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James Cowhey, Lancaster County planning chief, to retire; sought balance in managing growth

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James Cowhey

James Cowhey is retiring as executive director of Lancaster County Planning Commission. This is a file photo from December 2015.

Culturally diverse Lancaster County, renowned for its farmland and a lively downtown scene, has strived to achieve a balance that works.

James Cowhey sees no reason why the attributes of this community’s rural and urban features can’t continue to thrive and contribute to the quality of life enjoyed here.

When he retires Aug. 30 as executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, Cowhey, 62, can take satisfaction in having helped to show how this 984-square-mile slice of Penn’s Woods can retain its charms for at least the next generation.

Cowhey oversaw a staff of 27 and a $2.4-million budget, and during a 14-year tenure his department issued thoughtfully vetted guidance for how to accommodate growth without sacrificing beloved landscapes and rural traditions.

But the newest blueprint — a plan called places2040 — came with a warning that “a new sense of urgency” is needed to slow development’s encroachment upon farm country.

“We’re all in this together,” Cowhey said in an interview with LNP. “When it comes to land use and transportation, it’s important that people understand that decisions are interconnected, and decision makers can’t work in a vacuum.”

A Lebanon County native who lives in Manheim, Cowhey led the community planning division before being the Lancaster County Commissioners’ choice for executive director of the advisory body in June 2005.

Meeting examines ideas for future of Lancaster County's farmland preservation program

James Cowhey, executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, speaks at the Farm and Home Center in October 2012.

What follows are highlights of Cowhey’s reflections on a career spent thinking about Lancaster County’s future.

What do you feel is the key takeaway in places2040?

We’re all in this together. The ideas in the plan are important, but also the process. It’s important to have engagement with the public and community leaders.

I also think what the public needs to understand is if we don’t reach the plan’s goals for housing density, I think in the next 20 years, but definitely in the next 25 to 30 years, we’re going to be developing farms beyond today’s growth boundaries.

If we’re going to retain the landscapes and quality of life that we all enjoy, we have to get serious about meeting some of those density goals.

You’ve had 14 years to help shape how Lancaster County grows. What has given you the greatest sense of satisfaction?

I think that I’ve helped to foster a greater sense of interconnectedness among decision makers.

When it comes to land use and transportation, it’s important that people understand that decisions are interconnected, and decision makers can’t work in a vacuum.

Because the county planning staff has the area-wide view of things, we’re able to explain how development policies in a municipality would affect neighboring municipalities.

Our outreach to municipalities started in the 1990s, and we’ve built on that communication and collaboration over the years.

What has been your biggest disappointment?

I’m disappointed when I see short-term thinking supersede long-term planning. Most people value Lancaster County’s landscape, but then opposition forms to a proposal for compact, mixed-use development. It happens more frequently that I would hope.

Is there anything you’ve learned from that tug of war?

Before a development is approved, people think the impacts are going to be much worse than they are. For example, apartments. People worry about the added traffic, but analysis shows they produce fewer vehicle trips than single-family homes.

Really, what our job is is to provide planning choices and say here are potential results. Then it becomes a matter for elected officials to make a decision based on the unbiased analysis that we provided.

When you became planning director, you spoke of people being more willing than before to set aside self-interest to do what’s right for the community. Are you still optimistic about that?

I’m still optimistic, if only because it’s a character flaw that I have.

But I think what I’ve learned, going through the places2040 comprehensive plan process, is there still is a desire and a need among community leaders to have a venue for talking about planning policies and building a consensus.

That’s something I’ve been concerned about for 20 some years, having a place that was an ongoing forum for deliberation, and I think our Partners for Place is that. It is a group of over 20 organizations and agencies that will help implement the plan. Because of that, I’m optimistic.

Over a decade ago, you called the affordable housing crisis one of the community’s hardest challenges. Has anything changed since then?

There’s been some movement in the production of affordable housing, but it’s still a very tough issue. Affordable units are hard to finance, and sometimes they are opposed.

We’re not delivering as many units as we could, although good people are working on that every day. We need to continue.

Traffic congestion continues to be a nightmare for thousands of commuters. Can you give them any hope?

We have to offer more ways to reduce vehicle miles traveled. Through transit and land use decisions, we can reduce the number of trips. It will take a change in the ways people travel.

