Plenty at stake in township rezoning

November 25, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Paul Benchoff, chairman of the Washington Township Supervisors, said last week's six-hour public hearing on nine major residential and rezoning requests, was one of the longest ever held by the supervisors.

It began at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., fire hall and ended at 12:55 a.m. with one five-minute break, Benchoff said. About 250 residents attended the hearing.

At stake is the biggest residential and commercial development ever in the township. The supervisors are being asked to rezone 1,025 acres of agricultural land north and east of Waynesboro off Buchanan Trail East, which is Pa. 16.


The total includes 66 acres for commercial development including a shopping mall anchored on one end by a Wal-Mart Supercenter and on the other by a home improvement center with 30,000 square feet of smaller shops and restaurants in-between.

The residential rezoning requests call for up to 1,282 single-family and 136 multi-family homes.

The Washington Township Planning Commission recommended that the supervisors not approve three of the nine rezoning requests. The supervisors have the final say.

Judging from comments Thursday, opponents and proponents of the developments seemed to be pretty evenly divided, although Benchoff said the supervisors felt there were more positive comments than negative ones. "There seemed to be a lot of support," he said.

"This can be a totally environmental catastrophe for Washington Township," said Christopher Firme, a township supervisor-elect who will replace Benchoff on Jan. 1. "There are no safeguards in place for this. We are currently at the whim of the developers. That is not good planning."

Firme was critical Monday of an impact study done on the proposed developments by a Chambersburg, Pa., consulting firm hired by the planning commission.

The study included the consultant's own research and interviews with township officials. Its conclusions are "to some extent conjecture based on past development patterns ... as well as information gleaned from development impact in other communities," according to a summary of the consultant's findings.

The study covered such subjects as the developments' impact on natural features, including farmland, public utilities, schools, traffic and an analysis of area housing needs.

It said the developments will affect 590 acres of high-quality agricultural land or about 6.6 percent of the township's 8,900 acres of good farmland.

Concerning the potential impact on schools, the study said the housing developments would add about 48 new students a year to the system if, as projected, the homes are built over 20 years. If they are built sooner, "it may cause a need for new construction and the revenue generated by real estate and earned income taxes will fall short of the funds needed for new construction," the report said.

"Residential development never pays its own way," said Jerry Zeigler, zoning enforcement officer for the township. However, he said, the earned income tax to the township and school district are projected to generate about $100,000 a year while property taxes from the new commercial district will bring in $300,000 to $500,000 a year.

According to the study, the Pa. 16 corridor is inadequate to handle existing traffic and the proposed development would only add to the problem. "Route 16 won't handle the traffic whether Wal-Mart is built or not," Zeigler said.

A proposed Pa. 16 relief route around Waynesboro that the supervisors dropped earlier this year in the face of fierce opposition from residents is a viable alternative that the supervisors should pursue, the consultant's study said.

The developers of the nine tracts have agreed either to give up land or to pay for the relief road through their properties. It would serve as a connector road through all nine developments.

Developers of the shopping center have said they hope to buy Green Arbor Flower and Shrubbery Center at 11401 Buchanan Trail East for use as an entrance into the project.

Greg Penny, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in Harrisburg, said Monday that PennDOT has no plans to widen Pa. 16 in that section. He said if a state-approved bypass around Waynesboro were to be built it would take at least five years for engineering and environmental studies to be done, plus work through the federal and state funding process.

Construction of the shopping center could begin in about a year, its developer told the planning commission in September.

The study also referred to letters from Paul Gunder and Ronnie Martin, two local Realtors, who said there is a strong demand for housing in the area with little inventory available.

In his criticism of the study, Firme said that there was no cost/benefit analysis done concerning the developments, especially the Wal-Mart.

"A comparison (is needed) where Wal-Mart has come into a similar area and what has happened after 10 to 15 years," he said. "The impact study was bogus and biased and should be considered null and void. There needs to be hard figures, not guesses or assumptions."

The supervisors will consider residents' comments heard last Thursday and the consultant's study when they vote on the rezoning requests on Dec. 15, Zeigler said.

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