Opinion

Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors respond to development approval controversy

As many in this community know, the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors approved the Pine Hall Traditional Town Development General Master Plan on Aug. 19. The Master Plan includes 1,029 dwelling units on approximately 150 acres of land located inside the Regional Growth Boundary and zoned for residential and mixed-use development. The development has a large thumb-print, which is why the board of supervisors, planning commission and staff worked with the developer for over three years throughout the course of many public meetings to ensure the development would enrich, not detract from, the township’s character.

The Pine Hall proposed development is located on property that was originally zoned for industrial uses in the 1970s. About 12 years ago, when the Traditional Town Development (TTD) zoning was proposed for the adjacent property, the board saw a benefit to changing the industrial zoning to something that fit better with the development that had occurred in the intervening period. The TTD permits a mix of uses and is also designed to require higher density than other residential districts. It is located within the Regional Growth Boundary to prevent sprawl to rural areas. Additionally, there is an affordable housing requirement.

The current plan, approved in August, is a significant revision of the plan approved in 2010. Changes that were implemented by request of township staff, residents and elected officials in the three years of review of the plan included improvements to traffic circulation, housing affordability and land uses. There was a focus on environmental sustainability, including the development of an Eco-District, the first of its kind in the region.

Some of the discussions focused on preservation of the existing wooded areas of the property. These trees are not part of a public forest as some have maintained. Municipalities in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are not permitted to regulate tree harvesting on private property. The TTD zoning, however, does require the retention or replacement of a percentage of the trees over a certain size within a development. It is the existence of a land development plan that affords protection to part of the wooded area. The township worked with the developer and residents who attended public meetings to preserve and enhance many of the natural characteristics of the site wherever possible.

During public hearings on this plan on Aug. 6th and 19th, this board heard from several residents urging the board to prohibit the developer from removing trees from the property, or to greatly increase the amount of wooded lands left untouched. As we explained at that time, those actions are not consistent with the board’s authority. A Master Plan that conforms to zoning requirements has a right to approval by the board of supervisors. For this plan, all requirements of applicable ordinances were met. Some of the final details, including exact locations of trees to be maintained or replaced, will emerge in the reviews of the specific implementation plans that are submitted before the phases are built.

Among the long list of environmentally conscious regulations and initiatives the township has undertaken in recent years are the creation of the Ridge Overlay, Riparian Buffer, and Sourcewater Protection Overlay districts. The township has established a Climate Action Committee with the goal of developing a plan to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We have invested millions of dollars in improving stormwater management to establish erosion controls and reduce pollutant offloads into the Chesapeake Bay tributary watersheds.

The township employs a Board-Certified Master Arborist and has achieved Tree City USA designation for three straight years. We have employed initiatives to combat tree diseases including Emerald Ash Borer and Oak Wilt that threaten the thousands of acres of woodland located in the township. Several months before the Pine Hall concerns emerged at the public hearing, the board directed the Tree Commission to draft a true Tree Preservation Ordinance that will aim to incentivize and establish regulatory controls over the preservation of privately-owned tree canopy in association with land development to the extent permitted by state regulations.

While the board and staff are encouraged by the outpouring of community interest and involvement in land development and other initiatives, it is critical that we work together in a strategic and productive manner so that we continue to grow in a sustainable direction. The board shares the community’s concerns about a changing climate and has a proven track record of implementing public policies that protect our natural resources. There is room in the public discourse for these challenging conversations. In having those conversations, though, we must be mindful of the legal framework in which we are operating and tackle the challenging obstacles that allow us to advance as a community.

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