Quakertown council can now cut through the crap. Flush with updated - and factual - explanations on potential development in Richland, the towns can finally do their business on the sewer plant expansion.
Nothing stirs the potty of community discussion faster than land development. The spread of new homes, new stores, and new office buildings in Upper Bucks upsets those who mourn the loss of the "rural character" of our area, but is welcomed by the hundreds of new families who see this as the ideal place to live, work, and raise children. Just like we do.
It is now a fact of life that local municipalities can not legally stop growth. Courts routinely side with developers and landowners, overturning attempts at over-restrictive zoning, and upholding the right of citizens to make profitable use of their ground. Communities like Warrington, Plumstead, and Bedminster learned the hard way, with hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars down the toilet in legal fees unsuccessfully fighting developers.
The issue has been rather moot around here since 2005, when the Quakertown wastewater treatment plant reached capacity. The borough then gave it's own century-old leaking pipes an extreme makeover to keep unwanted rain and groundwater out of the system. And with that work now complete, there is again capacity available. But not enough.
Projected growth in neighboring Richland - which has been misunderstood and misstated by some - will still require a 25 percent expansion of the Qtown plant. And the borough has little choice. They are legally bound to provide 45 percent of the capacity to the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority. And if the plant can't meet the area's needs, or if council balks at an expansion, BCWSA says that it will build another one in Richland, which means that Qtown will lose more than $600,000 per year - money that now is used to keep down residents' taxes.
Initially, some council members seemed to be suffering from the same shortsightedness that for many years prevented the borough from cooperating with Richland, and other communities, on virtually everything. They decried new homes - while at the same time lamenting the lack of shoppers, and vacant stores, in downtown Qtown. But that opposition may have been due to a misunderstanding about the scale of the anticipated Richland growth. The engineer hired by council reported that "projections amount to 250 to 300 units per year over a 20 year period." Enough to horrify anyone - including Richland's supervisors, who had no idea where those numbers came from.
Keep in mind that this growth is not what Richland is hoping for - it is simply what the Delaware Valley Planning Commission deduces from census data. But the projection is based solely on a formula, and does not take into account many existing conditions: most of the available ground will not have public sewer, is very wet, rocky and has steep escarpments, is already preserved by the township or county, or is state gamelands. In addition, it turns out that the QT engineer didn't take into consideration that much of the new growth would be commercial and industrial buildings, and some capacity would be for homes already approved.
According to Carroll Engineering Company, who did the study for BCWSA, the worst-case scenario would be 144 houses per year - and that will be reduced even further by Richland's new "537 Plan" which focuses on controlling development by controlling access to water and sewer. Supervisor Craig Staats has been working with Carroll since he was elected in 2005 on the 537 Plan, and a new township Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan is one of the most important planning tools to guide development, and protect resources, but ours had been distorted by some of the individuals who created it in 1997, apparently bent on protecting their own homes.
Staats explained "The Board of Supervisors recognized that the township's inadequate Comprehensive Plan, and the 537 Sewer Plan, both needed major overhauls, and authorized me to chair an advisory committee. We presented our drafts to the Bucks County Planning Commission, and the Quakertown Area Planning Commission, for comments. We recently received feedback, and will present the revised plans to the BOS for adoption."
The state Municipal Planning Code requires that towns plan for growth, and allow for land development uses. But Richland's current 537 Plan boundaries actually cross through the middle of many parcels, making it easy for a developer to get public sewer on land that was not supposed to be developed. Staats' committee has now revised the boundaries to travel along parcel lines, so each is either in, or out, of the primary development area. And, just as important, they have actually tightened the areas available for building. The Richland Water Authority is cooperating by mirroring the new sewer district.
Staats concluded "We must face the fact that development will come whether we like it or not. But with proper planning, we can manage future growth. Our proposed 537 Plan will address Richland's present, and future, sewage disposal needs."
QT Councilman Dave Zaiser, who originally was strongly against the plant expansion, changed his mind after learning the truth: "If it had been explained to me originally, as it has been now, that this development will not be this many homes, and will be beneficial to the borough, as controlled development with improved infrastructure, I am good with that. It was put to us as a large number of homes, and that took all of council back. Craig and I have sat down a few times, and we can make all this work."
Council President Jim Roberts agreed: "We either expand, and also enjoy the benefits of more advanced technology, or watch Richland build their own plant, and lose them as a customer. There will be some voices shouting 'no development at any price', but there is no reason not to cooperate. No one can expect that Richland will say that there can never, ever, be more development within the township simply because there are no more sewer hookups."