Using federal funds and taking a cue from the state, Lancaster County has developed a program designed to give new life to vacant commercial and industrial sites.
The goal of the Lancaster County Land Recycling Program is to provide developers with incentives to use existing sites instead of building in open space. The county’s planning commission administers the program, established
Open space is becoming an endangered resource in the area, said Paul Thibault, chairman of the county’s board of commissioners. Lancaster County’s population grew by 11.3 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We need to think of productive ways to use land,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to take a look at these old sites and see if they can be reused.”
The program’s primary function is to help property owners and developers determine if any environmental issues exist on a site and then assist them with cleanup of the site.
The county is working with a Valley Forge company, Environmental Standards Inc., which provides environmental assessment services for property owners participating in the program, said Mary Gattis, assistant project manager for the planning commission. Environmental Standards also works with property owners on a remediation work plan if cleanup is needed. However, Gattis added, property owners themselves are responsible for hiring a company to perform the actual cleanup work.
The program is being funded through a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is also providing $50,000 for the county to assess sites that are being used for green-space purposes, such as parks and playgrounds.
Thibault said many developers shy away from building on existing commercial and industrial sites because of fears over the costs and potential liabilities involved in cleaning up environmental problems such as water contamination or asbestos. The program will help alleviate those fears, he added.
The program’s first environmental assessment was completed in early December. Lancaster County officials reported that no environmental problems exist on the site of the former Mountain Springs Hotel in Ephrata. The announcement was a step forward for local and county officials, who plan to redevelop the hotel. The historic hotel, which once served as a spiritual retreat and a hospital, has been vacant for 12 years and sits in a Keystone Opportunity Zone.
In December, the county also established a 60-member advisory board made up of community, business and nonprofit leaders. Gattis said this board will help the county identify opportunities for land recycling, while a 14-member steering committee will decide what additional sites participate in the program.
“We have a broad coalition of support,” Thibault said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has operated a land recycling program statewide since the mid-1990s. Like Lancaster County’s program, the state program provides administrative and financial assistance for assessment and remediation of old industrial and commercial sites.
Central Pennsylvania economic development officials said they weren’t aware of other county-administered land recycling programs and thought that Lancaster County’s program sounded similar to the state’s program. However, these officials supported the county’s effort to promote site reuse. Many former commercial and industrial sites in Lebanon have been reused through the state’s Industrial Site Reuse Program, said Bob McNary, president of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corp.
That program makes Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development funds available for environmental assessments and cleanups.
For example, an old Bethlehem Steel site has been turned into a business park, McNary said.
Cumberland County doesn’t have its own land recycling program, but it encourages developers to use the resources provided by the state, added Tom Imphong, executive director of the Solid Waste Authority of Cumberland County.
“These programs have a really important role to play in economic development,” he said.
Thibault said he was aware of the state programs, but added that Lancaster County wanted to start its own program to show how serious it was about encouraging site reuse.
The county is well-equipped to coordinate efforts by private economic development organizations, Thibault said. The land recycling program also allows the county to create more cooperative relationships with local municipalities.
Because it is being funded by a one-time grant, the Lancaster County Land Recycling Program is temporary. However, Thibault said he thought the county would eventually provide money to make the program permanent.
“They’re not making new land, and we have to come up with new ways to use the land we have,” he said. “We can’t simply look at where we’re going in the next year or five years, but we have to look at where we’re going in the next 100 years.”