This Wednesday, July 16th, supervisors in North Whitehall township, Pennsylvania will take a big vote on a big problem. On September 25, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that the tiny township of North Whitehall, Pennsylvania — population roughly 2,000 — had a big problem: A Wal-Mart supercenter. North Whitehall already has 7 Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles, including three supercenters, with a supercenter in Whitehall a mere 7 miles away. In its continuing drive to saturate the area, Wal-Mart has proposed a 176,846-s.f. superstore on 32.6 acres at Route 309 and Levans Road. In early October, 2007, the township supervisors, chaired by Ron Stahley, held an afternoon meeting for residents to express their concerns about the massive Wal-Mart project — which will be the largest retail building in the history of this community. About 20 opponents of the project showed up to voice their concerns over the superstore. North Whitehall describes itself as being ”Primarily agricultural in nature… a desirable place to live and continues to do so by retaining its unique blend of residential and rural character.” Residents opposed to Wal-Mart formed a group called North Whitehall for Sustainable Development. This volunteer organization is dedicated to promoting responsible development that conserves natural resources and ecological balance, while providing for the needs of residents in and around North Whitehall. The organization has been working to prevent the construction of this big box store adjacent to the Schnecksville Fire Company. Residents’ opposition to the project is based on traffic safety; air, water, noise and light pollution; and loss of open space. The Planning Commission began reviewing the plans in September of 2007 — ten months ago. The case took a bizarre twist in March of 2008, when Wal-Mart’s public plans suddenly turned private. When the resident’s group went to the township for a copy of Wal-Mart’s filings, the township’s lawyer informed residents that they could not make copies, or remove from the township offices. According to North Whitehall’s attorney, Wal-Mart’s plans were “copyrighted, and it would be up to the developers to decide it they want to provide copies to the public.” After pleading with the township to avoid a fight on this issue and to release the site plan under the state’s Right To Know law, the citizen’s group finally went to Lehigh County court and filed an injunction to require the township to provide them with copies of the plans. The group sought to force the town to allow copies to be made of the plans. But the township’s lawyer, Lisa Young, insisted that township officials were afraid to make copies for residents out of fear that Wal-Mart would sue them for copyright infringement. During the review period, Wal-Mart has asked for delays, so that it could ‘refine’ its proposal. The commercial development review phase of the project is finally coming to a close. The final hearing on the proposal took place in early July, and focused on the key issue during this phase of the review: traffic. The group NWSD hired a transportation planner to testify about the impacts this huge superstore would have on Route 309. The planner, Douglas Plank from the ELA Group of Lititz, Pennsylvania, told the township supervisors that the Wal-Mart would increase traffic congestion and create hazardous conditions on Route 309. Wal-Mart’s lawyer, Joe Bubba, challenged Plank’s credentials, but his statement was accepted as expert testimony. “Route 309 currently is saturated,” Plank told township officials. “It’s borderline gridlock conditions right now.” Plank noted that the level of service on that stretch of road now is rated “F” for a failing grade. He estimated that the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter would increase traffic by more than one-third, and that 15,417 car trips would be generated daily. He said cars would be forced to use side roads to get to the store. Wal-Mart has said that it will widen Route 309 from two to four lanes — and Plank indicated that this plan would block traffic at points before and after the roadway widens from two lanes. When Wal-Mart challenged the traffic planners credentials, Attorney Bubba asked Plank if his testimony for community groups against commercial development was “a cottage industry” for Plank? The audience booed. Wal-Mart’s attorney, who is being paid by the retailer, said it was germaine to the case to know if Plank made his income — like Attorney Bubba — from testifying in opposition to stores like Wal-Mart. When this fourth and final hearing was over, the supervisors closed the hearing for public comment. Final arguments for lawyers on both sides will be heard on July 16th. Supervisors now have to vote on whether to grant a conditional use for this project. Once that decision is made, the supervisors will take up land development and subdivision regulations at subsequent meetings, and the whole process is expected to be done by Labor Day. If the supervisors vote for the Wal-Mart, the citizen’s group is likely to seek an appeal. Wal-Mart’s victory would lead to a courtroom — not a ribbon-cutting.
The group North Whitehall For Sustainable Development has hired land use attorney Thomas Dinkelacker to represent them, and has been raising funds to pursue its legal options if the supervisors approve the plan — or if they deny it and Wal-Mart appeals. The group has informed supervisors that they are concerned about the financial impact of the project on law enforcement, fire protection, traffic, water and sewer infrastructure, and the environment. The group has been basing its case on the zoning criteria and permitting that this project must obtain. Readers are urged to leave a phone message for the three supervisors, Ron Stahley, Chairman, Terry Stoudt, Vice Chairman, and Ron Heintzelman. Two of these people will decide the fate of the Wal-Mart application. Call 610-799-3411, and leave this message for the North Whitehall Supervisors: “This Wal-Mart project is three times the size of a football field. If Wal-Mart restricted this store to North Whitehall residents only, the business would shut down within three months. It’s a regional store — but you already have 7 Wal-Mart’s within 20 miles. Route 309 can’t handle the extra 16,000 or so new car trips that this project will generate. The superstore is the wrong size and the wrong place for Schnecksville, and is incompatible with the rural character of the township. I urge you to reject the plan at your vote on July 16th as too large for the location.” To help out financially with this battle, go to the website: http://home.ptd.net/~nwsd/ or send a check to: North Whitehall for Sustainable Development, Box 117, Orefield, PA 18069.