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Lehigh Valley recipe for hot local elections: Mix controversial construction projects with transparency concerns, stir in a pandemic, bake for a year in Zoom

Kayla Dwyer

Mon May 03 2021 00:25:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

In some suburban communities, that concern over transparency has turned up the dial on an already tense year and motivated residents to run for office.

This is the case in South Whitehall Township, where the history of the 2019 primary is repeating itself; in Upper Mount Bethel Township, the site of the East Coast’s largest proposed industrial park; and to an extent in Upper Macungie Township, where a longtime citizen advocate frustrated by warehouse development is making the leap for public office.

As the Lehigh Valley experienced strong industrial growth — and the associated traffic — over the last few years, few issues motivated residents to get involved in local government more than development.

But after the coronavirus pandemic broadened access to meetings through virtual platforms — and handed some residents extra time to pay attention — it’s not just the decisions about development that are inspiring strong emotions, but how they’re made, or how transparent those deliberations are.

In some suburban communities, that concern over transparency has turned up the dial on an already tense year and motivated residents to run for office.

This is the case in South Whitehall Township, where the history of the 2019 primary is repeating itself; in Upper Mount Bethel Township, the site of the East Coast’s largest proposed industrial park; and to an extent in Upper Macungie Township, where a longtime citizen advocate frustrated by warehouse development is making the leap for public office.

South Whitehall Township

Ridge Farms, a massive mixed-use development pitched for farmland along South Whitehall Township’s busiest intersection, stirred a political awakening in the 2019 election season. Nine candidates vied in the primary for three open seats even before the project, the largest single development in South Whitehall’s history, was approved.

Before that election season, that development activated some residents to form a group called South Whitehall Concerned Citizens; other smaller neighborhood groups have since spawned as the township has continued to field interest from developers. One of the founders of South Whitehall Concerned Citizens won election in 2019. Another is running this year.
The race is less contested this year, but no less tense. Part of the reason it’s less competitive is because former Commissioner Matthew Mobilio, who was among the candidates inspired in 2019 by Ridge Farm, resigned in early April, citing infighting and obstruction on the board. Though there are still only two open seats on the primary ballots, there will be three in the general.

In the last year, the township approved a budget with no tax increase, was recognized by the state for its work on the Jordan Creek greenway, gave Covered Bridge Park a facelift, and created a COVID-relief grant program for small businesses. But votes on issues having to do primarily with development or finances usually broke 3-2, and lengthy questioning about processes such as appointments to volunteer boards or virtual meeting decorum devolved into heated exchanges and personal attacks.

The political stalemate is a significant concern for all five candidates in the 2021 primary: board President Christina “Tori” Morgan, Commissioner Joe Setton, former Commissioner Thomas Johns, and newcomers David Kennedy and Monica Hodges. Setton and Johns are Democrats; Morgan, Kennedy and Hodges are Republicans.

“It shows, and rightfully so, a dysfunctional committee. And that’s not good,” Setton said.

Many of the concerns about transparency have stemmed from Setton’s appointment to the board at the tail end of a lengthy November 2019 meeting where commissioners gave conditional use approval to the Ridge Farms project.

Former Commissioner Mark Pinsley resigned immediately after the Ridge Farms vote to serve as Lehigh County controller; commissioners then unanimously appointed Setton to fill the remaining two years of Pinsley’s term, in what many residents considered a “midnight appointment” that made them distrustful of their local leaders.

Despite the late hour, the appointment occurred in the view of the public, and it was the commissioners’ discretion to make it, Setton said recently. This was after the general election, so the commissioners all knew who he was and what he stood for. They voted unanimously, too — if they hadn’t, he said, he might feel differently.

Nonetheless, the move set the stage for a wary 2020, and a 2021 election where “transparency” features in several candidate platforms.

Hodges, a founder of South Whitehall Concerned Citizens, and Kennedy, a Parkland School Board member, echo the transparency complaints of residents who ask why certain federal coronavirus relief dollars were spent on building rent rather than to fund a small-business grant program, why appointments to volunteer boards aren’t a public process, or why the township has not submitted audits to the state in about a decade.

Township officials have repeatedly explained that the delay stems from complications from a nearly $1 million embezzlement scandal that was prosecuted in 2013. The state Department of Community & Economic Development has been working with the township to remedy this and does not consider the township in bad standing, department spokesperson Casey Smith confirmed.

Morgan is cautious of the definition of “transparency” — “the go-to word” in meetings, she said — which she believes is often misconstrued with disagreement or dissatisfaction with an answer.

“Transparency doesn’t mean each decision made by the board should be impetus for a referendum for a small vocal minority that participate in a meeting,” Morgan said.

Upper Mount Bethel Township
The debates are similar in Upper Mount Bethel Township, the gateway to the Delaware Water Gap that has been in the spotlight for more than a year over a massive industrial park planned for 725 acres near the township’s border.

