What to Know
- A development called Belmont is at the crossroads of Lancaster's decades-old contrary aspirations: growing the economy, preserving history.
- Lancaster County's land area is 604,038 acres —nearly twice the size of Los Angeles.
- It includes 108,060 farm acres with deed restrictions against development. That's about 18 percent of the county's land area.
Six years ago, Michel Gibeault cast a futile "no" vote against 71-acre Belmont, unconvinced that hangar-sized stores and six football fields of parking was the wisest use of one of Manheim Township's most visible growth-area tracts, a spot he called "iconic."
But the township commissioners ultimately approved much of the developer's pitch for Belmont, going against their planning commission, an advisory body that Gibeault chairs.
"The end result is a plan we're happy with," then-Commissioner Rick Casselbury said at the time of the approval in 2013.
Today, Belmont is coming to life. Target, Dick's Sporting Goods and Nordstrom Rack are celebrating grand openings. Fast-food fans are lining up at Chick-fil-A. And a couple of dozen other stores and eateries, large and small, are open or will be soon.
Meanwhile, isolated on the tract's eastern edge, 74 townhouses and several of the planned 13 single-family homes are under construction.
The backdrop to how Belmont came to be is Lancaster County's decades-long juggling of contrary aspirations: growing a diversified, high-octane economy and preserving the county's rural character, landscapes and Old Order traditions.
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Although it paved over a cornfield, Belmont occupies a prime, central site with easy access to six-lane Route 30 that the township long considered appropriate for intensive development.
But opinions differ over whether Belmont is sufficiently dense and diverse to reduce development pressure on farmland at the periphery of the urban growth areas.
"It's not the perfect thing, but we were able to get some housing in," said Robert Shenk, a retired landscape architect who is president of the advocacy group Coalition for Smart Growth.
Sprawling, land-gobbling development sparked the national smart-growth movement, and it's the concern that prompted a story suggestion for LancasterOnline's We the People project that asks readers to propose and vote on submitted story ideas.
"What is the build-out date for Lancaster County?" a reader asked. "When will there be no more land that can be developed? And how are we preparing for that moment?"
The prospect of build-out is, in fact, far removed. But thinking about build-out is a useful exercise for putting the pace of growth in perspective.
To be clear, build-out of Lancaster County's land area of 604,038 acres —nearly twice the size of Los Angeles — is, frankly, unimaginable in a time frame that's meaningful to everyone alive today.
Keep in mind that Lancaster County has 108,060 farm acres with deed restrictions against development. That's about 18 percent of the county's land area. And even more farmers are lining up to have the government or Farmland Trust buy their properties' development rights. In addition, the Lancaster County Conservancy has preserved over 6,000 acres of natural lands.
Complete build-out is also inconceivable for another reason. It often makes economic sense to reuse buildings or knock down and build new.
A recent case in point is the Kmart at 1890 Fruitville Pike that closed a year ago. The site will soon be an At Home store.
A celebrated example of reuse is on West King Street in Lancaster, where a five-story brick building built as an umbrella factory in 1892 was converted into a furniture store and, decades later, into 83 apartments that enjoy full occupancy.
Even Manhattan, the epitome of a congested, built-up metropolis, is not built-out. Why? Because it constantly recycles developed sites while leaving 843-acre Central Park intact.
Could countywide build-out become a concern in the next century? That's possible. But what's relevant in this century is the possible build-out of the county's 14 urban growth areas, which municipalities designated between 1993 and 2003.
Those growth areas encompass the city, boroughs and parts of neighboring townships. They total 99,526 acres, of which 27,821 acres, or 28 percent, have yet to be developed, according to a 2017 inventory of buildable acres by the county planning commission.
To understand the scale of 28,000 acres, visualize Disney World in Orlando. It's a complex that covers 27,258 acres and features four theme parks, two water parks, 36 hotels, golf courses and a shopping center.
Twenty-eight thousand acres, in other words, is a lot of space.
On the other hand, it's not endless.
