High density, high anxiety

Single-family homes ring the edge of a field. Local planners say that if this type of growth continues, it will chew up more farmland. But many Lancaster County residents are wary of high-density developments.


As Tom Lisi reported in this week’s Sunday LNP | LancasterOnline, “A recent analysis from the Lancaster County planning department suggests new homes are being built on the right land for development, but they're also gobbling up too much of it too fast.” Scott Standish, the department’s executive director, told Lisi that county planning officials used 2020 census population and housing data to calculate the average amount of land occupied by homes in Lancaster County. “The analysis showed the density levels of new developments between 2015 and 2019 remain stubbornly low, about 4.6 homes per acre. The county set a 7.5 homes-per-acre goal in 2018,” Lisi reported. Standish said if municipalities continue to rely so heavily on detached single-family homes to accommodate their population growth, the result will be less preserved land in Lancaster County and more expensive and inefficient taxpayer-funded infrastructure and utilities.

We all value open space and preserved land. Until, that is, we’re asked to accept the high-density developments that would help Lancaster County to retain its beautiful farmland, wide-open spaces and natural habitats.

We may appreciate on some level the need for high-density developments that include town houses and apartments. Too many of us just don’t want them anywhere near our own backyards. So we urge municipal officials to withhold planning approval and they generally comply.

As a result, land that could be used in a smarter, less expansive and more inclusive way becomes yet another sprawling development of single-family homes on oversized lots. And those new single-family homes often are priced at more than $300,000, which is beyond the reach of even many middle-class families. That was the case even before the current seller’s market and the national rise in construction costs.

Affordable housing

As Lisi also reported, “Lancaster city officials hope to close on the $1 million purchase of a parking lot near the former St. Joseph Hospital to build new income-restricted apartments. … Early plans for the 1-acre site on the corner of Marietta and North West End avenues call for around 50 units reserved for households that make less than the area median income, a metric set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In the current federal fiscal year, 50% of the Lancaster metro area’s area median income for a family of three is $37,350.”

City officials are in talks with HDC MidAtlantic, a Lancaster-based nonprofit that develops and manages affordable housing, about leading the project. It would be an addition to a $90 million plan from HDC MidAtlantic and Baltimore-based Washington Place Equities to transform the former St. Joseph and surrounding properties into a new housing development, Lisi noted. The six-story former hospital building on College Avenue would include 150 market-rate apartments. HDC MidAtlantic is developing a 64-unit building at 213 College Ave., and another building with 48 or so units on the southeast corner of Marietta and College avenues; all those units would have income restrictions.

We laud Lancaster city officials for their push to increase affordable housing options. As Lisi reported, Lancaster City Council is scheduled to vote Oct. 26 on an ordinance that would authorize Mayor Danene Sorace's administration to use $5 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan funding to pursue affordable housing projects.

If only the Lancaster County commissioners would use some of the county’s $106 million in American Rescue Plan funds to make a similar push countywide.

Because the dearth of affordable housing is not just a Lancaster city problem. It’s a Lancaster County problem. 

Fixing that problem is going to require that local townships and boroughs change their land-use rules to allow for greater density — with more compact housing, higher buildings and multifamily buildings.

As Alice Yoder, community health expert and chair of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, wrote in a September op-ed for LNP | LancasterOnline, “Lancaster County’s current comprehensive plan — Places 2040 — published by the Lancaster County Planning Commission, offers sound guidance and tools. Still, the real substance of the work has to be done at the municipal level. Lancaster County’s 60 municipalities may create independent zoning ordinances and planning goals — but protecting Lancaster County’s farmland and open spaces will take teamwork.”

Without that teamwork, and the willingness of local municipal officials to alter their land-use rules, “we’re going to use up land much more quickly within the boundaries" of land designated for development, county planner Standish told Lisi. “And then we're going to be at the point where we have to decide, ‘OK, now what do we do?’ ”

Standish said there’s a misconception that apartment buildings worsen transportation problems and stress public schools. That’s not necessarily the case. A multiple-use development can include stores and eateries to which residents can walk. But that misconception often derails even preliminary discussions about such developments.

East Hempfield Township Manager Cindy Schweitzer told Lisi that residents complain even about the traffic generated by new single-family houses. Which makes promoting density to township residents a tough sell. 

As Lisi reported, county planning officials contend that increased housing density would be able to support a more comprehensive public transportation system, and therefore relieve congestion. 

But Americans like their cars, even when those cars are stuck in traffic. And even when developable land dwindles in the municipalities where they reside.

Suburban sprawl

That’s the case in East Hempfield Township, where Schweitzer told Lisi that township supervisors don’t want more development to encroach on farmland north of Route 283. She nevertheless expects residential sprawl to continue west into West Hempfield Township.

There may be a sliver of light on the horizon in Manheim Township, where future land development is a major issue in November’s municipal election. It’s also where intense battles have been fought over mixed-use developments. And where Grandview Heights — an old neighborhood with a mix of elegant stone and brick houses, Cape Cods, semi-detached houses, two apartment complexes and one additional apartment building — shows that walkable communities offering a variety of housing types, including affordable rental housing, are possible.

Manheim Township Manager James Drumm told Lisi that while the construction of single-family homes predominated there over the last decade, the township is working with Lancaster city officials to consider “higher-density apartment-type development,” especially on the township’s southern side, which borders the city. “We’ve been in discussions about planning how we can sort of plan that area together,” he said.

This is good news, and we hope that the plans come to fruition — and include housing that would meet the needs not just of growing families but seniors hoping to move from their single-family homes into accommodation that won’t drain their savings.

Another hopeful development (in all senses of that word): A four-story, 62-unit affordable-housing apartment building for older adults is being constructed in Lititz and is set to be completed by fall of next year, Lisi reported.

Saxony Ridge Apartments in Warwick Woodlands, a retirement community operated by Moravian Manor Communities, will consist of 44 one-bedroom and 18 two-bedroom apartments, some of which will be appointed with accessibility features like grab bars and lower light switches. Ten units will be available to older adults who are homeless. The units will be restricted to various income levels, as low as 20% of area median income, Lisi reported. 

What excellent news.

As Yoder of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, wrote, “How we build our communities matters. It matters to those in our urban centers and to those in our most rural places.”

And it matters if we are to preserve the essential character of Lancaster County as a place where farmland and green spaces remain, and families of all income levels can put down roots.

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