A decision five months in the making is nearing for Oregon Village, a 76-acre, two-site development of apartments, stores and a hotel proposed for a corner of Manheim Township where Plain Sect farms evoke a simpler time and gentler pace.
The township commissioners, who have scheduled a vote for Monday, June 24, must decide whether the Hurst brothers, owners of the popular Oregon Dairy supermarket and family restaurant, proved that the multi-use complex they want to build along busy Route 272 complies with land-use regulations that allow for a village-style development.
If the board approves the project, the Hursts would face a land-development approval process that would take many months before earth is turned. If it rejects the plan, the family could appeal the decision to county court or reconfigure and resubmit the project to the township.
Although the decision may come down to narrow, legalistic considerations, testimony during the 10-session conditional use hearing has sparked a broader debate over what the $120 million project means in the context of countywide growth management.
Stores, housing, hotel
The development is proposed for commercially zoned properties within a village growth area — designated by Manheim Township and the Lancaster County Planning Commission — that is served by public sewer and water.
The project would address a shortage of multifamily housing by offering 554 housing units, mostly apartments, but also 16 townhouses and 32 cottage-style homes for seniors.
Much of the housing would be built next to or near new commercial uses, including an enlarged Oregon Dairy supermarket, a 120-room hotel, a banquet center, restaurant, bank and shops. The two sites, on both sides of Route 272, would have a campus-like setting with 21 acres of common open space, including walking paths.
The Hursts pledged over $6 million in highway improvements, including turn lanes, a new segment of Oregon Road and new traffic signals at four Oregon Pike intersections. There would be parking for 1,936 cars.
Some influential voices — from the Lancaster Chamber to LNP’s editorial board — have concluded that the project is good planning because it concentrates over 550 housing units and commercial uses on just 76 acres, redevelops the abandoned Shawnee resort and provides easy access to Route 222, one of the county’s few limited-access highways.
They say the project is consistent with the broad brushstrokes of the county’s recently updated comprehensive plan, Places 2040, which seeks to accommodate population and economic growth with compact development that slows the impact upon cherished farming landscapes and cultural traditions elsewhere in the county.
But two citizens groups, Respect Farmland and Save Rural Oregon, have cooperated with an attorney representing three Oregon property owners to present witnesses at the hearing who countered the “smart growth” narrative.
Opponents describe the project as the “suburbanization” of a farming area that would overwhelm the tiny scale of Oregon, increase traffic congestion and pose problems for Plain Sect farmers who must travel the busy roads by horse-drawn vehicles and farm equipment.
A trial-like hearing
From the swearing in of witnesses to a stenographer taking down every word, the five-month Oregon Village hearing had many of the trappings of a trial.
The five Manheim Township commissioners functioned in a quasi-judicial capacity, listening almost like jurors as witnesses were questioned and cross-examined by attorneys representing the developer or opponents.
At the center of the decision the board will make is nine pages of the township’s 31-article zoning ordinance that describes what is referred to as the Oregon Village overlay.
A previous board of commissioners approved the overlay in November 2011, deciding that the tiny village of Oregon is suitable for an expansion of residences and businesses.
The overlay allows specifically for apartments and homes mixed with commercial uses, including a full-service hotel, supermarket, restaurants, offices and shops — precisely what the Hurst brothers are proposing to build on their property.
The Hursts otherwise could develop their property with commercial uses that are allowed by right in the business zone, without the mix of residential uses.
Lancaster attorney Matthew Creme, an expert in zoning issues, describes the approval process as “cookbook law,” with a developer having to show the commissioners that it followed the overlay like a recipe.
Case law has established that a development that meets the criteria can’t be denied even if it would create undesirable impacts, such as more traffic, said Creme, who did not represent any of the parties during the Oregon Village hearing.
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But the township’s zoning ordinance does require a developer seeking approval of a conditional use to prove that the project won’t have “a substantial adverse effect” on traffic, parking, schools, public safety and health, adjacent properties and the general character of the area.
Someone objecting to the development must show that the development’s adverse impact would substantially worsen the health, safety and welfare of the community compared to the impact of a similar development on the same site.
Burden on opposition
“The burden is on the opponent to prove this is not an ordinary set of circumstances,” Creme said. “People would say things are weighted in favor of the applicant, and that’s true because the use of your property, subject to reasonable regulation, is a constitutionally protected right.”
After the commissioners vote, the township solicitor will have several days to release findings of fact and conclusions of law, which could serve as the basis for an appeal to Lancaster County Court by the losing party.