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Cumberland County: A battle between growth and open space
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Cumberland County

Cumberland County: A battle between growth and open space

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Cumberland County’s Comprehensive Plan is now a lot slimmer, but hopefully a lot more useful.

The guiding document for the county’s land use and development policies is now just 95 pages, as opposed to several hundred.

“Our intent with this update was to slim it down and focus on what’s important,” said Kirk Stoner, Cumberland County planning director. “I think we struck a unique balance between having all the key details, but not making it so big that it’s hard to actually use.”

The newest version of the comprehensive plan was given final approval by the county commissioners this week. The last major update of the plan was in 2014. Pennsylvania law requires an update at least every 10 years.

While the comprehensive plan serves as a standard of judgment for county officials and developers, it isn’t necessarily binding.

Pennsylvania’s local government structure devolves zoning and building codes to municipalities, meaning that the legal restrictions on land use and development are potentially different across all 33 of the county’s townships and boroughs.

The most critical part of the plan is tying existing municipal zoning plans together into a coherent vision for the county as a whole, Stoner said.

“There are hundreds of different zoning districts in Cumberland County between all of our municipalities, all of which have their own criteria,” Stoner said. “But if you look at them at a higher level, there are a lot of similarities between the types of development between municipalities.”

This is particularly critical when it comes to the county’s planning commission, which has the power to review and request modifications to land use plans approved at the municipal level. Review by the planning commission is the county’s major means of ensuring consistency between municipalities when it comes to what requirements are being placed on future development.

“We’ve been using this new draft in the planning commission for a couple months now,” Stoner said. “It’s what we want our planning commission members to focus on when they’re making a decision.”

While the county plan doesn’t set hard and fast rules, it can have legal ramifications.

As was noted by County Commissioner Jim Hertzler, a dispute over the re-zoning of farmland for warehouse use in West Pennsboro Township was recently overturned and is in litigation.

The decision by West Pennsboro’s Zoning Hearing Board to reverse the re-zoning cited the incompatibility of the new zoning with the county’s comprehensive plan — meaning that, while the comprehensive plan is not itself a law, its principles can and will be cited in court if they are in dispute.

Balancing growth

The basis of the newest revision to the comprehensive plan was a countywide survey that garnered roughly 3,000 responses from residents across the county.

That survey revealed significant public interest in preserving open space amidst a perceived over-growth in the distribution sector — 65 percent of respondents said there is too much warehousing in the county, and 81 percent said they would be OK with continuing to push additional tax dollars toward farm preservation efforts.

Additionally, 95 percent of survey participants ranked the reuse of older development sites as a high priority.

Statistically, Cumberland County is Pennsylvania’ fastest growing county by population in the post-recession era, with 5.6 percent more people since 2010.

But development volume has not returned to the pre-recession peak, which may be a good thing.

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Data from Stoner’s office shows that 2016 was the biggest year for development since 2008, with 860 acres developed in the county last year. But this pales in comparison to the heyday of 2006, with 1,781 acres developed.

However, the ratio of open space preserved has drastically increased. Last year, 216 acres were preserved via farm easements, land partnership grants and other mechanisms — roughly 1 acre of open space for every 4 acres of development.

In 2006, only 159 acres were preserved, or, about 1 acre of open space for every 11 acres of development.

Striking a necessary balance between development and open space is frequently stressed by the county commissioners.

“Development and conservation can co-exist, and have to,” Commissioner Vince DiFilippo said. Hertzler described the county’s rapid growth as a “double-edged sword.”

“Everybody talks about balance, but it’s one of those things that’s hard to define,” Commissioner Gary Eichelberger said. “The comprehensive plan, as formulated now, is really beneficial in that it serves the interest of future residents, not just the current residents, and that’s very important to be forward-looking.”

Housing crunch

The major point of balance between the county as it is today, and the county as it will be, is in housing.

Although the balance between warehousing and open space is often a more visible issue, the newest version of the county’s comprehensive plan notes that the county is facing a housing crunch, which makes its ability to accommodate future residents more problematic.

“Median housing value and median rent has increased while median household income has remained stagnant when adjusted for inflation,” the comprehensive plan says. “The increase in costs paired with a fall in real income means that it has become comparatively more difficult to afford housing in Cumberland County.”

Census data show that Cumberland County’s median income has actually shrunk, adjusted for inflation — the midpoint family made about $2,000 less in 2016 than in 2000.

These inverse trends are why, as the comprehensive plan says, 46 percent of county renters are unable to afford the average market rent for a two-bedroom unit of $845.

While the county planning department cannot control the market for home builders, local government can make regulations more palatable to middle-class housing, said Dave Sheppard, executive vice president of the Home Builders’ Association of Metropolitan Harrisburg.

Sheppard praised the comprehensive plan for emphasizing flexibility, a particular concern when it comes to lot sizes, setback requirements and other zoning laws that can prevent builders from maximizing the efficiency of lots.

“It’s a matter of being able to provide housing at a rate people can afford, and also maximizing open space,” Sheppard said.

The trend for builders now is referred to as “clustering,” where new construction homes are spaced closely together with open space radiating out, as opposed to each home at the center of its own square lot.

This allows builders to fit more homes on the parcel they’ve purchased, thus reducing the per-unit cost. It also allows for more efficient drainage, as stormwater management requirements get increasingly strict.

“If you’re regulated to have a larger lot, then economically it doesn’t make sense to put a less expensive house on a parcel that size,” Sheppard said. “There is a definite need to have a plan that anticipates future residents who will need affordable homes.”

Sheppard said his association was very satisfied with the easier-to-manage county plan that was more readable for government officials, builders and potential commercial or residential buyers.

“These plans are only as good as they are implemented … if it sits on the shelf and gathers dust, it isn’t going to do any of us any good,” Sheppard said.


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