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After three years of work, Lancaster County growth plan nears completion

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Among the proposals in the places2040 plan is that housing density rise in certain areas of Lancaster County. The map at right shows target densities for those areas — which currently have an average density of 4.4 dwellings per acre.
Among the proposals in the places2040 plan is that housing density rise in certain areas of Lancaster County. The map at right shows target densities for those areas — which currently have an average density of 4.4 dwellings per acre. - (Photo / )

Residents and businesses in Lancaster County face a choice. It is not about whether the county will grow, but where and in what direction.

Will homes, shops and offices envelop the rolling farmland that defines Lancaster County? Or will they remain contained in a more defined urban core, perhaps one that is denser than people might be used to?

The answers are being hashed out in the 93-page plan called places2040 that, if adopted, could become official county policy this fall.

“Places2040 reflects significant thinking about Lancaster County’s future and how this community can, should and will grow,” said Lisa Riggs, president of the Economic Development Co. of Lancaster County, which helped create the plan.

It is important for businesses to get up to speed on the plan to ensure their needs are reflected in the final document, Riggs said.

Advocates argue that the plan is needed to keep growth from overflowing into areas set aside for agriculture and conservation.

“That’s why this plan is important,” said Scott Standish, director of countywide planning for the Lancaster County Planning Commission. “It gives us that roadmap for creating great compact, walkable and mixed-use communities while at the same time still protecting our world-class agricultural and natural heritage areas that helps make Lancaster County like no other place in the world.”

The places2040 plan, which has been in the works for three years, reflects input from 25 Lancaster County nonprofits and more than 8,000 people, Standish said. It replaces an earlier comprehensive plan called Envision Lancaster County.

Lancaster County faces several critical issues, including the need for suitable sites for industrial growth, effective management of the transportation system for workers and goods, and the provision of adequate water and sewer services, Riggs said. 

The plan offers a range of ideas, policies, tools and strategies. And it boils them all down to a handful of steps, like developing in a more compact way, that are most likely to move the needle in the next 10 to 15 years.

Key points include the need to create more places to hike and enjoy nature, to make it easier for residents and visitors to get around without a car, and to promote Lancaster County’s numerous downtowns as regional “hubs.”

It also focuses on cultivating, retaining and expanding industry, which will affect Lancaster County businesses, according to Heather Valudes, community impact director at the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The chamber helped assemble the plan.

She noted that if the county doesn’t have a plan that builds on its strengths, it will struggle to attract people: They won’t want to live in a community with too much development or in one with too little development.

“We look at this as a critical piece for making sure that our community is developed in a way that is attracting the current and future workforce,” Valudes said.

The plan also outlines the importance of making sure there is enough commercial, industrial and institutional land – and roads – to keep pace with a growing population.

Between 2000 and 2015, Lancaster County added roughly 4,200 people per year, bringing the population to 536,624, according to the U.S. Census. Officials expect the population to have increase by another 100,000 people by 2040, the draft plan said.

Finding room won’t be easy.

Many areas of Lancaster County are landlocked by preserved farmland, Valudes said. And the county has 60 municipalities, each with its own zoning requirements.

“Having a plan that says, ‘Hey we should be thinking about putting our development in these areas and having business growth in these areas,’ is really helpful for long-term planning for businesses,” Valudes said.

The county has about 28,000 buildable acres remaining within its urban growth area to accommodate future residential and non-residential development. These urban growth areas are clustered around Lancaster city and the county’s many boroughs, from Elizabethtown and Marietta to Lititz and Stasburg.

But those urban growth areas have only about 140 vacant parcels that are 40 acres or more, according to Standish.

“We need to go up instead of out if we want to keep our boundaries where they are today,” he said.

To manage growth, the plan advocates compact development, which would bring a mix of housing types on smaller lots.

Currently, Standish said, there are 4.4 units per acre in urban growth areas. Under places2040, the goal is to reach between 5.5 and 9 units per acre, depending on the area.

“If we don’t build more compactly on smaller lots then we will need to expand our growth boundaries into our rural agricultural and conservation areas, and we heard loud and clear no one wants to see that happen,” Standish said. 

One challenge to compact development could be nimbyism – opposition by existing residents to proposed developments. Nimby is an acronym for “Not in my backyard.”

Some people in single-family homes on large lots, he said, may fear that denser housing nearby may reduce the value of their properties.

They may also fear traffic congestion and overcrowded schools – both of which are myths, Standish insisted.

“Research has shown that multifamily housing and more compact development does not have any more impact on our roads or schools than single-family developments.  Traffic congestion is caused by the pattern of development, not housing types,” Standish said.

For the most part, Valudes said, businesses recognize the need for compact development.

“The more rural you get, the less water, sewer that kind of thing. Businesses aren’t going to be as inclined to build in those areas anyway because they need that infrastructure already worked in,” Valudes said.

All in all, Valudes believes the business community will be pleased with the plan.

“I think the idea of increasing housing development and transportation progress along corridors will go over really well,” Valudes said. “The plan does a good job of saying we want to grow but we want to do it in a way that’s responsible to what our resources are here in the community.”

What's next

An official review period for the places2040 plan is underway through Oct. 24. During the review period, the Lancaster County Planning Commission will accept written comments about the plan.

Comments should be sent to the commission via email at info@places2040.com or by mail at 150 N. Queen St., Suite 320, Lancaster, PA 17603.

A final opportunity for comment is slated for Oct. 24 when the Lancaster County board of commissioners is scheduled to hold a public hearing to consider the plan. The board may also choose to adopt the plan following the hearing.

More information is available at www.places2040.com.

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Shelby White

Shelby White covers banking and finance, law and Lancaster County for the Central Penn Business Journal. For tips, email her at swhite@cpbj.com.

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