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Lancaster County is turning into Cherry Hill, New Jersey [column] | Local Voices

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A few months ago, I was back home in Lancaster County visiting my parents. My wife and I decided to run some errands and drive around the county.

As we drove past the Lime Spring Square shopping center on Rohrerstown Road, she exclaimed, “This looks like Cherry Hill.”

She was referencing the megasuburban town of Cherry Hill, New Jersey — home of the infamous Cherry Hill Mall — where she grew up and which is close to where we now live.

I grew up here in Lancaster County, graduated from Penn Manor High School and left after graduation to attend Temple University. After living in Philadelphia and now living in the Philadelphia suburbs (on the New Jersey side), I have developed a greater appreciation of the unique and charming landscape of this county. When my wife mentioned its resemblance to Cherry Hill, it struck a chord in me. My saddened response was that only six years ago, the Rohrerstown Road shopping center that looks like it was plucked from Cherry Hill was idyllic farmland.

Each time I come home to visit my parents, I see a new development in the works, or a new “For Sale” sign touting the availability of open farmland for development. This rapid change in landscape has been happening too quickly in the short course of my life.

Losing ground

Between 2002 and 2015, according to county planners, 7,288 acres were developed in this county’s urban growth areas — areas specifically designated for development to contain urban sprawl.

In a 2018 LNP | LancasterOnline article, Jeff Hawkes reported that land in Lancaster County was being “consumed at a rate averaging 561 acres a year. If land consumption continues at that rate, the growth areas will run out of buildable land in about 50 years.”

That is a staggering thought.

Of course, the nonprofit Lancaster Farmland Trust is working to preserve farms to keep them safe from development, and Lancaster Conservancy has preserved natural lands. But commercial and residential development remains a threat to farmland here.

The report “Lancaster County: Buildable Lands, 2015 — 2040,” prepared by the Lancaster County Planning Commission, stated that 99,526 acres of land fit within urban growth areas. In 2017, when that report was published, only 27,821 acres — or 28% — of urban growth area land remained to be developed.

Unfortunately, not all development is taking place in those designated urban growth areas.

Open fields, lush forests, fertile soil and pure streams are what put Lancaster County on the map for years. Farmland and Amish culture are promoted on the county tourism site DiscoverLancaster.com. On that website, you’re hit with images and messaging that tout the beauty of Lancaster County.

My question is this: If the beauty of this county is so coveted, why are we covering so much of it with concrete?

Sadly, a Washington Post travel column last week urged travelers seeking “Pennsylvania Dutch tranquility” to spurn crowded Lancaster County for Berks County instead. Since the 1985 film “Witness,” which drew many tourists here, Lancaster County “has struggled to protect its Amish and Mennonite residents and its achingly beautiful landscape,” the article states, noting that Lancaster is surrounded “today by its own mini-Beltway.”

Not only is the development of Lancaster County a hindrance to its unique selling proposition, but the negative effects on the local ecosystems are troubling, too. The increase in housing developments and commercial centers results in loss of natural habitats, watershed degradation, decreased carbon sequestration and increased traffic congestion (which leads to greater increases in carbon dioxide levels).

Thoughtful growth

My dad told me that when he was growing up in Manor Township, he would camp out in the field behind his farmhouse and hunt pheasants each year because they were so abundant. I grew up on that same farm and cannot recall seeing a single wild pheasant in my entire life. The introduction of urban sprawl has pushed out native wildlife species such as wild pheasants.

Not only that, with urban sprawl comes nonnative landscaping, which introduces nonnative invasive species that rapidly spread and outcompete the native plants that are needed to provide food and shelter for native wildlife.

I’ve vented at length, so let me be sympathetic. I understand why this development is happening. Lancaster County remains a wonderful place to live; it has great schools, beautiful landscapes and open land for new housing. With the introduction of new populations comes increased tax revenues, consumer spending that stimulates the local economy, increased home values and more diversity. However, we need to be smart.

Lancaster County has a comprehensive plan for growth called Places 2040. But its growth management goals need buy-in from the municipal officials who green-light zoning ordinances and development.

As citizens who love Lancaster County, we need to stand up to developers and local government officials and let them know that development, when it happens, needs to be thoughtful — and future generations must be kept in mind. We need high-density housing, sustainable architecture and community planning, and landscaping with native plants.

As I read through the “Lancaster County: Buildable Lands, 2015 — 2040” report, I happened on these lines that state: “Lancaster County residents have made it clear that they don’t want to see business as usual. Instead, they want to see an even greater focus on preserving farmland and natural lands, and keeping urban places more vibrant.” Clearly, public opinion favors the protection of farmland and wildlife areas.

Land preservation is one topic that bridges political parties. Liberal tree-huggers can unite with conservative hunters over preservation and conservation. As an evangelical Christian, I know I take seriously the Lord’s command to serve as careful stewards of the land.

We have one Earth and one Lancaster County. So let’s work together to make sure this land does not turn into another Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Trust me, I live there. We only need one.

Nick Charles is a manager of strategic initiatives at Comcast in Philadelphia. He was born and raised in Manor Township, where he developed his passion for land conservation and the outdoors.

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