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Blight or Boom?: Residents say warehouses pose threat to rural life
Rural Life

Blight or Boom?: Residents say warehouses pose threat to rural life

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Randy Heishman could see the stars at night from the yard back in 1996 when he first moved into his father’s home in the 600 block of Alexander Spring Road.

There was none of the surface glare from the multitude of warehouse parking lots or the steady beep of dozens of back-up signals as tractor-trailers moved into position.

“My father, Truman, was co-owner of Allen Distribution and a majority shareholder up until he died in 1995,” Heishman said. “He tried to be a good steward.”

The son said his father was not like corporate executives who tend to build local but live far away from what they develop. As a show of support for what his neighbors go through, Truman Heishman lived close to one of the first of many warehouses built on the west side of Carlisle.

Beyond the starry nights and peaceful quiet, something else disappeared as farmland was sold off and developed.

“There was one house built in the French-Colonial manner across from the livestock market,” Heishman said. “That was destroyed. It was the only house in this area built of that design, and now it’s gone forever. You can replace a warehouse over time, but you’ll never be able to bring the colonial farms back to life again.”

By his count, as many as seven Revolutionary War-era farms have been lost to progress in recent years. Many have been paved over for use as warehouses.

“It’s horrible,” Heishman said. “You lose a piece of history that your children will never get to witness. It’s now all gone. I’m all for people using their land, but you got to be stewards of history.”

Proposed development

In September 2012, Heishman purchased the former tavern of Samuel Weakley on Walnut Bottom Road in Penn Township. He hired a contractor to restore the 18th-century brick structure to its original state after removing more than 200 years of additions and renovations.

Last November, his family moved into the restored tavern and away from the buildup of warehousing on Alexander Spring Road. Heishman thought he had left progress behind, but a new warehouse development is being proposed for 168 acres located about a quarter-mile west of the tavern and about 400 yards north of the intersection of Centerville and Walnut Bottom roads.

Penn Township supervisors changed the zoning of the 163 acres from agricultural to industrial-commercial last fall, supervisor chairman Gary Martin said. IDI Gazeley has submitted a conceptual plan depicting up to three warehouses totaling 2.5 million square feet.

While the old tavern is in no danger of being demolished, there is an old spring located on the property that may be vulnerable to blasting, Heishman said. He is concerned that if workers blast the ground to prepare the site for the warehouse, it could shift the underlying limestone and disrupt the spring.

“We’ve lived the nightmare and are glad to have moved up the Walnut Bottom Road, but warehousing is following us,” Heishman said.

The former tavern sits on 18 acres of rolling farmland that includes a barn, the remnants of an earlier home or summer kitchen and an original hand-dug cistern and well. The spring house has hardware dating from the 1760s while the spring itself was the subject of a dispute that resulted in years of litigation between Samuel Weakley and an adjoining property owner.

Back then, Walnut Bottom Road was a major drovers’ road for moving cattle to market through the Cumberland Valley. Any source of water would be vitally important to the operation of the tavern as a stop for travelers on the road between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Penn Township does not have an ordinance or any other regulations limiting blasting, Martin said. “That is more of a DEP issue I would think,” he added referring to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

IDI will have experts on hand monitoring the construction to make sure any potential blasting does not cause problems for adjacent property owners, said Dave Thomas, vice-president of development. He added IDI would have to follow all the rules and regulations set down by the government regarding blasting.

Rural feel

Mary and Jim Dodrill live in an old stone farmhouse off Cornman Drive in close proximity to the proposed warehouse development on Centerville Road. The oldest part of their home was built around 1780 while the newer part dates from 1820.

“It is going to border two sides of our property,” Mary Dodrill said of the development. “We are down here where there is no traffic and no noise. It is so quiet and peaceful.”

She is concerned the warehouse development not only would ruin the rural feel of her old farmhouse, but bring down the property value with the increase in traffic and noise pollution.

Dodrill recalled how a development project on Allen Road at the Exit 44 interchange of Interstate 81 claimed the old farm property across from the Sheetz.

“A lot of them have been taken down because of the warehouses,” she said. “That is sad to me. I hate to see them go.”

