The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission overwhelmingly opposes Lower Saucon Township changing its zoning to allow the IESI landfill to expand in the township.
On Thursday night, the 37-member LVPC board unanimously rejected the township’s proposed zoning changes – with one abstention.
The proposed rezoning is inconsistent with Northampton County’s comprehensive plan, according to LVPC.
The outcome of the vote, taken after 80 minutes of discussion, was no surprise. LVPC’s staff already had gone on record opposing the zoning changes.
But LVPC is only a recommending body. Lower Saucon officials who will make the final decisions are not required to take its advice.
About 25 people were in the audience at the meeting. Many were residents who oppose any expansion of the landfill. But one resident spoke in favor of that expansion, as did two IESI employees.
The rezoning was spurred by the landfill operators so they can expand.
Although called the IESI Bethlehem Landfill, it is located entirely in Lower Saucon. It is along Applebutter Road, just north of the easternmost tip of Bethlehem.
The proposed rezoning would involve nearly 140 acres on the west side of the landfill. Skyline Drive runs through the center of the proposed rezoned area.
After the vote Samuel Donato, the landfill’s manager, said a final determination has not yet been made, but IESI hopes to expand the 224-acre facility by about 50 acres.
He said it would not double in size, as some residents had claimed.
But because the landfill needs buffer areas, the amount of land purchased could be considerably more than 50 acres.
Donato said the current landfill has only 3.5 years left to operate if it cannot expand. He said an expansion would give the operation an additional 8 to 12 years.
He told the LVPC board that IESI has, or soon will have, agreements of sale with the majority of private property owners in the proposed landfill expansion area that needs to be rezoned. He estimated only a dozen homes are in that area.
Donato said his company does not yet have an application to expand the landfill before the township or the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The landfill manager showed the LVPC board large photos of the area around the landfill to make the point that Applebutter Road runs through an industrial area -- with his landfill, a power plant, a PPL switching station, an industrial park of warehouses and a nearby wastewater treatment plant.
“This is not farming, this is heavy manufacturing,” said Donato. He added no developer would build homes in that “very industrial area.”
Jay McLaughlin, who works at the landfill, said he was speaking for his fellow employees when he told the LVPC board: “We have good paying jobs at the landfill. We would like to keep our jobs. This is the best outfit I’ve ever worked for.”
He got the best laugh of the meeting when he said: “I’ve worked in this industry for 30-plus years. We’re a healthy, safe environment. No health problems, except I eat too much.”
Lower Saucon resident Dave Spirk said landfills are not great to have around, “but we’ve got to have them.” He said it has been there since 1941 and may be in the best place in the township for a landfill. He also said the IESI facility contributes $2 million to Lower Saucon’s $6.8 million annual budget. “When that landfill closes, that money goes away.”
Other residents went to the LVPC meeting to oppose the landfill’s expansion, not to address the merits of the township’s proposed rezoning to allow that expansion.
They spoke despite the fact that, at the start of the discussion, LVPC chairman Mathew Glennon explained the only issue before his board was whether the township’s proposed rezoning is consistent with LVPC’s comprehensive plan.
The residents told LVPC the existing IESI landfill is 700 to 750 feet tall and can be seen from many miles away.
“It’s literally destroyed the skyline,” said resident Bob Wells. “It will destroy the value of our homes.”
“If this expands, it is the death of that area of our township,” said resident Donna Louder. “We are left with land that is useless. That is forever.”
“The expansion is going to destroy our quality of life,” said resident Russell Sutton. “We need you to help us defend our quality of life.”
“People made a lot of good comments tonight,” said LVPC board member Percy Dougherty just before the vote. “But you will still have to go and appeal to your township board. We are just looking at the county comprehensive plan. We’re looking at the zoning, the land use, the traffic and the problems associated with our comprehensive plan.”
Sutton complained the landfill’s expansion plans have put residents through an 18-month-long ordeal.
Lower Saucon officials at LVPC
Priscilla deLeon, who serves on Lower Saucon’s 5-member township council, told LVPC that late last year the township’s planning commission took an initial 6-1 vote against the proposed rezoning, after an informal review.
After that, said deLeon, the township council put the issue on the back burner until a few months ago, when it voted 3-2 to start a formal review process on the merits of the proposed rezoning. That’s how the proposed rezoning ordinance got before LVPC.
DeLeon said she was very pleased with the excellent job the LVPC staff, committee and commission did in reviewing the rezoning proposal.
She told the LVPC board she does not support any expansion of the landfill.
After the vote, deLeon said David Willard and Ron Horiszny, two other members of Lower Saucon’s council, also attended the LVPC meeting. They did not address the LVPC board.
The LVPC board member who abstained from voting was Atty. Charles Elliott, whom deLeon identified as Lower Saucon’s environmental solicitor.
DeLeon expects the township’s planning commission will review LVPC’s recommendations when it meets Aug. 22, and that the township’s environmental advisory council will do the same when it meets Aug. 13.
Donato of IESI said his next move will be to go back to Lower Saucon’s planning commission.
At 7 p.m. Sept. 25, Lower Saucon will hold a public hearing on the proposed rezoning at Saucon Valley School District’s administration building.
Proposed zoning changes
The LVPC raises several objections to the proposed rezoning in the letter it is sending to township manager Jack Cahalan Friday.
That letter was drafted by LVPC staff, then reviewed and approved by the board’s comprehensive planning committee Tuesday afternoon.
At Thursday’s meeting, David Berryman, LVPC’s chief planner, reviewed the letter before the full board voted to approve it.
Berryman said the township’s rezoning involves three zoning districts: light industrial, rural agriculture and light manufacturing. Most of the area would be rezoned to light industrial.
In the light industrial zone, said Berryman, the proposed rezoning would change landfills from special exceptions to conditional uses.
And the proposal would remove the light manufacturing district, said Berryman, because that district does not allow landfills.
Atty. Maryanne Garber, who represents IESI, argued that until 1998, 101 acres in the potential expansion area was zoned light industrial, not light manufacturing. She said the proposed zoning change simply turns those 101 acres back into light industrial. She also said there has been no development in that light manufacturing district since 1998.
Berryman said the proposed rezoning also would “unlock the buffers” that current zoning creates around the landfill. For example, the easternmost section of Bethlehem would be directly across Applebutter Road from the expanded landfill, eliminating any buffer between IESI and the city.
One section of the proposed ordinance calls for 100-foot buffers, which the LVPC considers insufficient.
LVPC maintains the rezoning may create traffic “impacts” on the township, neighboring municipalities and state-owned roads.
LVPC also states the proposed rezoning will disturb designated natural resource areas. It would permit a developer to set aside an equal amount of land as open space, even if that land doesn’t contain the same environmental features. “Open space is not the same thing as natural features you’re preserving,” noted Berryman.
Lower Saucon’s proposal allows developers to contribute money to the township rather than providing open space, which LVPC does not support.