After decades that saw farm after farm yield to suburban development, 24-square-mile Manheim Township is running out of places for new homes and businesses.
The township projects that in 10 to 15 years every vacant tract zoned for development in Lancaster County’s wealthiest and second most populated municipality will have something built on it.
The finality of buildout is prompting suggestions for how to make the best use of what remains. The ideas range from adding parks to allowing on-the-farm businesses to slow the loss of farms. Experts urge higher-density development.
“We have very limited time left,” said Tom O’Brien, one of Manheim Township’s five commissioners. “We need to have more vision.”
The 10-to-15-year timeline for buildout of the township — population 40,232 — assumes moderating population growth below 1% a year, down from 1.7% in the 1990s. The county projects a post-buildout population of 48,500 by 2040.
If the township hopes after buildout to both retain its reputation as a desirable place to live and to keep its tax base from stagnating, it will need to attract investors willing to redevelop under-used or abandoned sites. That’s a key renewal strategy of neighboring Lancaster City with a population just under 60,000.
The proposed $2.5 million repurposing of the century-old, 10.8-acre Stehli Silk Mill, near Manheim Township’s Grandview Heights neighborhood, could serve as a template.
To be clear, looming buildout poses no threat to tracts zoned for agriculture in the township’s northeast corner that lies outside growth boundaries. About 71% of the 2,075-acre farm zone has been preserved for agricultural uses by deed restrictions. The commissioners say their goal is to preserve the entire zone.
It’s the rest of the 15,310-acre township — shaped by its proximity to Lancaster city and the convergence of highways — where 1,738 acres of buildable, vacant land can still be exploited, an analysis shows.
Development opportunities remain scattered across the township but are particularly clustered in the northwest quadrant for homes and in the northcentral area, near Lancaster Airport, for offices, commerce and industry.
A morning drive along overwhelmed, two-lane Fruitville Pike, in the northwest part of the township, finds commuters spilling out of subdivision after subdivision with names like Wetherburn, Brighton and Stonehenge.
Car-oriented homebuyers wanting single-family houses with yards created a demand over the decades that Manheim Township satisfied — to the dissatisfaction of some people already living there.
Public concern about development’s impact on traffic and the Amish came to the forefront this year during a five-month hearing leading to approval of 76-acre Oregon Village.
The commissioners last month split 3-2 over the high-density project, which will feature more than 550 housing units, a 120-room hotel, restaurants and a supermarket.
The debate is likely to enliven the fall campaign for two seats on the township’s five-member governing board.
“What we’ve been doing has not been working,” said Barry Kauffman, an Oregon Village critic and Democratic candidate for commissioner whose website calls for tackling sprawl that he says threatens “our treasured heritage.”
But Al Kling, a Republican commissioner seeking a third, four-year term, said little can be done about how past boards opened up much of the township to homes on spacious lots for the well-to-do.
“We inherited most of this,” he said. “It is what it is.”
The Lancaster County Planning Commission considers the remaining undeveloped land in Manheim Township a “critical resource.”
Depending upon how intensively the tracts are developed may help to save or threaten agriculture, natural resources and rural communities elsewhere in the county.
The planning commission, an advisory body, had hoped to see Manheim Township develop at a density of 7.5 units per acre, on average. Instead, between 2002 and 2015, it achieved an average density of only 4.3 units per acre.
“If we really want to preserve farmland, then we have to do something differently in urban growth areas,” said Scott Standish, a senior county planner who led the process leading to last year’s updated comprehensive plan called Places2040. Higher densities “offer the most fiscally responsible way of dealing with growth, putting it where the infrastructure is.”
And now the county planning commission is pressing for even greater density, seeking an average of nine units per acre in the 13-municipality metro growth area that includes most of Manheim Township.
“We do concede the need for housing density and smaller lot sizes,” said Sam Mecum, a township commissioner.
But nine units per acre will be a stretch.
The township has 1,189 acres of undeveloped land zoned for homes. (The figure excludes tracts where development is pending.)
Two-thirds, or 790 acres, is zoned for single-family homes on half-acre or larger lots. Only 108 acres are zoned for more affordable apartment buildings and townhouses.
Township commissioner Dave Heck said slopes and storm water issues complicate the development of the remaining tracts, explaining why they may not have been developed to date.
But for tracts where more homes could be built, the township has a tool, called a density bonus, to reward more efficient land use. The township allows a developer who buys the development rights of tracts in the agricultural zone to build more units than zoning permits. For example, in a zone where only two units per acre are permitted, the density bonus allows 4.3 units.
But can more be done ahead of buildout?
One idea is to try to delay buildout by allowing farmers who cultivate residentially zoned land to supplement their income through non-farm businesses.
Some Amish farmers, in particular, would like to make furniture, sharpen tools or run similar small enterprises.
“They say they can’t make money farming,” commissioner Mecum said. “We should do whatever is necessary to encourage farmers to stay on farms.”
Other zoning tweaks should be considered, such as allowing homes to be converted into multi-unit apartments and allowing accessory dwelling units, popularly known as granny flats, Joshua Druce, president of Lancaster’s Coalition for Smart Growth, said.
Another idea is to expand the township’s system of a dozen parks totaling 437 acres. The township’s 2012 to 2022 plan for parks and recreation recommended acquiring 181.6 acres of parkland by 2030 to keep pace with population.
The last acquisition — 30 acres for athletic fields along Weaver Road — came in 2009. But the park cost $10 million, and commissioner Heck, a Republican seeking reelection, believes most residents would prefer spending local tax dollars on road improvements rather than on more parks.
Would a post-buildout community, however, fault this generation if it failed to invest in land for recreation while it was available?
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Mecum said.
As buildout approaches, it poses opportunities and anxieties. The decisions ahead should be reached through robust engagement with the public and municipal leaders across the region, Allison Troy, a Democratic candidate for commissioner, said.
“A lot of residents feel like development is hurting rather than helping us,” Troy said. “So the more people who are talking to each other, the better.”