Meadow Spring field

This is a wheat field along Meadow Springs Road near Stoney Battery Road in West Hempfield Township Tuesday, June 28, 2022. 44.6 acres of the property has been rezoned from rural agricultural to general industrial. The building in the background is the former QVC Distribution Center at 1000 Stony Battery Road.

Pat Landis stood at the edge of her driveway, admiring the amber fields that stretch for acres outside her West Hempfield Township neighborhood, with its manicured lawns and picket fences.

She described it as idyllic – a quiet, rural setting that she and many of her neighbors have enjoyed for decades.

Moments later, her mood changed as a tractor-trailer rumbled along a nearby road, a sound that’s becoming more common, Landis said, with ongoing warehouse construction just several blocks from her home.

“It just breaks my heart,” she said.

Landis worries those disruptions will increase now that township officials are allowing industrial development on one of those open fields for the potential expansion of an e-commerce operation at Meadow Spring and Stony Battery Roads. Beyond claiming valuable farmland, she said, developing the parcel would exacerbate flooding in the area and send more warehouse-related traffic, including tractor-trailers, down rural roads.

“When I bought this home, in this area, I bought it for a reason,” Landis said, and industrial development wasn’t part of her reasoning.

Four of the five of the township’s supervisors, however, view development as progress, a way to diversify the heavily agricultural community’s economy, possibly bringing in new jobs and tax revenue. A lack of available industrial space in the township, and Lancaster County as a whole, has long been a barrier to that growth, municipal and county officials say.

Landis and the supervisors have likened the disagreement to a culture war. Residents say they just want to protect the bucolic farming community they chose to call home, while local officials say they are trying to balance the township’s agricultural identity against the need to diversify the economy as its population is projected to grow in the coming decades.

“People don’t want change, and they want it to stay exactly the same, and I wish we could,” Supervisor Edward Fisher said during a phone call earlier this month. “But change is going to continue to happen because our children want a place to live, our children want a place to work and our children want a place to shop. That’s the reality.”

w hempfield zoning map 7-17-22

In this case, that change is slated for just shy of 50 acres at 3451 Meadow Spring Road, which has long served as part of owner David Ginder’s grain-farming operation. The property is adjacent to a former QVC order-fulfillment center off Stony Battery Road. The building’s new owners at Saadia Group — a New York-based online retailer, wholesaler and manufacturing company — have expressed interest in purchasing Ginder’s farmland to expand their operation, supervisors said.

Messages left for Saadia officials — by phone, email and in person at the West Hempfield facility — were not returned.

Ginder’s land had been in a part of the township zoned for agriculture, meaning rules prohibit development that is not related to farming. Under those rules, a Saadia Group expansion would not be allowed. Saadia officials asked supervisors to change the zoning rules, according to Township Manager Andrew Stern.

At their June 7 meeting, township supervisors obliged. All supervisors voted in favor of the change except Naomi Martin, who abstained. Martin owns a home adjacent to the rezoned property, and residents and other supervisors said she is related to Ginder. Attempts to reach Martin by phone and in person at her home were unsuccessful.

Meadow Spring field

Wheat field along Meadow Spring Road near Stony Battery Road in West Hempfield Township, photographed Tuesday, June 28, 2022, is at the center of a debate over protecting farmland. The building in the background is the former QVC Distribution Center.

‘Worth more than money’

The rezoning was incredibly unpopular, according to Landis and about a half-dozen neighbors who gathered on her back deck late last month. Susan Dicklitch-Nelson, a former candidate for township supervisor, was among them and described the change as an affront to the agricultural community, especially if it leads to industrial construction atop farmable land. The group boasted about Lancaster County’s distinction as the most productive non-irrigated farming county in the United States.

“I mean, we have a God-given gift, some of the most fertile land in America,” Dicklitch-Nelson said. “And we are willing to give that up for a warehouse?”

