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Cascade: No. 60, Winter 2005

Newtown-Area Townships Cooperate on Planning and Zoning Issues

Editor’s Note: Michael Frank served as planning consultant for the Newtown Area Joint Municipal Planning Program and for the three townships that participate in the program. He provided expert-witness testimony in a legal challenge to the validity of a joint zoning ordinance developed through the program.

After a rocky start in the 1970s, three townships in Bucks County, PA, have achieved local goals and efficiencies through cooperative land-use planning and zoning.

The Newtown Area Joint Municipal Planning program includes the adjoining townships of Newtown, Upper Makefield, and Wrightstown. About 30 years ago, Upper Makefield Township was looking for the least conspicuous place for a mobile home park zoning district to comply with court directives. The proposed location was on the boundary of adjoining Newtown Township. At this location, future residents of the mobile home park would have traveled into neighboring Newtown for shopping, schools, employment, and access to regional highways. The officials of Newtown, the neighboring township that would get the added traffic, were outraged. Heated letters were fired back and forth on the local newspaper’s editorial pages.

After an initial period of anger, officials in the municipalities concluded that cooperation was likely to resolve the conflict. They discovered that the municipalities could jointly share their planning and zoning responsibilities and thereby achieve a more rational and efficient growth pattern. That meant that each community did not need to provide for all intensive land uses and costly municipal services on its own.

In 1983, they adopted a joint comprehensive plan, a joint zoning ordinance, and a “marriage agreement” that facilitates cooperative planning and zoning. (The participating communities do not share other municipal services, such as schools, police, and garbage collection.) Their land-use plan protects and fosters business and employment growth in Newtown, the core community. Because the two outlying townships do not woo business away from Newtown, Upper Makefield, and Wrightstown have been able to maintain their rural, agricultural character. Farmland and natural resources are better protected. Cooperation has accommodated growth in the most suitable locations and helped manage the costs of community services.

This arrangement has not been without problems. It takes time to usher ideas and ordinance amendments through three planning commissions, three elected bodies, several solicitors, a regional planning commission, and a council of elected officials. Opinions often differ. Newly elected or appointed officials need to gain understanding of the background and rationale for the cooperative planning policies. Time, tempers, and training seem to be the greatest problems. Regular ongoing communication helps overcome these problems. In spite of difficulties, these townships continue to plan and zone together more than two decades later.

In 1998, Governor Tom Ridge gave the Newtown area municipal officials a Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence. Through cooperative planning, these municipalities have guided development into Newtown Township and avoided sprawl in the two other townships. This smart growth approach has avoided the need for $34.8 million in road and storm sewer capital costs in the outlying communities, according to Thomas J. Harwood, Jr., director of public works and code enforcement for Newtown Township. Lower levels of automobile traffic and emissions have resulted.

Three substantive challenges to the joint zoning ordinance have been successfully defeated. The most significant was In Re: Petition of Dolington Land Group and Toll Bros. Inc., from the Decision of the Zoning Hearing Board of Upper Makefield Township (839 A.2d 1021, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, 2003). In this petition, which was filed on February 15, 1996, the applicants charged that the joint zoning ordinance failed to make adequate provision for apartments, townhouses, and other types of attached housing development, and that the zoning provisions unreasonably restricted the property owners’ right to develop their land.

The applicants wanted to build about 1,200 homes on their 312 acres in the zoning district intended for rural residential and agricultural uses. In upholding the zoning, the court stated that these communities regularly reviewed the need to provide adequate land to accommodate regional housing growth and had expanded their high-density zoning, in the most suitable locations, to meet the need. Further, the court noted the growing national and statewide awareness of the true costs of sprawl and the need to implement different land-use policies.

Planning and zoning in a single municipality are not easy. Working with neighboring municipalities increases difficulties geometrically. Originally, the Borough of Newtown was a partner but withdrew because of concerns related to costs, potential litigation, and time involved in working with the other municipalities. But officials in the three Bucks County townships report that, after 22 years, they can’t imagine planning and zoning independently. Cooperation is not without stress and compromise, but municipalities and the region will be much better off for the effort.

As of 2004, over 160 multimunicipal planning efforts were underway in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. When older communities participate with surrounding townships, the impact of sprawl may be reduced and the need for revitalization replaced by enhancement. Cooperation is an effective way to share community land-use decisions and foster smarter growth.

For information, contact Michael Frank at (215) 345-7020, ext. 118 or mfrank@heritageconservancy.org.