Proposed farmland rezoning draws crowd

By on March 29, 2017

When Karen Martynick was growing up in Chester County, most of it was farmland.

Some neighbors were concerned about urban sprawl spreading into their county, but most of the folks said, “Oh, it will never happen here,” Martynick said.

They were wrong.

“Now it’s like urban Philadelphia and it seemed to happen overnight,” Martynick said. “People are still shaking their heads, wondering how it happened.”

Martynick, executive director of the Lancaster County Farmland Trust, addressed the Clay Township Planning Commission Monday evening, explaining the benefits of farmland preservation.

The township is currently considering rezoning farmland located along Route 322 to residential and commercial categories. About 20 people came to the meeting to express concerns over the proposed rezoning.

Many people are worried about encroaching development, Martynick said, but being alert and proactive may help save land.

“The difference here (from Chester County) is that Lancaster County got ahead of this and the commitment here is great,” Martynick said. “But development is coming and if you’re not tenacious and dedicated, it can happen.”

Lancaster County leads the nation in preserved farmland, numbering more than 106,000 acres, Martynick said.

“It’s a special place and we have to make some decisions on what we want for the future,” said Jon Price, chairman of the Clay Township Planning Commission. “Because in some areas, it’s slipping away.”

Agriculture is the number one industry in Lancaster County, Price said.

“Urban sprawl is like an invasive species,” said visitor Ralph Kurtz, Ephrata. “I’ve seen it happen in New Jersey. But we have a chance here to be heroes; to stop it for our children.

“I applaud your efforts,” Kurtz told Martynick.

At issue is a 62-acre parcel of land located along the Route 322 corridor and east of Snyder Road in Clay Township. The land is owned by Rick Stauffer, but is commonly known as the former Shirk Farm.

Premier R and G Properties, a development team from Lancaster County, has requested that about ten acres of that lot be changed to R-2 and another 12 acres rezoned for business, while 27.85 acres would remain agricultural.

Price was against the plan.

“At least 25 percent of Lancaster County farmland has gone since 1950 and that’s pretty significant,” Price said. “This is the best farmland in the world and we want to keep it. It’s no secret that many people are concerned.”

At last month’s Clay Township Zoning Commission meeting, the board recommended the applicant’s request be denied if the board of supervisors begins an update of their comprehensive plan within one year.

Without a new comprehensive plan, the zoning board advised the plan be accepted, with Price objecting.

“My position is that we have enough land already zoned for uses other than agriculture,” Price said Monday evening. “They shouldn’t rezone land based on if a comprehensive plan is started.”

Members Clair Beyer, Adrian Kapp, and Bruce Leisey voted in favor of the recommendation.

While discussion on the issue is expected at the April supervisors’ meeting, the supervisors will make a decision during a hearing May 2, said township manager Leisey.

“Our preference is to see a comprehensive plan updated,” Leisey said, adding the last time the plan was completely revamped was in 1995.

No decision has been made about preparing a comprehensive plan at this time.

The planning commission said its recommendation shouldn’t be considered “an objection to the proposal, but a preference that all rezoning would be addressed in a comprehensive fashion,” according to its minutes of last month’s meeting.

Dan Sweigart, Ephrata, from the “Respect Farmland” organization, didn’t see any sense in the planning commission’s recommendation.

“They don’t need a comprehensive plan; they can deny it on its own merits,” Sweigart said.

Sweigart had a copy of the Lancaster County Planning Commission’s recommendation regarding the Stauffer farm and told township officials the county planning commission said the developer should be denied.

Part of the recommendation reads, “Rezoning this proposed 36.8 acres from agricultural to residential and commercial… is not consistent with the Clay Township Comprehensive Plan.”

The LCPC review also stated, “What is clear is that this would open 27 acres of land along a major arterial roadway to commercial development.”

Sweigart maintained that the owner, Stauffer, has applied for preservation funding to the county’s agriculture preservation board.

Leisey said the land proposed to be rezoned was not being considered for ag preservation.

It isn’t known which supposition is accurate as of presstime.

Currently, 250 farms in Lancaster County are on a waiting list to be preserved, Martynick said. Lack of money is the obstacle standing in their way, she added.

“Farmland is important to our economy and to our way of life,” Martynick said.

In a recent poll of Lancaster County residents commissioned by an ag preservation group, 93 percent of respondents said rural land contributed to their quality of life, Martynick said.

“The pollster said he’d never seen anything like it,” Martynick said. “In Lancaster County there’s an ethic to protect the land and there’s a commitment from the community.”

Two agencies work to protect farmland in Lancaster County; the County Agricultural Land Preservation Board and the Lancaster Farmland Trust.

The Preservation Board receives funding from county, state, and federal funds, Martynick said.

The Lancaster Farmland Trust, based in Strasburg, is funded privately and receives occasional grant money, she said.

Founded in 1988, in 29 years, the Trust has preserved 30,000 acres.

The agriculture board has preserved another 80,000 acres.

The Trust was begun to help Plain sects who wanted to preserve their farmland, but didn’t want to work with programs that originated with the government, Martynick said.

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