The voters in North Whitehall, Pennsylvania gave a resounding vote of no confidence in their elected officials, defeating one pro-Wal-Mart supervisor in recent elections. On September 19, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was heading to a courtroom in the community of North Whitehall, Pennsylvania. A group called North Whitehall for Sustainable Development (NWSD) filed a legal challenge to a conditional use approval granted on August 15, 2008 by the township’s Board of Supervisors. Sprawl-Busters first wrote about this case on September 25, 2007. Wal-Mart submitted a proposed land development including the construction of a supercenter and multiple out parcels to accommodate additional, unspecified commercial use. In order to construct the project, the retailer was required to obtain conditional use approval for a Planned Commercial Development (PCD). The group NWSD told Sprawl-Busters, “Throughout the conditional use hearings for the North Whitehall Commercial Center property on which Wal-Mart proposes to build a 176,000 square foot, 24-7 mega-store, NWSD offered expert testimony and facts relating to zoning ordinance (ZO) and Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO) providing enough evidence to the North Whitehall Township Board of Supervisors (BoS) to reject the commercial use of the property. However, the BoS ignored and severely limited NWSD’s input and approved the property for commercial use. Therefore NWSD is appealing the decision in the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County.” The appeal says that multiple “Findings of Fact” were not supported by substantial evidence, and result from errors of law. One local resident told Sprawl-Busters, “I think our Board of Supervisors never thought we would be able to go this far.” While this lawsuit is advancing in court, Wal-Mart is moving forward with its superstore plans. On December 27, 2008, Sprawl-Busters updated its report from North Whitehall, noting that the Planning Commission had reviewed the retailer’s plans for sewage treatment, storm-water and pedestrian safety matters. Wal-Mart told local officials that its own stormwater management rules are tougher than the state’s. “They’re a lot more stringent than the state requirements at this time,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said. One member of the Planning Commission said he was concerned that Wal-Mart might allow trucks and RVs to stay overnight in the parking lot — but the Wal-Mart spokesman said the company doesn’t allow RV or overnight parking of trucks in their lots any more. The newspaper routinely refers to this project as the “controversial Wal-Mart.” The site Wal-Mart wants is a former orchard, and the land around it has been found to contain lead and arsenic from its former agricultural uses. In this case, it’s the citizens who are trying to keep the one bad apple out of the orchard. The Supervisors gave an OK to the proposal to divide the property into five retail lots. There will be four other stores along with the superstore, all on 1 to 2 acre lots. The subdivision proposal is separate from the conditional use permit, which is already under court appeal. North Whitehall for Sustainable Development, and resident Jerome Joseph, have already filed an appeal in Lehigh County Court opposing the preliminary approval of the subdivision plans. The township’s lawyer told The Morning Call that if the citizen’s lawsuit prevails, the subdivision approval would be reversed. Wal-Mart keeps telling the township it wants to forge ahead despite the citizen’s litigation. The town is about to begin a new, awkward relationship on its Board of Supervisors. Wal-Mart opponent Jerry Joseph ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors — and won. That means that in January he will take office, at a time when his lawsuit against North Whitehall is still pending. According to The Morning Call newspaper, the township has paid their lawyer more than $31,000 to defend Wal-Mart’s conditional use permit. The township could have turned to Wal-Mart to pay these legal fees — but the Board of Supervisors decided to have taxpayers in North Whitehall pay the bill. Joseph defeated former Supervisor Terry Stoudt, who was a Wal-Mart supporter. Joseph has raised concerns that a Wal-Mart on Route 309 will lead to leapfrog sprawl. “I am worried about mega-store encroachment on 309. The only reason I am worried is it’s a development, and a type of development, which has only one path, which is more big-box stores coming in. Two-lane roads become four-lane roads, more traffic lights — it’s a never-ending process.” The only one so far who has done well financially is the township’s lawyer, Lisa Young, who has received the $31,000 in fees from the township. Young has told township officials that in her opinion Joseph must be exclude from any township discussion of the lawsuits he has filed. Joseph does not believe that he has to refrain from voting on ultimate approval of the store. “We’d have to analyze the situation and see what makes sense at the time,” the told The Morning Call. “It’s hard to do a what-if scenario.” Joseph said North Whitehall for Sustainable Development has spent at least as much as the township on their own legal bills. The Chairman of the township’s Board of Supervisors said that his board is ready to work with Joseph despite the litigation. “We’re going to make the best of it,” said Chairman Ronald Stahley. “I mean, it’s not something that can be changed.” Clearly the anti-Wal-Mart voters were more numerous than the pro-Wal-Mart faction, so Chairman Stahley needs to mend some fences if he wants to remain in office.
Wal-Mart Stores wants to use its 40-acre site along Route 309 in North Whitehall for a planned commercial development that will contain the superstore and four smaller retail sites. Jerome Joseph and North Whitehall for Sustainable Development filed an appeal one month after the township’s ruling. NWSD hired an engineer who testified on the plans, the group submitted reports to the supervisors. NWSD says the supervisors limited and precluded his testimony. On September 17th at the supervisors meeting, Chairman Ronald Stahley told The Morning Call that he was not aware the appeal had been filed. The appeal was filed on the final day of the appeal period. Wal-Mart plans for a subdivision were approved, but the corporation’s land development plan must still come before the township’s Planning Commission for approval. Readers are urged to email the North Whitehall supervisors at: Ron Stahley Chairman: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Stahley, Your approval of a Wal-Mart, which was designed to avoid litigation from the retailer — has now resulted in two lawsuits from your own constituents. You already have 7 Wal-Mart’s within 20 miles of North Whitehall. 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 North Whitehall, and is incompatible with the rural character of the township. Good land use decisions don’t result in major win/lose situations. Your decision has not led to a ribbon cutting, but to a courtroom. You should not be paying tax dollars to defend a private company’s permit. Let Wal-Mart pick up the entire cost of litigation. I hope this case is remanded back for a proper review, with real consideration of the traffic problems generated by this project, and due process for all the site issues raised by NWSD in their appeal. The election of Jerry Joseph sent a very clear message to the Supervisors. People in North Whitehall don’t want to be saturated with big box sprawl. Now’s the time for the township to stop paying legal bills to protect Wal-Mart, and let the retailer pay to defend its own permits.”