COOLBAUGH TOWNSHIP (July 19 2021) – In one fell-swoop, Coolbaugh Township could bring in a major restaurant, a 125-room family-friendly mid-price national hotel, address the long-standing, and growing, problems with truck traffic, particularly overnight parking, provide sorely needed senior housing, and place a distribution center/warehouse a football field length from the highway exit – creating jobs paying a living wage without having truck traffic going through town or dangerous intersections such as the Five Points in Mount Pocono.
That’s the proposal at the discussion stage before the supervisors for the third time on Tuesday. But it is going to take some work to get it done. The proposal has been seized on by two challengers for supervisor position in November’s election. They are stoking controversy over the project, and bringing attention to their campaigns in so doing.
We decided to take a deeper dive into the planned development and the various claims and counter-claims in advance of the meeting on Tuesday.
That the matter is before the supervisors at this stage at all is because, as with so many developments, the plans are not entirely in sync with the township zoning ordinance, initially adopted 45 years ago. That ordinance has been frequently amended to address changed circumstances or to encourage development favorable to the overall interests of the township. In 1976, planners thought the area under discussion would attract “Commercial Village” kinds of development – a mix of residential, retail, and professional uses. That the main objection to the proposal is that the area is undeveloped demonstrates that reality did not mesh with last century’s expectations.
“Conditional Use” and “Special Exception” Amendments Are Common
For example, in 2019, the ordinance was amended to permit industrial and light manufacturing as “Conditional Uses” in the C-2 “Office Park District”. As the name implies, the C-2 district was defined as being intended to “provide locations for office and business parks.” As the economy evolved, the township sought to enhance its ability to add additional local jobs by adding industrial and light manufacturing as “conditional uses” in Office Park Districts.
A “conditional use” is one of two kinds of uses not automatically permitted as of right in a given district. The other kind is “special exception” uses. Both require specialized proofs being made by the applicant and special public hearings. In the case of conditional uses, they are presented to the planning commission and the board of supervisors. The board of supervisors must conduct a formal public hearing on the application on which the applicant has the burden of proof.
Residents and interested agencies have the right to participate in the hearing as well. The supervisors, if they grant the application, can also impose conditions that the applicant needs to satisfy before getting the permit. “Special Exceptions” must go through a similar process before the Zoning Hearing Board.
Last year, the supervisors again amended the zoning ordinances to address the growing interest in outdoor and indoor commercial recreation facilities, like zip lines, ATV courses, motorcross, paintball, batting cages, etc. They permitted “Large Scale Commercial Recreation Facilities” as a conditional use in the “I-Industrial” and “C 1- Convenience Commercial” and indoor commercial recreation facilities as a principal permitted use in the C2 and C3 Districts. The supervisors imposed numerous property size, configuration, and other conditions on the newly-permitted uses.
The New Development Proposal
The property at issue is entirely undeveloped and wooded. It is around 117 acres on four distinct lots. Lot 1 is about 20 acres, zoned “WC-Woodland Conservation” and is adjacent to state game lands. No development is proposed for this lot.
Lot 2 is a little under 35 acres. It is north of route 380 and west of route 611. It is zoned “C-3 – Commercial Village”, as are lots 3 and 4. A truck stop and hotel are planned for lot 2.
Lot 3 is 13 acres on the east side of route 611, north of route 423. The developer is proposing to put a senior housing center with shopping areas on that parcel. Lot 4 is nearly 50 acres sandwiched between routes 380 and 611. That is where the distribution center is proposed.
The current design calls for a truck entrance to the truck stop on route 423 – right across from the route 380 exit. Automobiles would enter off of route 611. They are planning 65 truck parking spaces, 54 automobile spots, and a 4,000 square foot restaurant.
The truck entrance would be about 400 feet from the northbound exit of route 380 on 423. Traffic heading to the truck stop would pass only one home. Southbound traffic wouldn’t pass any homes.
The land is currently undeveloped but is not protected from development. Some of the kinds of businesses permitted to operate on this parcel, and the other C-3 parcels, include conference centers for meetings and banquets, movie theaters, vehicle, and equipment rental centers, and repair or sales operations, junkyards, and amusement parks.
Because the truck stop is not a permitted use in the C3 district, the developers are asking the supervisors to consider adding it, as they did with other uses the last couple of years, as a conditional use or special exception. They have invited the supervisors to impose a variety of conditions on any such development designed to enhance already strict protections of the natural areas they – or any other developer – will build near.
The hotel is already a permitted use in the C3 district. According to the developer, Holiday Inn has already expressed interest in the location. It will feature about 125 rooms with amenities common to the mid-range class of hotels. Banquet and meeting facilities (also already permitted on this land) will be included and will help draw visitors to the area.
It will be placed on the northern portion of the lot, north of Humler Run. The developer is looking for a waiver of the height restrictions. According to Supervisor Chair and Fire Company Chief, Bill Weimer, the current 35-foot restriction was originally put into place in part because the Fire Company was unable to fight fires higher than that. Weimer says the current capacity is far greater and he wants the town to look into changing their height rules regardless of what happens to and apart from this development. The developer says that raising the height to allow an additional, fourth, floor, would also mean a smaller building footprint, meaning less use of the land.
The DC is planned for lot 4. This is the 48.91 acres parcel bounded by route 380 on the west and 611 on the east. The property wraps behind about half a dozen homes fronted on routes 611 or 423.