Heishman said some type of stipulation should exist in which a developer of an old farm should either move an old structure to a corner of the property or develop the land around it. “You should not be allowed to tear down something that has been here since before we were a country.”

There needs to be a program in place where the developer of any warehouse project would have to pay into a fund where money could be draw to save historic structures, Heishman added.

“Historic preservation begins at the local level,” said Howard Pollman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. “It is all about local people valuing what they have.”

While the state agency would encourage private property owners to value their historic resources, there are no laws prohibiting developers of private property from tearing down an old farmhouse or any other structure to make way for a warehouse or some other use, Pollman said. “Private property rights trump everything.”

Resources are available for nonprofit organizations wishing to purchase and preserve historic properties, Pollman said. He added for-profit organizations could be eligible for tax credits in cases where they decide to retrofit an old or historic structure to a new use instead of tearing the building down.

“The big thing to do is to educate people about the importance of their historical property so they can recycle or repurpose the building,” said Cara Curtis, librarian at the Cumberland County Historical Society.

Often visitors come in to the historical society upset over the recent demolition of an old farmhouse or some other long-standing building, Curtis said. “Sometimes it is not because of progress. Sometimes it is wear and tear. People are not taking care of the property or there is no one left to take care of it.”

The usual response is that the historical society has no power to stop a building on private property from being demolished, Curtis said. She added, however, some borough have historical architectural review boards in place that prevent the demolition of buildings in designated historic districts.

History repeating

The arguments being heard in Penn Township, as well as in the Carlisle area are not new to Cumberland County when it comes to development of warehouses.

In 1987, leaders of a group calling itself Citizens for Responsible Development were opposed to a plan by ABF Freight Systems Inc. to build a 800-bay truck terminal northeast of the intersection of Routes 465 and 11 west of Carlisle. In its effort to prevent approval of the terminal, the group circulated petitions against the proposal and distributed a pamphlet calling on local residents to contact borough officials.

The citizens group said idling trucks from the truck terminal would lead to both air and noise pollution while run-off from the lot would increase the likelihood of groundwater contamination. They said there would also be increased traffic congestion from tractor-trailers. In February 1987, the group staged a protest march to the proposed development site, which included the model farm of Frederick Watts.

A gentleman farmer, lawyer and businessman, Watts was an agricultural reformer considered by many to be the father of Penn State University. Watts was instrumental in getting Penn State started as an agricultural college known as Farmers High School. He had established the model farm outside Carlisle in 1857 as a test bed for different fertilizers, crops, soils, farm implements and breeds of livestock. The bank barn constructed on the site was reportedly the largest barn in Pennsylvania.

The Watts model farm stayed in agriculture until 1986 when the land was purchased by Arkansas Best Freight. In April 1987, the state Historic and Museum Commission designated the model farm eligible for nomination for placement on the National Register. The state Historic Preservation Board was scheduled to vote on Sept. 13, 1988, on whether or not to nominate the farm to the Register. However, the farm was demolished in mid-August 1988, removing it as an obstacle to development of the site as a truck terminal.

The Sentinel reported how opponents of ABF thought that if they could get the Watts farm on the register it could block approval of a $1.5 million state grant to bring water and utilities to the project site. Richard Beaulieu, ABF’s regional manager, told the newspaper the decision to tear down the farm buildings was made public the year before and was necessary because the farmhouse was in bad shape and rotting in places.

The Watts farm was eventually developed into the Watts Business Park. Today, a state historic marker stands along the Ritner Highway west of Carlisle to tell the story of the model farm.

Though the Watts Farm ended up as a memory, the McCormick Home Farm in Silver Spring Township is the model of what can be done to preserve historically significant land from not only warehouse development but also any commercial, residential or industrial use.

Thomas McCormick once owned the farm along the Conodoguinet Creek near Hogestown. His grandson Cyrus McCormick was the inventor of the reaper that revolutionized American agriculture. The property remained in the possession of the Harrisburg branch of the McCormick family from about 1745 until May 1983 when the surviving trustees donated the Home Farm to the Natural Lands Trust, which added a deed covenant guaranteeing that nearly 85 percent of this property would be preserved as agricultural in perpetuity.


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