Creating a better, stronger Lower Macungie Township is about more than just a job for Commissioner Ron Beitler. It’s about his roots and hometown pride, it’s about his future and the future of his family. For Beitler, a vibrant Lower Macungie is deeply personal.
Beitler, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, is a lifelong resident of Lower Macungie, PA, a third-ring suburb of Allentown located on the western end of the Lehigh Valley. Beitler and his wife live in a house less than three blocks away from the house he grew up in, where his parents still live. In fact, most of Beitler’s family members live in Lower Macungie.
When Beitler’s father bought their family home, the population of the rural township was around 6,000 residents. Now, a much more suburban community, the population is up to over 31,000 residents with projections of growth reaching over 40,000 in the next 10-20 years. That population growth — 40 percent over the last 25 years — has led to many of the same challenges seen in other suburban communities that grew in a sprawling pattern. For Lower Macungie this includes traffic, increased taxes, and flooding. “In many ways, we are just now feeling the pain associated with 20 years of sprawling growth,” says Beitler. “In terms of our quality of life, but also the township’s long term finances.”
Lower Macungie is at a crossroads, and over the past five years residents have come together to create a series of comprehensive plans for a new future. For Beitler, the next step is to apply these documents through updates to the zoning code. “In the past, greenfield and sprawl development projects have frustrated residents and resulted in an increased appetite from the community for smart growth, but we never follow through,” says Beitler. “That has become my mission: to make sure that this time we take the plans and convert them to action.”
Greenfield developers may build the upfront infrastructure for new projects like sewers and roads, Beitler explains, and they may even have left a fund to contribute to the maintenance of those systems over time. But once those funds are depleted, the new taxes generated don’t cover the development’s long term liabilities, and the local community is the one left holding the bag.
“For me, it always comes back to smart growth being the path for local communities, like mine, to consider their long-term financial solvency,” says Beitler. “The land development patterns that we allow in our zoning code have a concrete impact on our long-term finances.”
Lower Macungie is moving in that direction with a new development project that will include 109 clustered, residential units, while preserving 70 percent of the open space. The project was slow in coming to fruition because cluster zoning was not allowed in the code, meaning the project had to go through the variance process with the zoning board. “We have the guiding documents, we’ve done the visioning exercises, we have the comprehensive plan; right now it’s time to take pen to paper and update our regulations and zoning code so we can get the kind of development that we want,” says Beitler.
To hear Beitler describe the current financial pains associated with past sprawl development decisions and a quickly depleting rainy day fund, it seems certain that the community could have no choice but to modify the decisions it makes when it comes to growth. “Last year, for the first time in nearly a decade, we had to raise taxes to fund capital improvements,” says Beitler. “For years we lived off the temporary, one-time windfalls associated with hyper-growth. Today, we are quickly running out of that money.”
Another sign of the changing development paradigm in Lower Macungie is an ongoing corridor study looking at the potential along a critical regional thoroughfare. In the past, development projects along this corridor have resulted in low yields in terms of jobs and tax revenue. “The corridor study is crucial,” says Beitler. “This area, in particular, unlocks the key to long-term fiscal sustainability and resilience.” He would like to see more walkable, mixed-use development in place of what is currently there and again points to changes to the zoning code as the means to achieve this goal. “Today, our code not only makes low-value, sprawling development the path of least resistance, it actually encourages strip design,” says Beitler. Amending that will hopefully create more of a “Main Street” along the studied corridor.
Beitler describes himself as always having an interest in local government, but he made the choice to get involved a few years back when 700 acres of agricultural protected land in the community was rezoned for industrial use. He saw the disregard for urban growth boundaries as the latest in a series of missteps his hometown was taking, denuding quality of life and burdening taxpayer budgets. Today, in elected office he continues to promote land uses that increase return on investment; those which provide a better, more vibrant way forward for Lower Macungie Township.