Warehouses are a permitted use in this zoning district. A half-million square foot warehouse, or larger, cannot be prevented based on the nature of the use under the current zoning. There is, at least as of the last meeting of the supervisors, an issue as to where the line is drawn between the two. Weimer said that when he asked one of the township advisors about it, he was told that the definition of “Distribution Center” included “see, Warehouse.” The developer is calling it a DC, so that is the terminology we’ll use.
Acting on a suggestion from Supervisor Alma Ruiz-Smith, the developers added a 100-unit senior housing complex to the plans. (Ruiz-Smith was suggesting the housing instead of the DC.) This parcel is on the east side of route 611 and is 13.78 acres, with wetlands, which will inhibit development. In order to fit the 100 units on the site, they are asking for a waiver of that 35-foot height limit. Depending on what final wetlands surveys show, they would also like to add a drugstore and small shopping center.
Many of the public objections to the proposed development center around the nearness of Humler Run and Tobyhanna Creek. This development, just like the dozens of other permitted uses of the property, is already subject to strict regulation regarding impacts on waterways such as these.
Current federal environmental protection laws require a 150-foot buffer zone from the streams in which there cannot be any building. In addition, the developer would need to apply for a permit under the federal “National Pollution Discharge Elimination System” (NPDES) regulations.
The NPDES permit system is a public process, involving public notice of application and an opportunity to object. The permit is required before any development can proceed. In order to be approved, current law requires the developer to provide information on stormwater flows pre- and post-development, to consider the development’s impact on the amount and quality of those flows under 2, 10, 50, and 100-year storm events. In addition, the federal government will impose additional treatment regulations on areas considered “hot-spots”, such as truck stops and gas stations.
There are also a number of local regulations that the developer – or any developer – would be required to satisfy before getting the go-ahead. These include stormwater reduction requirements, numerous stormwater design mandates, township inspections throughout construction, and a ten-year maintenance agreement.
There are a number of NPDES and other regulations already protecting both streams. For instance, the township sewer treatment plant discharges effluent into the Tobyhanna Creek. That is closely monitored and regulated to ensure that the sewer discharge conforms to temperature and content requirements to eliminate harm to the stream. Similarly, Humler Run goes through an industrial zone, yet due to these protections, maintains its high-quality status. The developer of these lots would be subject to the same regulations.
In addition, the developer tells us, by adopting their suggestion to create a “conditional use” or “special exception”, the township can add greater environmental conditions on top of the existing ones to further protect the streams.
Concerns have also been raised regarding the disturbance of the residents currently living near the proposed development. As one supervisor put it, they want to “put a half-million square foot distribution center in their backyards.”
The developer points out that they would be subject to the same regulation that any other developer would be. Thus, on the distribution center issue, an amusement park developer – a special exception use in the district – could put a corkscrew roller coaster, with lights and music, fifty feet from the residents’ property lines under the current zoning. They are not asking for any waiver. The fifty-foot buffer is in the current ordinance and reflects the decision of the town planners on what was adequate to protect those homeowners.
Noise and light elimination requirements could be included as a part of any “conditional use” amendment of the ordinance in order to further reduce disturbance to the neighbors of the DC. Currently, those residents have the traffic from the northbound route 380 in the rear of their homes and also contend with the truck traffic on route 611 passing within feet of their front yards.
In conversations, representatives of the developer have candidly told us that the implementation of the conditional use regulatory power could resolve all of the proposed environmental and lifestyle issues. They pointed out that the supervisors could (as they did last year) impose all manner of additional requirements on the developer of the property that cannot be imposed on the warehouse conference center, or amusement park developer now permitted on that land.
Larger setbacks or buffer areas are within the supervisor’s authority to add as conditions for the use, as are fencing, landscaping, or other safety elements. They noted that monitoring wells and water quality testing conditions would be appropriate to protect the streams, as would the imposition of environmental and community assessment processes.
As with any similar development, the benefits to the township include job creation. In the case of a varied and complex development such as this, the potential is a large variety of jobs requiring a wide spectrum of skill levels. Including pre-construction, construction, and of course, long-term post-construction.
Major developments along state highways require PennDOT approvals, which will include the requirement that the developer makes much-needed infrastructure improvements to the adjacent and affected roadways.
The tax base of the township will be improved. The vacant land is at a minimal tax level, but the developed buildings will generate substantial tax revenue for the township and the school district – lessening the pressure on homeowners.
The developer told us, “We believe that this proposal will benefit the Township as well as the investors and that the Travel Plaza, Hotel, and Senior Apartments are needed in the area and the Distribution Center is the critical component for the investors of the project. The Township will derive a significant benefit from the project as the group of assets will create many jobs pre-, during, and post-construction, generate revenue for the Township, provide needed infrastructure, and greatly stimulate the local economy, while making sure the environment, wildlife, and the natural beauty of the area are unharmed and preserved.”
The supervisors meet at 6 pm in the municipal building on Tuesday, July 20, when the developers are expected to make a further presentation on their proposal.
Tuesday’s meetings will be streamed live for viewing by members of our Coolbaugh Township Facebook Page.
The Boro & Towne News is committed to journalistic ethics and transparency. This requires us to disclose that our editor, Tom Ford, during his legal career, represented numerous developers and provided advice and counsel to the developers of this project beginning two years ago and ending long before it ultimately was presented to the township.