What kind of quality of life does Lebanon County want in 2035?

That was the overarching question posed at a county commissioner workshop on Wednesday, Aug. 2, and one that will be answered over the next year to 16 months as officials craft and implement a new 10-year comprehensive plan. 

A comprehensive plan is a roadmap for county officials to follow for a 10-year period to help determine the current and future needs of Lebanon County.

“The conditions that define quality of life are determined by how community members and government leaders define it,” said Keith Chase, strategy facilitator and senior planner with Camp Hill-based Gannett Fleming. “You will then work to have buy-in and a commitment to action once the plan is written.”

The county commissioners, county planning department employees, representatives from two planning firms, and Susan Eberly, the president and CEO of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corporation, launched the study with a two-hour brainstorming session at the county municipal building.

County Commissioner Chairman Bob Phillips noted early in the meeting that this is just the beginning of a process that will involve numerous stakeholders in the development of the plan. 

“I want to ensure our countywide partners at the municipal level so they don’t feel like they were left out of the development of the comprehensive plan,” said Phillips. 

Part of the information-gathering meeting involved identifying an array of stakeholders whose input should be included in crafting the plan. 

Public sector officials (municipal government and state legislators), business leaders, educators, non-profit organizations and civic groups representatives, and even faith-based leaders were some of the entities targeted for inclusion.

Throughout the meeting, the commissioners expressed their collective desire for the continuation of agriculture as the area’s number one industry, with Phillips stating early in the meeting that agriculture must remain on top. 

Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, who is the county’s representative on the county’s farmland preservation board, said the preservation of county farms needs to be one of the comprehensive plan’s top priorities.  

Later, Commissioner Mike Kuhn echoed a similar sentiment but expanded on it during a discussion about community members who are innovators that should be included in the development of the comprehensive plan.

“What are the incentives for people? Not just what’s good for the community,” said Kuhn. “The issue of farmland preservation: I think a huge majority of our population thinks it’s a good idea for farmland preservation. But the harsh reality is there needs to be a passion for that farmer because the financial reward is not really there. The financial reward that they meet the zoning requirements means they sell it for development. So, how can we create the incentives that actually help the farmer.”

The group listed for the workshop facilitators what they believe are some of the county’s forces of change.

Some of the top items listed were population growth, access to transportation, housing affordability, farmland preservation, demand for government services, and demand for retail amenities. 

In asking about barriers or constraints that impact change, the group listed the condition of local roadways as a top priority within infrastructure needs. 

Other barriers include the lack of a skilled workforce, water quality and quantity issues, lack of project funding, and staffing shortages that prevent more municipal projects from being implemented. 

Near the end of the meeting, Phillips asked a question about potential costs to implement the plan, with the caveat that the county will also have to pay for it to be developed. He said he wished to address potential “sticker shock” to get that figure out in the open early in the process.

“What are other classified counties spending on implementation, workforce, et cetera?” Phillips asked the facilitators. “That’s something I think I’ve got to get a comfort level with. I hear big numbers, and the public has to be a part of that discussion since they are paying for it.”

The facilitators said they didn’t have that information for this meeting, with Chase adding that he personally doesn’t like working on a plan “unless there’s a commitment to implement it upfront.” 

He noted that implementation can happen in phases, with commissioners designating which needs are addressed first. Additionally, implementation may include revisions to the way the planning department functions, which is an affordable way to implement change components within a new comprehensive plan.

It was stated that the facilitators will compile the information discussed with county officials and other meeting attendees and draft a “blueprint” that will be presented to them. 

After the meeting, Julie Cheyney, director of Lebanon County Planning Department, told LebTown that Lebanon County’s first comprehensive plan was implemented in the 1970s and was more urban than countywide. Later, in 1987, an interim countywide plan was created. The last comprehensive plan, which took two years to draft, was created in 2007.

It is expected that this process will take between 12 and 16 months to create and then implement the new plan. 

Cheyney also told LebTown that while the state’s Municipalities Planning Code does not require local governments to plan or zone, it does require each county to adopt a comprehensive plan. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development’s Municipal Assistance Program does provide grants of at least $50,000 for planning departments to plan and implement programs, with other funding generally being available to municipalities, added Cheyney.

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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...