They begged. They argued. They got frustrated and raised their voices.
One by one, residents of the most populous suburb in Lancaster County, Manheim Township, stood before a microphone during five months of special hearings earlier this year and conveyed a simple message to their elected leaders.
Hit the brakes.
Slow down development.
Protect farmland in Oregon Village — the small crossroads that serves as the heart of about 3 square miles of farms and open space in the suburb's largely agricultural northeast — from a plan to build homes, a hotel and restaurant nearby.
“In the name of future generations, I implore you to vote against this gigantic, sprawling, mega-development,” one resident told the five-member board of commissioners.
The opposition to such large-scale projects is nothing new, particularly in a county with as much farmland as Lancaster.
But the debate raging in Manheim Township is notable because it suggests that, after decades of rapid population growth and the consumption of vast swaths of land for McMansions and shopping centers such as Belmont and The Crossings, many residents have reached a tipping point.
It is also notable because Manheim Township — home to 40,000 people and more than 16,000 homes, nearly half of which were built after 1980 — is where development is supposed to occur under “smart growth” policies designed to prevent those same subdivisions and shopping centers from sprawling out into more rural parts of the county, where farmland is more fertile and productive.
Nonetheless, when the township commissioners OKed the Oregon Village project, citizens revolted the only way they could — by voting out the two board members up for re-election this November and flipping the majority-Republican suburb blue for the first time ever.
The message sent by voters was clear.
“Some residents of Manheim Township believe things have gotten a bit out of hand about development,” said Barry Kauffman, one of the two Democrats elected to the board.
So what does the election mean for development in the suburb, and for smart growth policies countywide?
‘Preferable’ spot for development
The two newly elected Democrats, Kauffman and Allison Troy, say they are not against development but want to prevent it on or near farmland in Manheim Township. Of the 15,000 acres of land in the suburb, about 2,000 acres or 14% is farmland or open space, and it’s concentrated in the northeast section of the township.
The remainder of the township, which lies just to the north of the city, is within so-called urban or village “growth areas,” places where county and municipal planners prefer growth to occur.
“It’s certainly a preferable location, especially to build along (Routes) 30 and 222,” said Joshua Druce, board president at the Coalition for Smart Growth, a Lancaster nonprofit.
Those growth areas, which stretch across 43 municipalities including the ring of townships surrounding the city, date to the early 1990s. They were developed collaboratively between the municipalities and the Lancaster County Planning Commission.
That elected officials in one of those municipalities — Manheim Township — are raising questions about growth in an area where it is supposed to occur suggests there are cracks in the smart growth policies embraced broadly here.
“So far the way that development has progressed largely in Manheim Township has been led by developers,” Troy said. “There’s an important role that the board of commissioners can provide in terms of more leadership.”
Scott Standish, interim director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, said it is crucial that land is developed responsibly. But he pointed out that the planning commission is an advisory body and has no power to enforce the growth areas.
That’s left up to the municipalities.
The Oregon Village proposal is for 7.3 units per acre — fewer than what the planning commission recommends in the township’s growth area, but far more than what it recommends in the village of Oregon.
Victor Hurst, a co-owner and property manager at the Hurst Family Estate, said the Oregon Village developer took into consideration the township’s and county’s growth plans.
He said he believes the project will proceed despite the election results.
“It has been a good experience working with all the people at Manheim Township throughout this entire process and we believe this will continue as we move forward,” he said.
Redevelopment vs. development
Troy and Kauffman argue that redeveloping vacant lots and properties must be more of a priority. Development should be encouraged near already developed lots — such as the 166-unit planned residential development near Overlook Park, which Troy said “makes a lot of sense” given its proximity to retail stores.
How the newly elected Democrats manage development in the township remains to be seen, but they already split on the county’s new comprehensive plan, called “places2040.”
Troy has said she is in support of the plan, especially its priorities for increased housing density in Manheim Township.
Kauffman, however, downplayed its significance and called it a “starting point.”
He added, “I’m not buying the fact that Manheim Township has to be the sacrificial lamb for the county.”