Despite facing a large and hostile crowd, the elected leaders of Lower Macungie Township unanimously approved a 597-acre Jaindl subdivision Thursday night.
So many people attended the meeting that some had to stand for two hours and others could not even get into the room in the township building.
Township commissioners ignored requests that another meeting be held before voting on a resolution to approve the subdivision.
Nearly 90 minutes into the meeting, Scott Bieber, one of the subdivision’s most vocal opponents, said: “It’s terrible that commissioners are trying ramrod this thing through at this public meeting and making people stand uncomfortably.” He said some people left because they got tired of standing and asked commissioners to “please” have a public hearing before voting so residents can get all their questions answered.
Commissioners listened to comments, questions, criticism and sarcastic jeers from the audience for more than an hour, with Ron Eichenberg, their president, occasionally pounding his gavel and demanding politeness and decorum.
The audience groaned when Charlie Barth, the only resident who spoke in support of the project, suggested those who want farmland move to Montana or Bradford County.
Almost everyone who spoke against the project – for reasons ranging from protecting the environment to too much tractor-trailer traffic -- was applauded.
Some said too many tractor-trailers already are on roads all over the township and ignoring “no truck traffic” signs because there is no enforcement.
“I’d like to be proud of my township again,” said resident Lea Papp. “The voices here need to be heard.”
“We have elected you to listen to the voice of the people and the people are saying we don’t want this,” said resident Alice Casey.
Jaindl Land Company’s approved Spring Creek Properties subdivision No. 1 surrounds Spring Creek Road just north of Alburtis.
It includes seven large lots – up to 68 acres – that can be used for warehouses, light manufacturing or commercial offices. It also includes four smaller commercial lots that will be at the intersection of Spring Creek Road and Sauerkraut Lane, an intersection that does not even exist yet.
Developer David Jaindl was in the room but did not stand to speak. At the start of the meeting, Eichenberg asked Jaindl if he would be willing to meet with residents at some time in the future to discuss the subdivision.
Jaindl agreed to meet with anyone interested in gaining “a better understanding of our long term plans for the property.”
After the vote, a pleased Jaindl said it could take 15-20 years to full develop the properties in the subdivision. Two of the 14 properties, totaling more than 25 percent of the 597 acres, will be preserved as open space.
Resident Victor Henriques maintained 60 percent of the warehouses that already exist in Lehigh Valley are empty. He said the market for warehouses is saturated.
He also claimed the subdivision plan was discussed “and probably already approved in backdoor politics,” with little or no transparency. While commissioners took immediate exception to his comment, Henriques was applauded.
“The time is right for a decision on this resolution,” said Atty. Joseph Zator, the developer’s lawyer, just before commissioners voted.
Each commissioner spoke before voting, two hours after the meeting began.
Commissioner Roger Reis objected to accusations that there has been a lack of transparency. He said the subdivision project has been going through the township approval process for more than two years with many meetings but little public participation. “We had meetings where no one from the public showed up.” He said he had not gotten one phone call from anyone complaining about the process or the project.
“I’m also disappointed by the lack of civility,” said Reis. “You don’t need to get personal about it, to boo people and accuse people of dishonesty.” He objected to characterizations that commissioners are puppets “selling the township down the road” in backroom meetings.
“I see a lot of faces in the audience that, over the last two years, I’ve never seen before,” said Commissioner James Lancsek, referring to how long the plan has been going through the township’s approval process with little public attendance at meetings.
Lanscek said the subdivision is a compromise, rather than having a 600-acre quarry on the property.
Commissioner Douglas Brown asked: “Would you rather have a quarry or would you rather have this?”
Many in the audience responded in unison: “Quarry.”
Said Brown: “As vocal as you may be, more people came to me and opposed a quarry. In a perfect world, I would like to see it stay agricultural, but we are not an agricultural community anymore.”
Brown said the subdivision plan brings some balance to the township’s tax base.
“We’re top heavy in residential. We don’t have enough industry, we don’t have enough commercial.”
Commissioner Ryan Conrad thanked residents for the turn out, noting only about five people attend “every other meeting we have during the year.”
He reminded the audience that commissioners all are township residents who are concerned about quality of life and also have a personal stake in the outcome.
Conrad said he’s sorry “we can’t keep this farmland” and that there is a perception of mistrust. “We’ve been very transparent despite the accusations.”
He stressed approving the subdivision will be followed by township review of any plans to actually develop the properties. And he noted the part of the subdivision that will be preserved will become the largest park in Lower Macungie.
Eichenberg said commissioners cannot take a single-sided view. He said they have to weigh the views of residents, the developer and “legalities-- what is permissible with current zoning laws.”
He also said the five commissioners have been vilified by many, which he said is unfair.