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Pa. development fight grows on 'sliver' of farmland

It is a mere "sliver" in the county that has the state's richest harvest of farmland, more than 100,000 acres of which is off-limits to development.

But conservation activists say the future of land preservation in Lancasater and Chester Counties and all over Pennsylvania hinges on the fate of a patch of Lancaster County farmland that is less than a third of an acre.

So-called sliver taking is a process in which small parcels of farms are seized by eminent domain to accommodate road projects.

At the center of the controversy is a proposal by the Hurst family, owner of the popular Oregon Dairy complex, to build a 75-acre housing and retail development on property it owns not far from a busy highway in growing Manheim Township, outside Lancaster City.

The plan suffered a setback last week, when township commissioners cast a vote against the development, which is in an early stage of the approval process.

"There will be an appeal as certain as the sun will rise tomorrow," said James Tupitza, a West Chester-based lawyer representing a family that owns a nearby preserved farm and has legal standing to oppose the Hursts' plan.

The Hursts say the entire region would benefit from the development.

Beyond residents' typical concerns about increased traffic, sprawl, and the threat of changes to the region's character, the prospect of condemnation is particularly upsetting to preservationists.

Over the last five years, the number of "sliver takings" of preserved Pennsylvania farms for public road improvements has increased, said Douglas Wolfgang, director of the Bureau of Farmland Protection at the state Department of Agriculture. That's because the amount of preserved land keeps growing, along with available funds for infrastructure improvements.

Victor Hurst, whose family has farmed in Manheim since 1952 and is a partner in the development, said he and his family "don't take this kind of thing lightly."

"Coming into this, we knew it would be an uphill battle," he said.

The development's future is contingent upon township officials' ultimately condemning 0.3 preserved acres of their property for a turn lane, but on Monday night the township's five commissioners unanimously voted down Hurst's conditional-use application.

The planning commission had recommended they approve the application, because it meets zoning requirements. In the coming weeks, the township's solicitor plans to release details of the commissioners' reasoning.

"It's obviously very disappointing," Hurst said Friday. "We're curious as to why they did it."

Until he finds out, he said, it is too early to talk about what he will do next.

The commissioners' vote drew applause from residents who oppose the development. Several were surprised, but hailed the decision as "good governance."

It was an example of local government listening to its citizens,  said Tupitza, who said he expects Hurst to start a legal battle that will reach the county and state courts.

Any decision to take the sliver of preserved land would meet immediate opposition, Tupitza said.

"I don't really believe the township would take the steps to do the condemnation, because I don't believe they want to start a war," Tupitza said.

He called this a "really simple case."

"Can a municipality condemn private property that's subject to a conservation easement for the purpose of making that property available for private development?"

Hurst said the improved intersections he plans will be safer and benefit more than just residents of the proposed development. He said his family is willing to preserve other parcels of land in exchange for the development.

James Cowhey, executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, said he hoped the proposed development would help fill a "critical" need for affordable housing in the county.

Manheim's population has grown 35 percent since 1990, according to Census figures, and commercial and residential developments have sprouted. Signs advertising open houses and new rentals beckon travelers who hop off Route 222 and drive five minutes down Oregon Pike to one of the more built-up parts of town.

The proposed project is in a more rural area, but Lancaster County officials have designated it for growth.  The township's zoning code allows for commercial and residential uses at the Oregon Dairy site.

The development, called Oregon Village Center, would sit on two pieces of land, at the current dairy site and across the street, according to preliminary plans. The project would include 53,400 square feet of retail space, a 70,000-square-foot supermarket, a new restaurant, a 120-room hotel, a bank, and a 450-seat banquet room. It would add 565 houses and apartment units to a town with about 16,000 residences.

The township and the Lancaster Farmland Trust co-hold the easement over the 0.3 acres at issue.

The project's developers asked the trust for an amendment to the easement in 2014 and 2015, but the trust's board rejected the request both times, deciding the road improvement was for private benefit.

"We're not permitted to amend the easement when it's for the benefit of a private individual or entity," Karen Martynick, executive director of the Lancaster Farmland Trust, said. "Condemnation should only be used in the most extreme cases for public safety and public benefit."

Preservationists say this is true for any piece of land, no matter how small.

"It's not the square footage. It's the fact of it," said Mary Haverstick, founder of Respect Farmland, a group of county residents who oppose the loss of farm acreage. "And the fact they think they can propose it."

Marty Wenrich, who hired Tupitza as his lawyer to fight the development, lives on a farm a couple of properties over. In the early 2000s, he and his wife, Esther, preserved the farm on which they raised their eight children.

"This development is right in the heart of the preserved farmland," Wenrich said. "The farmers around it decided to preserve their farms and pass it on to the next generations."