Whenever LebTown publishes an article concerning residential or commercial development or the filing of a land use plan, readers air their concerns on social media platforms.

Some of those concerns may be warranted, but others are, quite simply, well-intended but inaccurate.

For example, many people see new development as a sign that Lebanon County is losing land so rapidly that the Lebanon Valley will one day become one big parking lot. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Julie Cheyney, executive director of the Lebanon County Planning Department.

“Based on the county’s 2007 comprehensive plan that’s still in effect, 42 percent of land in Lebanon County was agriculture, 29 percent was forested and the rest was a mixture of residential and commercial,” said Cheyney.

Although 16 years have passed since those numbers were last calculated, Cheyney believes they are still relevant today.

“I do believe those numbers are still pretty accurate,” she said. “But I do understand the concern. When people see development happening, they feel that the land is being taken away from them.”

A total of 20,000 acres have been conserved in perpetuity as part of the county’s farmland preservation program, with another 41 landowners totaling over 3,500 acres on the waiting list. The county has granted 179 easements since the program was launched.

Read More: Lebanon County reaches landmark: 20,000 acres preserved in perpetuity

“I hear that all the time: That the county is being overdeveloped,” said Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, who is an avid conservationist. “We have our farmland preservation program, thousands of acres in state forests and many municipal parks around the county that are free from development pressures.”

Although county residents express concerns about development, Cheyney noted that local municipalities are required to provide for “every possible land use” within their borders through established zoning ordinances. (The website conservationtools.org notes that, “Though the terms ‘planning’ and ‘zoning’ are often used interchangeably, they have different meanings. Planning looks years and decades into the future, whereas zoning implements elements of a plan in the present.”)

“At the local level, (municipalities) have to have residential, commercial, industrial, and create a zoning map that does allow for the development of a variety of different things,” said Cheyney. “It gets a little bit complex that while you may have a county comprehensive plan that gives you the broader (planning) brush strokes, you then have to bring that down to the local level and they are required to do – and provide for – all of those types of things within their municipalities and where it makes sense to put them.”

Pennsylvania is unique compared to other states in how land planning is conducted.

“Because we’re a commonwealth, the real authority for this land use planning comes from the local municipalities,” Cheyney said. “Our office is more of a resource that we make available to municipalities in whatever form they’d like to utilize us. We have very little regulatory authority on land use.”

So little authority that, in fact, nearly all land use services and most program administration occurs at the local level.

“Act 47 of 1968 – the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code – gave the legislative authority for counties to form a planning department or a (planning) commission,” said Cheyney. “Historically, in Lebanon County, in 1958 when it went into effect, the formation of our department was to help municipalities get started in the planning process.”

Nearly all of Lebanon County’s 26 municipalities have their own planning department. Cold Spring Township (which consists almost entirely of state game land and has no acting government entity), Jackson and West Lebanon townships, and Mt. Gretna and Richland boroughs do not have their own planning commissions.

Cheyney added that the county’s planning department does assist local municipalities, but those requests are initiated by local governing agency officials.

“Our planning department provides countywide stormwater and subdivision authority, and in those capacities we are acting on behalf of the municipalities,” she said. “People get confused that the county should be regulating this, but, no, that happens at the local level.”

Cheyney noted that while someone may live next to a farm for many years doesn’t necessarily mean that land is zoned agricultural. For example, a farm that was sold last year to John F. Martin and Sons in Millcreek Township had been zoned commercial since the 1970s. The fact that it was zoned commercial is why the Lancaster-based company targeted that specific farm.

Read More: John F. Martin & Sons purchases Millcreek Township farm for $5.15 million

“People who are developers, in most situations, are looking at land that’s already zoned in the way that they want to use it. They try at all costs to avoid getting land rezoned and take the path of least resistance,” said Cheyney. “People don’t realize that the land they’ve seen farmed for the past 10 years might not be zoned for agricultural use. People need to look at a zoning map to see what the use of that land actually is.”

LebTown asked Cheyney whether residents have the ability to change the zoning designation of land within their municipality. That is a complex question that does not have a clear-cut answer.

“Does a private citizen or private party have the ability to present a zoning map amendment to the township? Yes, they do have the ability to petition the municipality, and each municipality will have guidelines as to what that petition looks like,” noted Cheyney.

What happens next is where the process can be somewhat unclear.

“The municipality may or may not choose to follow up and do the procedural thing to look at that request – that’s at their discretion,” added Cheyney. “Does the municipality have to act on that in a specific time frame? No. Do they have to ever act on it? No. I can tell you from experience, however, that when that kind of action happens, most municipalities do go through the process, look at it and do all of the procedural things with that request and make a decision one way or another.”

Cheyney emphasized again that these decisions are made locally and it behooves residents who have development concerns to become active in their municipal government meetings.

“What people do not realize is that most of these decisions that concern them are happening at that local municipal level,” said Cheyney. “They need to go to a council or zoning hearing meeting to learn what’s happening in their backyard. The people you have elected to hold those positions are the ones who are making those decisions.”

Local residents should know that when land development plans fall within established zoning, municipalities, generally speaking, cannot veto a project based on what type of business or use is being proposed. In fact, if a municipality were to arbitrarily deny a land use plan, they potentially face costly legal repercussions. 

“Typically, anything that is ‘arbitrarily’ denied could certainly lead to legal repercussions,” said Cheyney. “I can only speak to how we may handle a denial of a land development plan, which does not happen very often. If a land development plan is denied under the County Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO)/Stormwater Ordinance, it would be for very specific reasons where the applicant is failing to meet the requirements of one or both ordinances.”

“If this denial would happen under a local SALDO/Stormwater Ordinance, our office would not mediate. There would be specific protocols for appeals established in the respective ordinances,” added Cheyney. 

The cooperative nature of planning commissions and local zoning boards helps mitigate legal issues concerning a land use plan.

“One of the tasks a local planning commission may have is the writing or amending of the zoning ordinance,” said Cheyney. “The zoning hearing board could be a gauge as to whether amendments are needed for the zoning ordinance.”

For example, if the zoning hearing board is getting a lot of variance requests for a particular section of the zoning ordinance, this may suggest that an amendment needs to be made to the zoning ordinance in some fashion. 

“The planning commission may be tasked to investigate, make a recommendation on how to best mediate, with one of the outcomes being an amendment to the zoning ordinance,” added Cheyney.

Cheyney said her department’s 13 staff members are always a resource for county residents who have questions about land use planning. Additionally, locals can also learn more by accessing the commonwealth’s Department of Community and Economic Development’s vast library of documents that discuss all aspects of land use and management in Pennsylvania.

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Editor’s note: This article was updated after publication to clarify which municipalities do not have their own planning commissions.

James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...

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