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2008-09-06
North Whitehall, PA. Supervisors Tell Wal-Mart To Do Their Own Traffic Study

This case dates back to September 25, 2007, when Sprawl-Busters reported that the tiny township of North Whitehall, Pennsylvania -- population roughly 2,000 -- had a big problem tossed in their lap: a Wal-Mart supercenter. North Whitehall already has 7 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles, including three supercenters, with a supercenter in Whitehall a mere 7 miles away. In its continuing drive to saturate the area, Wal-Mart proposed a 176,846-s.f. superstore on 32.6 acres in a former orchard at Route 309 and Levans Road. In early October, 2007, the township supervisors, chaired by Ron Stahley, held an afternoon meeting for residents to express their concerns about the massive Wal-Mart project -- which would be the largest retail building in the history of this community. Opponents of the project showed up to voice their concerns over the superstore. North Whitehall describes itself as being "Primarily agricultural in nature... a desirable place to live and continues to do so by retaining its unique blend of residential and rural character." Residents opposed to Wal-Mart formed a group called North Whitehall for Sustainable Development to protect that rural character. This volunteer organization dedicated itself to promoting responsible development that conserves natural resources and ecological balance, while providing for the needs of residents in and around North Whitehall. The organization has been working to prevent the construction of this big box store adjacent to the Schnecksville Fire Company. Residents' opposition to the project is based on traffic safety; air, water, noise and light pollution; and loss of open space. The Planning Commission began reviewing the plans in September of 2007. During the review period, Wal-Mart asked for delays, so that it could 'refine' its proposal. The final hearing on the proposal took place in early July, 208, and focused on the key issue of traffic. The group NWSD hired a transportation planner to testify about the impacts this huge superstore would have on Route 309. The planner, Douglas Plank from the ELA Group of Lititz, Pennsylvania, told the township supervisors that the Wal-Mart would increase traffic congestion and create hazardous conditions on Route 309. "Route 309 currently is saturated," Plank told township officials. "It's borderline gridlock conditions right now." Plank estimated that the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter would increase traffic by more than one-third, and that 15,417 car trips would be generated daily. He said cars would be forced to use side roads to get to the store. Despite community testimony against the project, the Township Board of supervisors voted that Wal-Mart met the conditions necessary to build. Wal-Mart's Attorney, Joseph Bubba, who had threatened the township with litigation -- said the supervisors vote protected them from a lawsuit. Bubba told Channel 69 News: "I know it wasn't easy for the supervisors, but it was the right thing to do. What people don't realize -- sometimes when the supervisors do the right thing they're protecting them from liability." The group North Whitehall For Sustainable Development hired land use attorney Thomas Dinkelacker to represent them, and said it would considering filing an appeal against the township -- so the legal burden has shifted to taxpayers. Supervisors who were afraid of Wal-Mart, apparently were not afraid to face their own taxpayers in court. This week, the Morning Call newspaper reports that township supervisors voted September 3rd to give preliminary approval to Wal-Mart's subdivision plans. But the review is not over yet. The project has to go through the Planning Commission again, and then back for a final Supervisors' vote. The lawyer for NWSD noted that part of the Wal-Mart site is zoned for agricultural use, and does not allow commercial business. NWSD also warned the supervisors that they were considering a legal challenge to the Supervisors' vote. "We're not going to get into an argument. We'll let a judge decide it. These people have now been led into approving an application that is illegal," NWSD's attorney said. Wal-Mart's attorney countered that NWSD was trying to intimidate the supervisors by talking about a judge during the subdivision review. NWSD also challenged the sewage plan at the site, which calls for sewage to be stored in tanks off the site. When they finally voted, the supervisors conditioned their approval on the stipulation that Wal-Mart would note that part of their property is zoned for agricultural use, that the company must store its sewage off site, and that the retailer would conduct a traffic impact study for the project. That's like asking the fox to count chickens in the hen house.

What you can do: NWSD has been raising funds to pursue its legal options if the supervisors approved the plan. The group informed supervisors that they remain concerned about the financial impact of the project on law enforcement, fire protection, traffic, water and sewer infrastructure, and the environment. They are also concerned with the level of arsenic and other chemicals in the soil of the former orchard. The group has been basing its case on the zoning criteria and permitting that this project must obtain. Readers are urged to email the North Whitehall supervisors at: Ron Stahley Chairman: rstahley@northwhitehall.org; Terry Stout Vice Chairman: tstout@northwhitehall.org; Ron Heintzelman Member: rheintzelman@northwhitehall.org, with the following message: "Your vote to approve a Wal-Mart supercenter will likely go down as one of the biggest mistakes in North Whitehall history. This Wal-Mart project is three times the size of a football field. If Wal-Mart restricted this store to North Whitehall residents only, the business would shut down within three months. It's a regional store -- but you already have 7 Wal-Mart's within 20 miles. Route 309 can't handle the extra 16,000 or so new car trips that this project will generate. The superstore is the wrong size and the wrong place for Schnecksville, and is incompatible with the rural character of the township. Now the township will have to pick up the added police and fire costs to protect this huge, unnecessary project. Good land use decisions don't result in major win/lose situations. Your decision will not lead to a ribbon cutting, but to a courtroom. This could still be avoided if you ask Wal-Mart to scale back its project and work with neighbors. You also should ask Wal-Mart to underwrite the cost of a traffic study -- but then have the actual study done by an independent traffic engineer. As it stands now, you will get back a traffic report from Wal-Mart that shows their project will improve traffic flow. Make the study independent, or expect only happy talk from Wal-Mart." To help NWSD pay their legal bills, go to the website: http://home.ptd.net/~nwsd/ or send a check to: North Whitehall for Sustainable Development, Box 117, Orefield, PA 18069.










 
 
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