Lower Macungie Township commissioners have begun a multi-step process to make the long-debated Hamilton Crossings shopping center a reality.
A public hearing on whether the township should participate in a tax increment financing - TIF - plan will be held May 1.
Just over one month later, on June 5, commissioners will decide if the township will opt into the TIF, which would allow 50 percent of increased tax revenue from the shopping center to be diverted to pay for public infrastructure improvements for 20 years.
At the same June 5 meeting, they also will vote on whether they will create a TIF district for Hamilton Crossings.
The five commissioners took the first step in the process Thursday night, when they unanimously approved advertising the May 1 public hearing.
It will be advertised before April 1, because state law requires such TIF hearings be advertised more than 30 days before they are held.
A time line for commissioner approval of the long-delayed TIF was laid out by township solicitor Richard Somach.
He told commissioners if Lower Macungie authorizes the Hamilton Crossings TIF, "this whole process will proceed to a final project."
He noted East Penn School District's school board already opted into the TIF plan last year.
Somach gave the commissioners a memo stating no provisions in the state's TIF Act require all taxing authorities -the township, East Penn and Lehigh County ---to participate in creating a TIF District.
His memo notes that position was upheld in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision.
Somach 's memo confirms an assertion made last week by Lehigh County commissioner Percy Dougherty, that the Hamilton Crossings developers do not need Lehigh County's participation in a tax increment financing plan.
Lehigh County Executive Thomas Muller was in the audience at the township commissioners meeting, as part of his plan to attend a meeting of every municipality in the county.
Muller, who lives in Lower Macungie and supports the shopping center project, did not address the commissioners about Hamilton Crossings, but later said: "I was the one who challenged the belief many seemed to have that all three taxing bodies had to participate in the TIF. Now lawyers for the Lehigh County Industrial Development Authority, East Penn School District, the county and Lower Macungie have all confirmed my belief. "
Muller said he challenged the misconception after it became clear he would not get five votes to support the TIF from the county commissioners. They already had rejected the TIF by a 6-3 vote in June 2013.
The Hamilton Crossings developers repeatedly have stated they needed a TIF plan to make their project work, and that they needed all three municipal bodies to participate to make that TIF plan work.
"There was a misconception," said Somach. "The developers said 'we won't go ahead unless we have all three.' But that has nothing to do with what the TIF Act requires."
"It does not require all three taxing bodies to approve this," explained Somach to the commissioners. "They merely vote on it."
If one of those taxing bodies votes not to be part of the TIF, he said, the developers can decide whether or not to proceed without the financial support that participation would have given the project.
"There have been some comments over the last several months that seemed to indicate the developers would be unable to proceed without the involvement of all three of the municipalities and that may have been true during the time those comments were made," said Somach.
"I've been advised that part of the reason they may now be able to proceed with this is there may be some other, more creative stop-gap measures they've come up with that may not have been available or apparent to them at the time."
The developers could not be reached after the meeting to explain why they no longer need the participation of all three municipalities to make their TIF work.
With the participation of all three, the TIF would have generated $7 million to help pay for the $140 million project. The entire $7 million had to go to road and other infrastructure improvements.
No tacit endorsement
Before the unanimous vote to advertise the May 1 public hearing, Lower Macungie commissioner Ron Beitler stressed: "This isn't any tacit endorsement of the TIF by the township. We are simply authorizing staff to advertise the hearing."
Beitler added: "I know I'm just one of five, but my mind is not made up on this issue.
"The developer and those in favor of this are going to have to make the case why the township should forfeit 50 percent of incremental increases in taxes over the next 20 years, when this project is going to be costing us in terms of downstream impact.
"This is a discussion I look forward to having. I hope to hear from lots of people on this, both pro and against, before final decisions are made.
"I think it's pretty safe to say that no one's minds on this board should be made up at this point."
None of Beitler's four colleagues said a word in response to that last comment.
Three township commissioners -- Douglas Brown, Ryan Conrad, and James Lancsek -- already are on the record in support of the Hamilton Crossings TIF.
The other commissioner, Brian Higgins, joined the board with Beitler in January.
Somach said after the May 1 public hearing, the commissioners "may elect to authorize advertisement of the two proposed ordinances to opt into the TIF and officially creating a TIF district."
Those proposed ordinances would have to be advertised before May 29 so they could be voted on at the commissioners June 5 meeting.
The state's law requires that a TIF plan must precisely define properties to be included in a TIF district. Lower Macungie is responsible for creating that TIF district and the public hearing is a mandatory part of that process.
Hamilton Crossings will be built on 63 undeveloped acres between Route
222 and Hamilton Boulevard in the township. Krocks Road will run through the center of the shopping center. The property currently is owned by the Allentown Catholic Diocese.
On another action relating to the shopping center project, commissioners unanimously agreed to accept a $29,236 contribution from the developers so they can install a "rain garden" detention basin in the northwest corner of the township's Wescosville Park.
The money will go into the township's park and recreation fund, said Sara Pandl, the township's planning and economic development director.
Pandl explained that, in addition to the cash, the developers plan to create a naturalized basin with vegetation, an observation area, educational signs, and paths through the park as well as across a driveway into the shopping center.
She said all those improvements are being proposed by the developers to mitigate the impact of the pond on the township's park.
"The improvements they are installing to mitigate this impact are more than what the recreation contribution will be, but they are willing to do both," Pandl.
She said creating the .3-acre "rain garden" stormwater basin will not interfere with softball fields in the 6.7-acre park.
Pandl said the entire rain garden project will cost over $250,000.
The developer apparently could not put the stormwater basin on the Hamilton Crossings property because of mine wash deposits in the ground.
Proposed changes for Route 222
Commissioners also unanimously approved sending a letter to the state Department of Transportation requesting the first steps be taken to allow right-of-way modifications along Route 222 on the north side of Hamilton Crossings
Those modifications involve adding lanes to widen eastbound Route 222 at the Krocks Road intersection. That would be done so eastbound traffic can turn off Route 222 at Krocks Road to get to the shopping center, and so traffic leaving Hamilton Crossings can get onto eastbound Route 222 from Krocks Road.
Township engineer William Erdman said those access lanes, which he called a collector/distributor roadway, would become township right-of-way rather than PennDOT right-of-way.
But he said the costs for construction and maintenance of those proposed roads would be entirely paid by the developers. "The township would not incur any cost."
"I was pleased to see the commissioners take votes on three items that help the project move forward," said Muller after the meeting.
Closing a gap in path
On an issue not related to Hamilton Crossings, commissioners voted 4-1 to permit Pandl to apply for a PennDOT grant to add a missing section of paved pathway near Lower Macungie Middle School.
About a one-third-mile-long section macadam path would be added at the northwest corner of the intersection of Lower Macungie Road and Krocks Road.
It would begin at the end of Fairway Lane in the Shepherd Hills neighborhood, go down Krocks, then go west on Lower Macungie Road to connect with an existing path near the school.
Pandl said the path would be installed on school district property. She said the grant would pay for construction, but the township and school district would pay for permits and engineering.
Higgins voted against seeking the grant, saying putting the path on school district property would not be the best use of the township's money, "even though most of it is coming from a grant." He said township money should be used for walkways in areas utilized more for business access where walking is necessary.
Beitler disagreed, saying: "I live on Lower Macungie Road and I can tell you there are walkers on Lower Macungie Road daily. This is addressing an existing public safety issue."
"We do see a lot of walkers in this area along the shoulder," said Pandl.