The intended use of a farm in Millcreek Township purchased last year by a Lancaster-based meat packer has been confirmed now that the company has filed its preliminary land development plan with the county.

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

John F. Martin & Sons plans to construct a 45-foot tall, 176,172-square-foot cold storage/distribution facility on the 140-acre Zimmerman farm, which the Stevens-based company bought last August for $5.15 million.

Land development plan for John F. Martin & Sons cold storage/distribution center in Millcreek Township. (LebTown)

LebTown had reported similar information in February, based on a transportation plan that had been filed with the county earlier this year. Requests in February for an interview with a company official in charge of the project were not returned then, but LebTown did speak to company CEO Jay Martin this week about the project.

Zach Luciotti, a subdivision planner for the Lebanon County Planning Department, said the land development plan also calls for a truck service area and high-speed fuel canopy on the north side of Route 419 north of the driveway for Miller Service.

“They are proposing a 176,000- – give or take – square-foot cold storage distribution facility with a (12,000-square-foot) service center,” said Luciotti. “The property is zoned heavy industrial, so it is a permitted use by right.”

Detail from land development plan for John F. Martin & Sons cold storage/distribution center in Millcreek Township. (LebTown)

Luciotti said a “use by right” is permitted in a zoning district and is therefore not subject to special review and approval by a local government. For example, the operation of a retail store on property zoned for commercial uses would be considered a use by right.

Read More: What officials can and can’t do when it comes to approving land development

Luciotti added that neither the township nor its planning commission is required to host a meeting to gather public input on the project.

Jay Martin said the company also has no plan to conduct a public meeting.

“Historically, our company hasn’t done things like that,” said Martin. “As far as I know, the ownership group does not have plans to hold any public meetings or anything like that. It’s not the way we’ve done business over the years. Obviously, we work with the local (municipal) authorities that are involved.” 

Mark Brophy, a resident of the Stonecroft Village 55+ Community, which overlooks the farm from a nearby hill, said he understands the plan is within the zoning regulations, but expressed concerns about air quality, impact on traffic and other environmental issues. 

“We realize that (it complies with the zoning ordinance), but once they get rolling, who knows what will happen – if they get rolling,” added Brophy. 

LebTown asked Brophy if the last part of his comment means that a legal challenge may be filed against this proposal. He replied that he can not comment on that question yet, but added that “anything is possible.”

Martin’s planned use for the property differs significantly from a previous proposal by Cold Summit Development, which had explored purchasing the land in 2022 to construct a massive cold storage warehouse onsite and up to three additional buildings. Cold Summit’s exploration set off a wave of opposition with local residents and Womelsdorf Borough officials since that project would have increased traffic exponentially.

Read More: Cold Summit nixes Millcreek warehouse

Asked if Martin’s plan was more acceptable over the Cold Summit proposal – since this one calls for most of the acreage to still be farmed – Brophy questioned what might happen to the land in the future.

“Yeah, they are going to continue to farm it today, but where will it be five years from now? Do you really think that will stay farmland five years from now?” he asked. 

Martin told LebTown that the company’s plan is to farm the land for the foreseeable future – with one caveat.

“Obviously I can’t see into the future – none of us can,” said Martin. “As it was stated at the meeting, our future plan as we sit here today, our intention is to farm the balance of the property. That said, 20 years, 10 years, 5 years down the road, I don’t know what happens. But our plans, as we have them today, is to farm that land for the foreseeable future.”

Brophy had told LebTown previously that he would prefer the land to remain in its current state.

“Do you think John F. Martin would like this to happen in their backyard? asked Brophy. “I’m not happy, OK? They could put a 2-square-foot warehouse – where’s the concern for the residential community? Where’s the concern for the elderly in this community who have respiratory concerns?” 

Brophy had previously wondered and had told LebTown he had concerns that this facility may be used as a slaughterhouse, but Martin said the company is a meat packer, not a processor of animal products.

“Taking live animals into what is considered a slaughterhouse to do that, we do not do that at any of our facilities and we haven’t done so for probably about 20 years,” said Martin. “Just like what is said in the plan, this is a cold storage facility to receive and ship packaged meat.” 

LebTown had previously reported that Millcreek Township officials had stated a desire for a retail store to be located on the property, but Martin said there are no plans to include one at that location.

“Millcreek has asked about some retail space and at this point there was no plan submitted that includes anything for retail space,” said Martin. “There again, I don’t know what the future holds, but right now there is nothing submitted or in the works for that.”