Consider that between 2002 and 2015, according to the county planners, 7,288 acres were developed in the growth areas. Land was consumed at a rate averaging 561 acres a year.
If land consumption continues at that rate, the growth areas will run out of buildable land in about 50 years.
That means the year 2067 could be an anxious time for Lancaster County.
Or maybe not.
If municipalities heed the warning of the county planning commission, the county's growth in population and commercial activity could be accommodated on considerably fewer than 561 acres a year, extending the life of the growth areas.
"There are lots of people thinking about this," said James Cowhey, county planning director, meaning his staff, but also others in the local government, private and nonprofit sectors who are offering guidance as Cowhey's office develops a new comprehensive plan called Places 2040, which will update a 2006 plan.
While the plan, in development since 2015 and expected to be ready this fall for adoption by the county commissioners, is in draft form and remains subject to change, Cowhey is firm in wanting a goal of an average of 7.5 dwelling units per acre in the urban growth areas.
At that rate, new development would consume about 10,500 acres in the growth areas through 2040, leaving about 17,000 acres for the future.
In achieving the overall goal of 7.5 units per acre, different growth areas would have different rates. The proposed goal in the 13 municipalities in the central Lancaster area would be nine units per acre. Others, such as Lititz-Warwick and Ephrata-Akron, would have a goal of 6.5 units. Smaller areas, such as Strasburg, would have a goal of 5.5.
But a plan is only as good as the follow through. And Lancaster County does not have a good track record.
The 2006 plan that Places 2040 will replace also set a target density of 7.5 units per acre. But from 2002 to 2015, the goal was missed. The average density during those 13 years was 4.4 dwellings per acre.
"What we've been doing is developing in a pattern that is inefficient and is consuming a lot more land than we absolutely need,'' said Scott Standish, director for countywide planning at the planning commission.
To hit the 7.5 dwelling unit target, municipalities in urban growth areas will have to require developers to build multi-story buildings and to pack them closer together, achieving greater use out of each acre.
In that way the county, population 538,500, can both house the projected population growth of 114,000 over the next 20 years and extend the life of the growth areas to 2080.
But it's not just population that grows. Businesses need space for expansion, too, a concern of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, an advocate of business growth.
"What's the composition of our economy going to look like in five or 10 years, and do we have the right type of spaces to accommodate those uses?" said Lisa Riggs, EDC president.
"The other big piece is do we have the infrastructure to support that growth _ transportation networks as well as water, sewer and utilities _ and are they in the right places?" Riggs added. "These are the factors that are going to dictate where growth can go in our community. They require good foresight. You don't get great water and sewer infrastructure overnight."
On a recent Wednesday morning, about 50 leaders from 19 municipalities gathered for a presentation by Standish on the draft comprehensive plan.
Lisa Douglas, director of planning and zoning for Manheim Township, put her finger on a stumbling block to any hope for denser development, particularly in the suburbs.
She said residents push back when developers bring forward plans for apartments or other high-density concepts.
"High density to many means 2.5 units per acre," Douglas said. "There's still that misconception of not in my backyard."
Belmont is a case in point. Along with a massive retail district, the developers also proposed 264 apartments in two, multi-story residential buildings.
Residents, expressing traffic concerns, opposed that many apartments. In the end, the township approved a housing plan with no apartments.
The townhouses and homes now under construction are priced from $231,000 to $365,000, beyond the reach of most of the workers who the nearby stores and restaurants will employ.
With no street tying into the abutting single-family home neighborhood of Glen Moore Circle, the homes will be as isolated as if on a peninsula.
The way things worked out doesn't upset Gibeault, the township planning chairman who voted no.
"We had hoped, and maybe naively so, that the housing could sit on some of those stores and make it more of a Main Street thing,'' he said. "But I'm glad we got some housing out of it.''
Standish points out that Belmont's development represents consumption of a limited resource: a large, developable tract in a growth area. He emphasizes that prime farmland and big, buildable sites are scarce resources that the county would be foolish to not use wisely.
"When you have a limited resource," he said, "we'd better get it right.''