The Lancaster County Board of Commissioners and Lancaster County Planning Commission unveiled the places2040 comprehensive plan last week. Three years in the making, the plan will, according to LNP’s Jeff Hawkes, call “on local government, business and advocacy group leaders to work together to promote its growth-management goals.” The plan stresses the need for inter-municipal cooperation within the county to help slow the loss of farmland to development and use land more efficiently in areas designated for population growth and business expansion.
Most everyone reading this is united by a love of Lancaster County. We may have different perspectives about what we love about it, but it’s a good bet that most of us have a vision that includes our beautiful farmland, our wide-open spaces, our parks, historic places and natural habitats. We love fresh air and a pace of life that seems less hurried and congested than in other places.
It’s a vision that’s increasingly endangered by rapid growth.
It’s no surprise that the county’s high quality of living attracts newcomers. We appear regularly on lists of the best places to live in the United States. “Population growth and a strong economy are spurring development,” Hawkes writes. As such, the county is expected to add nearly 100,000 people and 40,000 households over the next 20 years.
We need a plan
We had a plan. The county commissioners adopted a growth-management plan — “Balance” — in 2006. It called on municipalities to achieve a housing density of 7.5 units per acre in urban growth areas. Unfortunately, the actual countywide rate achieved through 2015 was only 4.4 units per acre, and none of the 14 growth areas hit the recommended 7.5-unit mark. At current rates, across all 14 growth areas, buildable land would drop from 19,000 acres today to 2,100 acres in 2040. Worse, the amount of buildable land in the county’s central urban growth area would tumble to 93 acres by 2040, planners estimate.
Ninety-three acres is not much.
The new plan
Places2040, a 93-page document available online, keeps the 7.5-units-per-acre goal as a countywide average in growth areas.
But this time around, to achieve it, as Hawkes reports, “the plan seeks a density of nine units or more per acre in the central growth area, which encompasses Lancaster city and its suburbs, and 6.5 or 5.5 units per acre in the smaller growth areas centered on boroughs.” If those goals can be met, 62 percent of developable land in growth areas should still be available in 2040.
That’s an aggressive, laudable and necessary goal. We sincerely hope it’s not unrealistic. (More on that in a moment.)
Places2040 also encourages local governments to collaborate on the preservation of special places, corridors and landscapes — the areas that make Lancaster County unique. These include our scenic vistas and historic downtown areas, some of which are in the midst of promising revitalization.
Lisa Riggs of the nonprofit Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, said her organization gives places2040 a thumbs-up.
“The core values this community has makes Lancaster County a very attractive place to own and operate a business,” she told Hawkes. “Businesses certainly want to know their community is in good hands and that there’s a thoughtful, intentional plan for the future.”
“Now is the time to execute,” adds Josh Parsons, chairman of the county commissioners. “I think we all are committed to that.”
There’s an elephant in the room, though.
Up to municipalities
Places2040, while the result of efforts by so many, is only a document. It is not enforceable, and the county planning commission can only advise.
The success of this plan will require buy-in from an overwhelming majority of our 60 municipalities, which hold the power to manage growth and development within their borders. They control, as Hawkes writes, “zoning, subdivision design, and sewer and water extension to decide where and what kind of development happens.”
Responsible only for their segments of the county, local municipal officials are answerable only to their constituents. Within this system — and with meaningful government consolidation unfortunately not in the cards — it’s a nightmare to tackle regional planning.
Laments Scott Standish, a senior planner in charge of the places2040 process: “It’s wonderful to have a vision, goals and strategies, but without implementation, we don’t see the results we want to see.”
While municipal officials might genuinely wish to follow the places2040 guidelines, they must listen to the concerns of residents, neighborhood associations, businesspeople and, of course, the voters who keep them in or oust them from office. It’s a lot on their shoulders, and the pressures can be enormous.
We cautiously share the optimism of Lancaster attorney Matthew Creme, who advises multiple municipalities and tells Hawkes he hopes that “more municipal leaders, particularly younger ones who understand that many millennials aren’t enamored of big houses on big lots, are open to higher-density, mixed-use development the plan advocates.”
We know it’s an uphill battle, given our governmental structure. But it’s worth the effort. This is one of the most important, if not the most important, planning issues for our region. Smart development and growth are crucial moving forward.
So we urge all of our municipal leaders to take places2040 to heart and do everything they can to meet its goals.
As Jeff Swinehart of Lancaster Farmland Trust says, everyone must be “thinking beyond boundaries.” He adds: “To protect what we all love and cherish about Lancaster County, municipalities will have to give some consideration to how their decisions impact greater Lancaster County.”
Because if they don’t, the Lancaster County we love today might soon become unrecognizable.