And we need a denser network of roads and interconnectedness. Good Drive was built in 1990 to provide relief for traffic on Rohrerstown Road. It’s an example of how connections might be made, but it was a very expensive proposition.

That’s where the pessimism comes in. There’s just no funding for the network we need to make. And the land available for those corridors is disappearing.

The county commissioners nine years ago chose not to adopt the planning commission’s first-ever economic development plan, “Our Economic Future,” that favored a regional approach to local government, suggesting, for example, tax-base sharing. Was the decision to end that initiative a mistake?

I’m not sure that’s the word I would use. I believe the plan was well done and very forward-looking, but from a political standpoint the timing wasn’t right.

Our job is to provide an analysis of issues and policy choices, and the powers that be decided it wasn’t the right time. I have to respect that.

But what I’ll say is the process we went through was very broad-based within the community, and there was value in the process itself that got people thinking about issues from other perspectives. There were hundreds who participated.

That dialog brought to light some of the weaknesses and strengths in the Lancaster County economy and economic development programs. That conversation has continued.

What advice will you pass on to your successor?

Get to know the people and what it is that they value about Lancaster County. By doing that, the aspirations of the citizens will be reflected in the work the planning commission does.

Twenty years from now, how do you hope Lancaster County will have developed?

People from outside Lancaster County have this idea that we’re a rural place. When I hear that, I say we have over 500,000 people, but we hide them in a rural landscape. We’re hiding that metropolitan area and its economic vitality in a very beautiful landscape.

So when I’m 82 and I drive through the county of over 600,000 people, I hope that it’s perhaps still considered by visitors to be a rural place, while we know it’s a metropolitan place.

Community leaders speak

Community leaders credit Cowhey with seeking input from diverse interests as the Lancaster County Planning Commission developed land-use recommendations that sought to balance the conflicting values of growth and preservation.

Here is what some leaders have to say about Cowhey’s 14-year tenure as executive director.

Josh Parsons, Lancaster County commissioner

Lancaster County has retained its small town appeal and outstanding quality of life while growing into one of the most populous and important counties in the state. James, the planning commission staff, and our partners in the 60 municipalities obviously have had a big role in that success.

Carol Simpson, former Manheim Township commissioner and chair of the Lancaster Inter-Municipal Committee

In partnering with James, we started to understand there are lot of threats to the county, and the only way to not have the county paved over was to do things differently.

I take that back: Carol Simpson IS running for Manheim Township commissioner

A 2011 file photo of Carol Simpson when she was seeking a third term as Manheim Township commissioner.

Stacie Reidenbaugh, 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania

James Cowhey’s leadership and expansive knowledge of planning has been key to the county’s success in ensuring measured growth and preservation of our unique places and landscapes. When you consider that the municipalities planning code limits planning commissions to an advisory role, the broad adoption of smart growth in municipalities across the county is a testament to James’ commitment to educating local officials and building agreement on the importance of balance and good planning practices.

Jeff Swinehart, Lancaster Farmland Trust

The trust has had a close relationship with James and his staff. The planning commission’s approach to smart growth has helped to advance our mission of protecting vast areas of agricultural land and has helped agriculture to remain viable in Lancaster County.

Karen Watkins, Building Industry Association of Lancaster County

James’ belief in the specialness of Lancaster County is evident in the work that the planning commission has undertaken. James has always made himself and his team available for questions and concerns. The BIA board of directors was involved in the Places2040 plan, and we feel like the right balance was struck.

Frank Christoffel III, Lancaster County Association of Realtors

James has taken the broad view, recognizing the various components of a successful Lancaster County, including agricultural preservation, economic development, commercial and residential. I think James and his staff have tried very hard to make sure everybody is sitting at the table and talking about what is important to them.

Kate Zimmerman, Leadership Lancaster

For more than a decade, James has helped our participants understand that they can have real impact in their communities by engaging in their local planning processes in a positive and proactive way. Because of him, over 750 now community leaders see that local issues matter, that they could (and should) make their voices heard, and that leadership starts right here in our own backyards.

Joshua Druce, Coalition for Smart Growth

James has served as a role model for generations of community leaders. It is no accident that Lancaster has been one of the communities that has continued to thrive. And to do so while also maintaining the character and nature of Lancaster County has been nothing short of masterful. It’s not the type of task that can be undertaken by one person, but requires someone who is able to build consensus from various, conflicting stakeholders.