A Letter from Marlena in Bethlehem, PA

Last weekend I went to visit my girlfriend's family near Allentown PA in Bethlehem. As we drove through the area, she explained how there had been a shift which is still in progress from prime farmland to development land for strip malls, residential housing, even trucking depots and warehouses, etc. Instead of being something forced on the local area, I started to think that probably all of this was just a product of people's collective desires in the local area.

Then on the last morning, I caught this letter to the editor in "The Morning Call" the local newspaper which sort of cheered me up a little because it seems to present the end of the exurban experience of development, traffic congestion, segregated zoning, etc could come full circle to a type of new urbanism if people start taking an active voice in the development of their communities.

I have lived in Bethlehem Township for almost a decade. The development that my family moved to, King's Crossing, used to be virtually in the middle of nowhere. Today, Bethlehem Township is very different. Route 33 was built, now serving as a vein to Route 78.

This has spiked the value of our homes and created much more convenient routes for traveling. However, with the new access and the expanded Freemansburg Avenue came a flashy new strip mall.

People from all over the Lehigh Valley commute to our once very quiet side of town to indulge in their addiction to consumerism. Never mind the absurd amount of time it takes for local families to battle the traffic.

Most of the land that was ruined is covered by vast, empty parking lots. There is no sidewalk access from the neighboring communities to the malls. The entire strip mall can only be accessed by car.

A pedestrian-friendly shopping venue could have easily been created -- and could have, to a small degree, compensated for the destruction of the area. But of all the tons of cement laid down on those fields, nobody every bothered to invest in a few measly blocks of sidewalk.

Marlena Sarunac, Bethlehem, PA

Thanks for your letter Marlena. We need more people like you to stand up and point out the obvious consequences that planning mistakes like this create. Hopefully in the future these situations can be fixed and avoided with more local involvement into the planning process.

Almost everyone I know who has lived in the suburbs for a while says things like, "When we first moved here, our community was surrounded by nature, in the middle of nowhere" and then they bemoan the fact that now the wildnerness surrounding them is being hacked down on all sides by new developments.

Why, in their minds, is it OK to be among the first people to settle in unspoiled country, but not OK for the McMansions that sprout up next to them? I find this attitude extremely hypocritical.

The other question is: If they were so against the development that came, why didn't they try to stop it or mold it into something more to their liking? Preventing sprawl was within their control and they gave it away to developers. The key line in her letter about the value of her house skyrocketing is the answer.
The question about it being in our control is also an interesting one. Yes, there is a history of people stopping such sprawl. But for all those cases, there are the thousands of Walmarts and strip malls that people now bemoan, but were EITHER too lazy or, more likely, too uninformed to do anything about. By the time these things are built, it's often too late. Sure, the prospect of a WalMart might be publicized, but a plain old strip mall? The ground is being hacked into before you can do anything about it.

So in some sense, prevention may be within our control (in that zoning ordinances could be changed or an individual store could be stopped), but a lot of people might not know that.

It's another example of how average people are so disconnected from their local governments. Everyone was wrapped up in Kerry v. Bush that they missed the local land use committee meeting to stand up against sprawl. The zoning variance is granted (or not even required) and construction begins. Before you have a chance to react, you're driving 0.1 miles to access it.

But it's unfair to blame any one individual. This was a community failure at all levels. Sprawl fighting at the site by site level can only be partially effective. What's needed is a long term local/state/regional plan of land use that preserves open space and concentrates development near established (not new!) transportation hubs.

Much of the land used in this development was privately own by one family (instead of a city/township), so how can the public control an individual's rights to sell his land as he sees fit? Perhaps this is more of an educational challenge for the community.
The family is completely entitled to sell it to the highest bidder, but they or the new owner is not entitled to do anything they want with the property.

This is where good zoning regulation comes in. The community at some level controls the level of development in the area as well as all the municipal services that these types of development require. Roads need to be connected. Electrical / sewer systems need to be integrated. There may be impacts like flooding to surrounding property owners if the development does not have a good drainage system, etc...

"Freedom", broadly defined, balances the freedom to do whatever you want, with the freedom from negative consequences to others around you.

Surrounding residents to a new development may have to pay higher taxes to build the new roads and maintain all the infrastructure to support it, not to mention the increase in quality of life issues like traffic, noise and loss of open space. But I doubt any of them were notified or asked before the bulldozers came.

I know the place she writes about well.  I still work near it, although I've moved away from it.  It used to be great farmland too.  

Fighting sprawl at a local level is tough.  You have to be at all (or most) of the meetings - month after month listening to them drone on about various things, probably 15% of which you care about.  Even then, the laws favor the developers.  Unless you happen to get lucky and live in an area with a history of enlightend local government, where reasonable zoning is already in place, there is not much you can do once a project is proposed.  Bethlehem Twp is not one of those places, and sandwiched between the I78 and Rt22 corredors, it never had a chance.  And no one cares about pedestrians - it's all about cars.

In PA, a municipal government and the school board are completely separate.  Regardless of the fact that the cost of schooling is the single highest burden to the community of a development, that cannot be considered by the body that approves the project.  And the school board has no say.

Honestly, the thing that prevents sprawl best is a wealthy population who is willing to fight the township in court.  This tends to neutralize the township government's concern about being sued by the developers.