It is foolish, she said, to jeopardize food-producing soil for a potential influx of industry-related tax revenue.

“There are some things that are worth more than money,” she said, asserting that most, if not all, existing farmland should be preserved against development.

That opinion is not unique, according to Jeff Swinehart, president and CEO of Lancaster Farmland Trust, a nonprofit focused on farmland preservation — securing the development rights of farms to legally ensure that they remain available only for agricultural uses.

In a 2021 poll of 600 Lancaster County adults, 90% of respondents said they “are ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned about the loss of farmland and open space in Lancaster,” Swinehart said. The poll was commissioned by the Conservation Foundation of Lancaster County, the fundraising arm of the county’s conservation district.

Protecting agricultural land, including through increased preservation, has been prioritized as part of a countywide comprehensive plan called Places2040.

Building more densely within urban and suburban boundaries could help, Swinehart said, adding that land use in the county has become more efficient when compared to historical trends, but improvements can still be made.

w hempfield zoning chart 7-17-22

“(Collectively) across the county, we are still not achieving the density of growth that helps to limit the consumption of farmland for our growing communities,” he said.

Already, the group of West Hempfield residents said, they’ve watched as several newly built warehouses along Stony Battery Road, just over the border in East Hempfield Township, have altered their lives, drawing tractor-trailers that spew exhaust pollution as they roll noisily by on local roads.

Landis said heavy trucks could negatively impact the quality of life at her home along Nolt Road and lead to costly wear and tear on township roads.

Then there’s the runoff. Landis showed photographs of nearby fields flooded with inches of water after a heavy downpour. The flooding, the residents said, is a result of stormwater washing across impervious pavement, including at the former QVC site, preventing it from soaking into soil and vegetation.

They worry that the Saadia expansion will mean more pavement and the potential to direct pollution-laden runoff onto neighboring farms.

All of those concerns combined could be enough to sway local farmers and nonfarmers to abandon their West Hempfield properties, Dicklitch-Nelson said, creating room for even more development.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the plan: ‘Let’s create a warehouse district.’ That is not what this neighborhood is about. That is not what this township is about,” Dicklitch-Nelson said.

At Landis’ home, the neighbors said they shared their grievances with supervisors alongside dozens of other disapproving residents at public meetings held ahead of the zoning change. Still, the majority of the supervisors voted in favor of the rezoning — a decision that baffled Dicklitch-Nelson, she said.

By his count, Supervisor Kent Gardner estimates about 200 of the township’s approximately 17,000 residents spoke out against the rezoning, but he compared that to all of the others who remained silent, as well as the few who spoke in favor of the change.

Many of them, Gardner said, will appreciate the additional jobs and tax revenue that development is likely to provide. Without submitted development plans, those jobs and tax revenue are hypothetical at this point.

Supervisor David Dumeyer put it like this: “We have, and want to maintain, a strong agricultural community, but industry is what provides a lot of jobs for the county and for the township.”

And space for industrial development in West Hempfield Township is severely lacking, according to Lisa Riggs, president of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County.

Industrial land shortage

As of last summer, only about 4% of West Hempfield Township’s land was zoned for industrial use, according to data used to produce a State of Farmland Preservation report released by Lancaster Farmland Trust in 2021. About 57% was zoned for agriculture, with about 37% of that farmland permanently preserved. The township is about 17.2 square miles, according to its website.

Across the county, numbers are similar, according to Scott Standish, Lancaster County Planning Department’s executive director. Standish provided figures from 2018 that show the county is composed of 54.3% agricultural lands, versus only 0.7% industrial and 0.6% industrial/commercial land.

“We just do not have enough industrial land right now,” Standish said. “Everything is built-out in Lancaster County.”

And the vast majority, more than 95 percent, of existing industrial space throughout the county is currently occupied, Riggs said.

