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Fall Real Estate: Comprehensive Cooperation

It took several years of discussion and debate, but 11 Lancaster County municipalities have accomplished an uncommon feat in Pennsylvania’s fractured system of government.

It took several years of discussion and debate, but 11 Lancaster County municipalities have accomplished an uncommon feat in Pennsylvania’s fractured system of government. They’ve learned to cooperate.

The municipalities, all in the central part of the county, finalized and adopted a joint comprehensive plan called “Growing Together” in spring 2007. The document provides a common road map that will help the municipalities address planning issues, such as land use, housing, transportation and open-space preservation. This is in contrast to traditional approaches to zoning, where municipalities develop individual — and sometimes conflicting — systems of how land will be used.

The plan’s size and scope — it covers a region with roughly 200,000 residents — separates it from other joint-planning efforts in Pennsylvania. Also distinctive is the participants’ desire to spread their cooperation beyond zoning.

“This may demonstrate that there are other things we can work together on,” said Barry Smith, manager of Manor Township. Manor Township is one of seven townships, three boroughs and one city that participated in the joint-planning process. (see “Planning partners,” this page). The communities are members of the Lancaster Inter-Municipal Committee, an organization that encourages cooperation among municipalities in central Lancaster County. The committee decided in 2001 to pursue a regional comprehensive plan, said John Ahlfeld, the committee’s executive director.

Work on the comprehensive plan did not garner much attention from the public until 2003, when the committee hired two consultants to look at the municipalities’ current planning efforts and gather residents’ comments about the regional plan. The public-participation efforts included meetings, community summits and stakeholder workshops held throughout Lancaster County. The municipalities then used the public input and consultants’ data to develop the plan.

The Building Industry Association of Lancaster County is among the community groups that

support the plan. The plan allows higher-density development in growth areas, which helps builders preserve farmland yet continue to meet demand for new homes and businesses, said Jack Phillips, director of government affairs for the Manheim Township-based association. Greater density also provides some relief to builders struggling with the rising costs of land in the county, he said.

The General Assembly passed legislation several years ago that offers incentives for municipalities to work on regional plans, said Denny Puko, a local-government policy specialist with the Harrisburg-based Governor’s Center for Local Government Services. For example, single municipalities planning on their own must provide zoning for every type of land use, from shopping malls to adult-entertainment venues. A multimunicipal plan allows these uses to be spread throughout a region. In addition, projects that involve regional cooperation are often given priority consideration when it comes to getting government money, Puko said.

“Municipalities, in large numbers, have taken on multimunicipal planning,” he said. “There’s so much sense in it.”

The price tag for Growing Together was $300,000. Half of the funding came from the county and half from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

Whether that money is well spent will be up to the municipalities themselves. It is their responsibility to make sure that the ideas developed in the plan are implemented. The Lancaster Inter-Municipal Committee also will play a key role in making sure the municipalities stay on track, said Danny Whittle, principal planner with the Lancaster County Planning Commission.

“It’s responsible for waking up every morning and asking itself, ‘What can I do today to implement this plan?’” Whittle said.

The committee’s next step will be to form a board to give guidance to municipalities on how to implement the plan, Ahlfeld said. Some issues could be addressed relatively quickly, while others might take years to become reality. Smith of Manor Township is confident the planning process will encourage the municipalities to consider other areas in which they can cooperate, such as fire protection and police services. But Whittle believes it will take time for joint-planning efforts to become commonplace across the state. “In the long, long run, (joint planning) will be the way people will plan for the future,” he said. “But I’m not sure some parts are Pennsylvania are ready for it.”

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