Developer Lou Pektor’s plan for River Pointe Logistics has spurred intense resident interest at municipal meetings, and a lawsuit against township supervisors.

A group called Concerned Citizens of Upper Mount Bethel has waged a public campaign against the plan through a website, Facebook page, flyers and even a billboard on Route 611. They sued supervisors over the 4-1 decision to approve an amendment to the zoning ordinance that increases building heights and square footage, allowing the developer to move forward with the plans for 13 manufacturing and distribution buildings. That lawsuit is still being litigated in a Northampton County appeals court.

It’s not just the development itself the group objects to — members fear the township’s roads can’t support the associated truck traffic — but the process by which supervisors paved the way for it, which they believe was rushed. The amendment was submitted by the developer in July and approved by supervisors in September, despite an unfavorable review from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.

The Concerned Citizens group asked one of its own, David Friedman, to run for supervisor.

“We feel there isn’t enough transparency on the board,” said Friedman, a Democrat. “[We] are not against development. We are for planned, logical development.”

Transparency was part of resident Wayne Smith’s motivation to run as an independent in the general election. He interpreted supervisors’ body language as disinterested and observed questions not being answered during public comment, and got the impression that leaders weren’t receptive to citizens’ concerns.

“After listening to a couple meetings, I decided that’s not the way to go about running the business of the town,” he said.

But to some supervisors on the board, the problem is not transparency, but a disconnect.

“We do listen to the public. All the time,” said Republican Supervisor Anthony DeFranco, who is running for reelection. “They don’t get the answers they like. I think this board is looking for the future of the township, and actually the future of the Slate Belt.”

The developed land amounts to 1% of the township’s acreage and is estimated to bring more than $9 million a year in tax revenue to Bangor Area School District, and $3 million to the township. The manufacturing jobs could keep young people in the area, so they don’t have to leave to find work, DeFranco said. The revenue would help the township support its infrastructure, which it’s behind on, he said.

Republican Supervisor John Birmingham, also running for reelection, said he’s forming a committee of township leaders and residents to answer questions and concerns specifically about the industrial park.

But there are problems that run deeper than communications about River Pointe Logistics, said Stavros Barbounis, a Democrat who chairs the parks and recreation board and is running for supervisor. He says he’s sat on multiple township boards and listened to meetings, and foundational rules are not being followed or minutes are not being taken. On the other hand, he’s frustrated seeing residents present problems rather than solutions, and in his opinion fearmongering.

Yet, he understands why some public trust has been lost. There are attempts at dialogue during public meetings, but the conversations get derailed and people talk over one another. Communication in general can be improved, he said.

“There’s a way to do things properly, maintain civil discourse,” he said. “I see a board of supervisors that is more divisive than ever. I don’t see that as good government.”

Upper Macungie Township
Unsurprisingly, “smart growth” has been a major discussion point in Upper Macungie Township, one of the region’s most in-demand corridors for warehouse and industrial development.

The Democrat and Republican in the race — neither has a competitor on the primary ballot — have some similar concerns about development.

The township supplies 26% of the Lehigh Valley’s industrial space, according to its recently completed 2019 comprehensive plan, but it is “substantially developed and is at the break point of its ability to mitigate impacts of the existing warehouse cluster and any future expansion of this cluster.”

This is a cause Democrat Sunny Ghai, a former planning commission member and chair of the township’s Good Neighbor Coalition, has championed for years as a citizen advocate. Ghai organized resident opposition to multiple warehouse developments, starting with the Old Dominion truck terminal in 2014 — a project directly behind his home that propelled him into advocacy — and most recently to Americold’s desire to expand its facility.

He called on supervisors to be more proactive when requests like Americold’s come before zoners, who voted to allow Amercold’s height increase. The Board of Supervisors appealed the decision to Lehigh County Court. In October, the court reversed the zoning board’s decision, finding that the board “manifestly abused its discretion” because Americold did not prove sufficient hardship.

This situation was the final push for Ghai. As a resident, he said, “We’re always in a reactionary mode. It’d be a lot easier if [I’m] in the room making the decisions.”

Ghai, 58 and a procurement director, wants the township to recruit different types of high-tech, high-growth businesses to create a more diverse economic base. He wants the township to amend its zoning now so that future generations don’t have to wage the fights he did.

Commissioner Sean Gill, running as a Republican and Ghai’s likely opponent in the general election for the sole open seat, sees eye to eye with Ghai on those issues. The 57-year-old director of operations for Estes Express Lines is running for his second term.

Decisions made decades ago to make Upper Macungie a distribution hub are what create today’s challenges. The difference now is the township is nearly built out, he said. Gill also wants to recruit businesses offering well-paying manufacturing jobs rather than warehousing, and continue working on infrastructure improvements now to assuage growth pressures of the future.

“If it means less truck traffic, I’m all for it,” he said.

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