A lack of available space, experts say, can limit a municipality’s ability to attract new industry, and make it difficult for existing businesses to grow — key components for promoting a diverse economy in the county, where the population is expected to grow by as many as 100,000 people over the next two decades.

“At EDC, we are very concerned about the lack of available land to support ... growth,” said Riggs, who supports efforts to attract and retain industrial businesses. “We would much rather see those companies stay here, keep their growth here.”

The rezoning of the former QVC site was backed by county and local planning officials, who said it would be consistent with adjacent industrial and “enterprise” areas.

Supervisors and Stern, the township manager, have cited the lack of room for expansion as a reason QVC vacated its West Hempfield facility. Residents gathered at Landis’ home were skeptical.

The former order fulfillment center was closed as part of a restructuring effort, during which parent company Quarate Retail Group also announced closures of QVC facilities in Roanoke, Virginia and Greeneville, Tennessee. More than 1,100 workers at the West Hempfield center were expected to lose their jobs with layoffs beginning in summer 2020, according to previous LNP | LancasterOnline reports. QVC had been operating in the area since 1987, expanding several times.

Less than a year later, Saadia Group purchased the 765,000-square-foot complex for $15.5 million. Now, Saadia officials are considering expansion, supervisors said, with a few of them speculating that the company’s agreement to purchase land from Ginder was contingent on the rezoning.

Earlier this month, Ginder confirmed that he had communicated with Saadia officials about a potential land sale, but would not share specific details.

“Nothing is set in stone,” Ginder said, speaking briefly through a closed screen door at his Rapho Township farmhouse.

No development plans had been submitted to the township as of Wednesday, Stern said.

Ginder was unwilling to discuss the rezoning but said he was aware of the community backlash.

Supervisor Robert Munro said he took that backlash to heart, listening to every criticism before voting in favor of the rezoning.

“We definitely heard what residents were saying,” Munro said. Ultimately, he said, rezoning just “seemed like the right fit.”

That doesn’t mean residents will be ignored, supervisors said.

Meadow Spring field

This is a wheat field along Meadow Springs Road near Stony Battery Road in West Hempfield Township Tuesday, June 28, 2022. 44.6 acres of the property has been rezoned from rural agricultural to general industrial. The building in the background is the former QVC Distribution Center at 1000 Stony Battery Road.

What’s next?

Any construction plans submitted by Saadia officials will be vetted through the standard municipal development process, which includes stormwater studies that should help alleviate some fears about further stormwater management issues, Stern said.

“Anywhere that there is impervious surface (pavement), there are stormwater issues as water cannot get into the ground. We have a strict stormwater ordinance which the developer will need to adhere to in order to mitigate potential issues,” he said.

“During the rezoning, some residents expressed concern about stormwater from the existing QVC facility. That facility was built prior to our current stormwater regulations,” Stern said.

Similar studies will examine traffic, including tractor-trailers, Dumeyer said.

Dumeyer and other supervisors also noted their commitment to the township’s agricultural base, calling this type of rezoning rare and vowing to continue efforts to preserve farmland, possibly in the area near the Saadia facility.

“It’s a balancing act,” Dumeyer said.

Kaleb Long, president of the Lancaster County Farm Bureau, also acknowledged the need for that balance, saying he understands that it makes sense to develop farmland “in certain cases.” Still, he said, the goal should be to maintain existing farmland.

Residents have an opportunity to appeal the supervisors’ rezoning. A 30-day filing window began after the second of two public advertisements of the supervisors’ decision, according to a related legal notice. The zoning change was advertised in LNP on June 21 and 28.

As of Wednesday, Stern said he was unaware of any filed appeals. And the township residents would not say explicitly whether they plan to appeal.

However, Dicklitch-Nelson said supervisors and developers should expect further pushback as the Saadia plans move forward.

“We are not anti-business. We are not anti-development. This is not the NIMBY syndrome,” she said. “It’s saying, ‘Let’s try to preserve what we have and not go the way of money.’”

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