40-foot-wide right-of-way. Planners indicated it was one of the earlier walking/biking paths in a township now laced with them.

After the meeting, Pandl said the township will review initial development plans for Concordia to confirm the amount of right-of-way granted in initial agreements.

Planner George Doughty said if that path is not within township’s right-of-way, the church could put up signs and block people from using it.

Doughty also said the church could be liable if someone should get hurt on the path, if it is not in the township right-of-way. He said it would be in the church’s interest for that path to be in the right-of-way.

Life Church Macungie near Trexlertown

The new church, called Life Church Macungie, plans to open in autumn, although the just-approved parking lot won’t be constructed by then.

That lot, which will have 127 spaces, will be in addition to an already-approved, 59-space lot just south of the church.

The planning commission recommended final approval to township commissioners for Life Church to build the parking lot and to combine that 2.9-acre vacant lot with the 1.7-acre site where the former Roller Motion skating rink is being converted into a 20,000-square-foot church.

A driveway along the rear of the building will connect the two parking lots.

Mark Bahnick of Van Cleef Engineering Associates, the project engineer, said the new church will get public water and sewer when the already-approved Trexler Senior Living Center development is built on the other side of Trexlertown Road.

The church will seat up to 400 people, which is why Pandl said a second parking lot and public water and sewer service are needed.

Bahnick said the congregation, with worships on Saturday nights, has been renting space for 15 years in Macungie Church of the Nazarene at 3800 Brookside Road in the township.

He said the building renovations are about 80 percent complete, adding the floor of the skating rink has been preserved.

Despite its name, the new church is much closer to the village of Trexlertown then it is to the borough of Macungie.

Assistant township engineer Alan Fornwalt said a 6-foot-wide macadam pathway will run along the front of the Life Church property – in the right-of-way.