Plans to change zoning in Lower Saucon Township, so the IESI landfill can expand, were rejected as causing “greater environmental damage” in a 6-1 vote by the township’s Environmental Advisory Council.
Tuesday night’s vote constitutes a recommendation to the township council, which ultimately will determine the proposed rezoning.
The 224-acre IESI landfill along Applebutter Road will be full in less than four years if it can’t expand. And it can’t expand unless the township changes zoning on nearly 140 acres just west of the landfill.
The landfill’s operators already are buying up properties in the area to be rezoned, in anticipation of township approval.
The only EAC member supporting the proposed rezoning was Thomas Maxfield, who also serves on township council and on the township planning commission.
Maxfield told his EAC colleagues that landfills are “the most environmental way scientists have come up with to deal with our garbage. We’re all making garbage.”
He also said: “I don’t believe in the ‘not in my backyard’ thing. We have a responsibility as humans to deal with our own garbage.”
The EAC’s recommendation is one of three that the five township council members will consider when they decide the issue at some undetermined date in the future.
On July 25, the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission unanimously opposed Lower Saucon changing its zoning.
But on Aug. 22, the township planning commission voted 3-2 in favor of the rezoning. Maxfield was among those voting yes that night.
The next step in the process will be a public hearing on the proposed rezoning, at 7 p.m. Sept. 25 in Saucon Valley School District’s administration building.
After Tuesday’s EAC meeting, Maxfield said no date has been set for the township council to decide the issue, but stressed it definitely won’t vote at the Sept. 25 hearing.
Township council member David Willard told the EAC his council must first vote to advertise the proposed zoning amendment and then take a final vote after it has been advertised.
“We’re going to take everything into consideration,” said Willard just before the EAC voted. “But tonight’s recommendation should be based strictly on environmental factors.”
If the zoning change is approved, the landfill operators will have to come back to the township for approval of plans to expand. Landfill manager Sam Donato told the EAC getting all local and state approvals may take up to four years.
Unlike the standing-room-only crowd at the August planning commission meeting-- where many residents raised environmental and quality of life concerns about the landfill -- the meeting room in the township building was less than half full for Tuesday night’s EAC meeting.
The motion to leave current zoning unchanged was made by EAC member Allan Johnson and seconded by Laura Ray.
Johnson’s motion stated that “the environmental damage to the area within the proposed light industrial zone will be greater than if the zoning in the area is not changed.”
Voting with Johnson and Ray were Sandra Yerger, Ted Beardsley, Hazem Hijazi and Dru Germanoski.
Yerger, the EAC’s chairwoman, also invited associate members to weigh in. Sarah Stanlick and Michael Boyle agreed with the six voting members. Glenn Kaye abstained.
Just in case the township council does not go along with the EAC’s recommendation, it also unanimously voted that 300-foot buffers should be required around the actual landfill if it is allowed to expand. The township planning commission made the same recommendation last month.
Environmental concerns unfounded?
The EAC vote came after more than 90 minutes of discussion.
In making his motion, Johnson said more trees and foliage could be eliminated if the zoning is changed and the landfill expands. He said uses in the proposed light industrial zone also could harm groundwater, threatening wells, and that the health of nearby residents could be harmed by air pollution and diseases carried by animals, such as rodents and birds.
“If the zoning is changed, it will be worse for the environment,” said Johnson.
“From an environmental point of view, changing the land use here is a bad idea for a lot of reasons,” agreed Germanoski. “The potential for groundwater damage is significant. A landfill is one of the few land use activities that requires ground water monitoring wells because of the potential for groundwater contamination.”
Germanoski said another negative environmental impact is that the landfill is “an artificial topography that is transforming the landscape.”
“From an environmental standpoint, I don’t see how it could be beneficial in any way to change the zoning,” said Ray. “We do know the landfill wants to expand. If we change it, that will happen. And that definitely does have a negative environmental impact.”
Although he voted with the majority, during the discussion Hijazi said the EAC can’t be opposed every time it is asked to make a recommendation on potential development. “The question for us is ‘can it be done in a proper way?’”
Atty. Maryanne Garber, the landfill’s lawyer, said all environmental concerns raised by EAC members on Tuesday already had been raised by residents during an October 2012 township meeting that lasted four hours.
Garber maintained each of those concerns was addressed and determined to be “unfounded” by environmental experts and consultants at that meeting.
“To make a decision based on misinformation about environmental impacts would be unfortunate,” she said.
Germanoski wasn’t buying. He repeated landfills present a potential for groundwater contamination because “liners leak, liners are ruptured.”
Garber stressed landfills are a highly regulated industry and a legitimate land use. Germanoski said landfills are highly regulated “because the potential for negative impact is high.”
Resident Donna Louder, who lives less than one mile from the landfill, complained that odors and excessive noise were coming from the operation just this week. She struggled to maintain her composure as she charged IESI permanently is destroying land.
Resident Gene Boyer said the purpose of the EAC is to preserve natural resources in the township. “Why would we allow the destruction of Mother Nature’s land?”
No one acted on the idea, but a couple of EAC members suggested all the area in question should be rezoned rural agricultural.
The existing landfill covers more than 220 acres. IESI plans to increase its property by more than 95 acres.
Donato told the EAC the actual landfill will expand by about 50 acres – 65 acres if surrounding containment areas are included.
He said the landfill will be able to operate for 10 to 12 more years if it can expand.
Donato said about 80 acres of the existing landfill already “are closed and capped.”
He said that section is highly populated by turkey, deer, fox and other wildlife.
He said eventually the entire landfill will be re-vegetated with native grasses and, in the future, it will be open space that can be used for passive recreation. He said it also could become the future site of a solar power field.
He explained gas produced by decomposing waste in the landfill is being tapped to produce enough electricity for thousands of homes and will continue to do so for about 10 years.
The landfill started around 1940 and initially was owned by Bethlehem.
The zoning change
If approved by the township council, most of the 140 acres adjoining the landfill will be rezoned Light Industrial (LI). Now most of it is zoned Rural Agricultural (RA) and Light Manufacturing (LM), which do not allow landfills.
One revelation at the meeting was that most of more than 100 acres of land on the southwest side of the landfill was rezoned from LI to LM by the township in 1998 specifically to stop the landfill from expanding.
Before that change, “it was LI as far back as anyone can remember,” said Garber.
The IESI lawyer also said: “Since 1998, there has been no development in this LM district. There hasn’t even been an application for a development.”
Germanoski called that environmentally “encouraging.”
Said Garber: “You can’t make this decision assuming that these properties are never going to be developed as LM. You can’t assume they are going to remain undeveloped in perpetuity.”
Maxfield also argued that just because nothing has happened in the past, that doesn’t mean the land won’t be developed in the future. “I just don’t want to bank on the fact that nothing will happen.”
Germanoski and Ray said the future development of the land will remain uncertain if it remains LM, but the landfill definitely will expand if it becomes LI.
Donato predicted that area will change “whether we develop it or the warehouse district comes in. The natural resources will be changed. That’s progress. That’s what happens.”
Maxfield said uses allowed in light manufacturing zoning districts also can be damaging to the environment. “There are only a couple of things not allowed in LM that are allowed in LI. The rest of it’s the same.”
But Johnson said LI zoning districts allow other uses in addition to landfills – including concrete and asphalt plants, petroleum and hazardous substance storage, production of non-toxic and non-hazardous chemical products and waste transfer facilities. “Those are some pretty nasty uses too,” he said.
Yerger said mining and other heavy industry also are allowed in LI zoning.
Zoning issues are not within the EAC’s purview, Yerger reminded her colleagues.
“We are here to analyze this on an environmental basis.”