Luciotti said he understands the concerns of local residents, but added that planning officials are bound by the zoning regulations, adding he has not encountered any potential red flags concerning the plan upon initial review. 

“I understand why the local residents are unhappy about the plan, but it is zoned ‘use by right,’” said Luciotti. “The rail has been there a long time and that area has been zoned industrial for a long time.”

Luciotti noted that more land than just the Zimmerman farm in that area is zoned either light or heavy industrial.

“That zoning continues along the rail north of that property. There’s a decent bit of industrial there along the railhead, so it makes sense that it is zoned that way since many municipalities have industrial zones near railways,” he added.

Given the proximity of the residential development to the industrial zone, Luciotti said he will most likely recommend to the company’s planning engineers the inclusion of landscaping between the development and Martin’s property to serve as a buffer zone. He added a buffer zone is usually suggested when two zones, in this case industrial and residential, abut each other because they are incompatible uses.

“When something like this happens, I make recommendations or suggestions to the developer,” said Luciotti. “Does that mean they have to do them? No, they don’t. But I make recommendations that will hopefully make the situation a little better.”

Minutes from the July 5 meeting of the Millcreek Township Planning and Zoning Commission noted there will be three shifts at the plant, Mondays through Fridays, with a partial day shift on Saturdays, and an anticipated 50 to 60 employees working at the facility. 

When asked what economic impact his company will have in Lebanon County, Martin said that’s too early to tell but did say that the company will hire a number of new employees while also transferring existing ones to that location.

Expected traffic is 35 new car trips and four truck trips during morning peak hours and 71 car trips and 16 new truck trips during afternoon peak hours. The minutes also noted that a Traffic Impact Assessment Report was submitted to PennDOT, with the report concluding that no improvements are needed to the intersections that were studied.

The meeting minutes state that Millcreek planning officials expressed concerns about traffic and the impact on existing “stressed” intersections but also noted it (traffic) is PennDOT’s jurisdiction. 

As reported by LebTown in February, the traffic count figures are exactly the same as shared by Jon Fitzkee, assistant director/senior transportation planner for the Lebanon County Planning Department, at that time. 

Fitzkee had also said then that Martin’s transportation plan “requests access to the property via Route 419 and for a ‘low volume driveway,’ which is one of several designations set by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to determine traffic volume. While low volume is considered by PennDOT to be between 50 to 1,500 vehicles per day, Martin’s number is much smaller than Cold Summit’s proposal and PennDOT’s allowable figure.”

Fitzkee said this week that access to Route 419, which is a state highway, would have either been designated as a low-, medium- or high-volume type of entranceway, adding that high volume is usually assigned to a large mall that would typically receive plenty of traffic flow during operating hours. In the case of the Martin project, the driveway is still a low-volume use as presented in its land development plan. 

Martin said the Zimmerman farm was purchased because the company has outgrown existing space at its Womelsdorf facility, adding that traffic concerns between the two locations has been and continues to be addressed by PennDOT and municipal officials.

“The traffic study that was required for this project has been completed and submitted to PennDOT and the comments are being addressed between them, the PennDOT districts, Millcreek Township and the people they requested be contacted, which I believe were Womelsdorf Borough and Heidelberg Township,” he said. “So they have an opportunity to comment.”

Martin said he does not believe “to the best of his knowledge that PennDOT has submitted any follow-up questions” to the company’s engineers for this project.

Luciotti said he will review the stormwater and Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO) to ensure both meet all zoning requirements. Also reviewing the plan will be Millcreek Township officials and Lebanon County’s engineer. 

“We will go back and forth (with the company’s engineers) until all of the questions – if we have any – are addressed,” said Luciotti. “As long as the land development plan meets all of the requirements, I can’t deny it if all of the stormwater and SALDO ordinances are met. So, basically, we will make sure it’s in compliance with every zoning requirement so that every I is dotted and every T is crossed.”

Martin said it’s too early to tell when construction may begin since the land development plan has just been filed with authorities and because of ongoing supply chain issues with construction products caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

He noted that Martin’s has been a central Pennsylvania company for 60 years and strives to be good community partners.

“The counties, the townships, the boroughs that we have been involved with, to the best of my knowledge, we’ve always been a good neighbor and have had good working relationships with the communities,” said Martin. “We certainly hope to keep it that way and I don’t think it is our intent to do anything to change that.”

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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...