Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The new western pioneers

Lancaster County is becoming the edge of Phila. commuting.

Cathy and Ron Bradley built their dream home in Reinholds, Lancaster County, for half the cost in the Pa. suburbs.
Cathy and Ron Bradley built their dream home in Reinholds, Lancaster County, for half the cost in the Pa. suburbs.Read moreLAURENCE KESTERSON / Inquirer Staff Photographer

Jim and Debby Geissel liked their twin house in Northeast Philadelphia. But as their family grew to include two boys, with another soon on the way, they began to look at larger homes in the Route 611 corridor north of the city.

"Everything was very expensive - and the houses were all outdated," Debby Geissel recalled. "They weren't worth what they were asking."

Jim, a deliveryman for the Coca-Cola bottling plant on Erie Avenue, has an aunt in real estate. She took the couple on a long ride to the Ephrata area, 40 miles west of Valley Forge on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

In short order, the Geissels had a new place to call home, and Jim Geissel had found himself among the growing number of people working in the Philadelphia region but living in Lancaster County.

The search to get more for less has driven Philadelphia area home shoppers almost to the Jersey Shore. It has sent them close to the Maryland border of Chester County. It has pushed them to the fringes of the Lehigh Valley.

And now it is propelling them westward-ho, along the turnpike at least as far as Interchange 286, the Reading-Lancaster exit.

This is often where tourists coming to see the Amish farms or visit the outlet malls of Lancaster County get off the pike.

Dave Royer, director of transportation planning for the Lancaster County Planning Commission, says: "We seem to be becoming more and more - at least a portion of our county - a suburb of metropolitan Philadelphia."

In the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, the Geissels found what they were looking for: a cute, nearly new Colonial with four bedrooms, 21/2 baths, a finished basement, an attic, two fireplaces and a hot tub, all on a half-acre lot.

The price was $238,000, much less than the $300,000 they had expected to have to pay for a lesser house dating from the 1950s or '60s in the area of Horsham, Hatboro and Warminster.

That was in 2004. After three years, Jim Geissel admits he is beginning to tire of his 64.5-mile commute "from the driveway to the front door of Coca-Cola." But he says he's still glad he made the move.

Despite the extra tanks of gas and the wasted hours, the smaller mortgage and comfortable lifestyle of Lancaster County make it worthwhile, he said.

His wife, a hairdresser who drives into the city twice a week for work, summarized their attitude in five words: "It's more for your money."

In the late 1990s, several developments attracting Philadelphia-area commuters popped up around Interchange 286, including Quail Hollow in Denver, where the Geissels live.

Since then, more expensive developments have sprung up near the turnpike.

At the top is Morganshire, a small community of custom-built houses a little west of Route 222 in Reinholds.

Last year, Ron and Cathy Bradley had a house built there on a one-acre lot for $515,000.

For old-time Lancaster Countians, it has been a shock that any house could cost more than $500,000.

But the Bradleys saw it as a bargain. A similar house could easily have cost $1 million in upper-end suburbs of Philadelphia.

When they moved in, Ron Bradley was a sales trainer in Conshohocken. He spent $5 on tolls and $12 on gas each day.

Today he has a different job. As the regional sales manager for Zales jewelry stores, he still drives to the Philadelphia area, but he just as often goes as far as downstate Delaware.

He said that every time he comes home and passes an Amish buggy, he's glad he chose Lancaster County.

"You have problems everywhere you go, but it seems the problems out here are on a smaller scale," he said.

"And they happen less," Cathy Bradley said. "People out here are involved in other people's lives, so you don't deal with the problems alone."

Community leaders in northern Lancaster County say the influx of Philadelphia- area commuters is most evident in three Ephrata-area townships.

Data submitted to the state show that average sale prices in those townships last year were $172,000 in West Cocalico, $179,000 in East Cocalico and $230,000 in Ephrata.

Those prices were half what buyers paid in a broad array of townships along the Route 202 corridor in the Philadelphia suburbs, where the region's job growth is concentrated.

The averages were $309,000 in Upper Merion, $360,000 in Tredyffrin and $480,000 in Radnor.

Noelle Fortna, an East Cocalico supervisor, said a lack of public water services was holding back housing growth in her area. Once that is dealt with, she said, more developments are likely to pop up.

The area not only attracts Philadelphia-area commuters, it also is a draw for people who work in Harrisburg, she said.

"I know families where one works in Philadelphia, and the other works in Harrisburg," Fortna said. "They live here. It's in the middle."

Other communities along the turnpike, particularly in Berks and Lebanon Counties, are also affected by the ever-outward push of the Philadelphia region.

"As time goes on, the traffic congestion on the turnpike is getting more and more severe," said Ronald Bailey, a former planning director of Lancaster County who now holds a similar position in Chester County.

Bailey said long-distance commuting in the morning does not go just one way, toward Philadelphia. About as many people commute from Chester County to Lancaster County as the reverse, he said.

Lancaster County itself is growing and pushing out, he noted.

He said he does not expect to see it absorbed into the Philadelphia region. "I expect there'll still be a gap there," he said.

But as long as prices are lower, the Philadelphia-area commuters will continue to come.

Greg Ceriello, a Quail Hollow homebuyer whose wife works at a pharmaceutical company in Malvern, easily explained why.

"Wages are a lot higher there; the housing is a lot cheaper here - and so are the taxes."