Hellam Twp. plans draw ire

Sean Philip Cotter
  • The township proposes to allow more people in agricultural areas to subdivide their properties more.
  • The township also is considering repealing an ordinance expanding buffers around rivers and streams.

Almost all of the 15-plus people who spoke at the Hellam Township board of supervisors meeting Wednesday night spoke out against one or another of the several different proposals the board had put forth.

The board and residents discussed changes to the zoning ordinance and repealing a law from last year that expanded the buffer zone around rivers and streams.

More than 40 Hellam Township residents gathered in the township's public works building for a board of supervisors meeting about zoning changes.

One of the points of focus in the proposed changes to the zoning ordinance pertained to the area zoned as rural agricultural area.

The township's zoning map shows that the zone applies to much of the land in the municipality. The only areas without that designation are right around the boroughs of Hallam and Wrightsville and some land along Route 462 between them.

Under the current zoning ordinance, people can't subdivide rural agricultural lots of less than 50 acres at all. They can make one subdivision in lots of 51 to 75 acres, two from 76 to 100, and so on, with one more subdivision possible every 25 acres.

The proposed changes would make it so lots as small as 15 acres can be subdivided. Then there's a sliding scale up from there: Lots of 15 to 30 acres can be subdivided once, 31 to 45 twice, 46 to 60 thrice, 61 to 75 four times, 76 to 100 five times, 101 to 130 six times, 131 to 150 seven times, 151 to 190 eight times and 191 to 249 nine times. For anything more than that, the rule is that 10 percent of the acreage divided by 2.5 — the maximum subdivision lot size — gives the number of possible subdivisions.

The subdivided lots broken off from the parental tract — that's what the original lot of land is called — have to be between two and 2½ acres; that's what the ordinance is now, and that would not change.

The parental tracts are based off what the lots were in 2004.

Galen Weibley, chairman of the board of supervisors, said the changes are meant to help those who own rural agricultural land. The township has many people who are "land rich" — they own a bunch of ground but don't have much access to that wealth without selling their houses or taking out mortgages, he told The York Dispatch after the meeting. He said this change would help them convert some of that land wealth into capital.

Under the current ordinance, about 200 possible subdivisions could be made in the township. If the changes pass in their current form, more than 500 subdivisions are possible, Weibley said.

Property taxes: The township of about 6,000 people levies 1.8 mills in property taxes, which is relatively low in the grand scheme of the county — someone who owns a house valued at $100,000 has to pay $180 per year.

But Eastern York School District property taxes are a relatively lofty 22.56 mills and rising, which is a fact guiding the thought processes of supervisors and residents alike.

Weibley said these subdivision changes could help broaden the tax base, possibly bending the curve of rising taxes downward.

"Ultimately, it's on the township to make these changes," he said.

Resident Bob Hamm worried the change would have the opposite effect.

"Additional residential development will eventually increase our taxes," he said.

Other residents voiced concerns it would change the "character of the township."

"This town is a jewel," said resident George Kurzik. "Residential development is not the way to go."

Jerry Otterbein, a township resident, worried about the haste with which the supervisors were moving forward on these changes.

"These zoning laws are the collective wisdom of all the supervisors before you," he said.

Supervisor Amy Nevin also expressed some reservations about the changes, saying the proposed amendments need more tweaking.

"I'm not sure that we're done with it," she said. "There's no guarantee I'll be on board with it without further changes."

But the board of five supervisors unanimously approved sending the current draft of changes to the township and county planning commissions for their input, as is the next step in the protocol for such changes.

Riparian buffer: The board also moved forward on a repeal of a riparian-buffer ordinance it passed last fall, before three of the five members now sitting on the board took office. That ordinance created a 100-foot buffer area around rivers and streams in the township and also expanded rules regarding tree-canopy conservation.

The board will have a public hearing about that ordinance at its next meeting, which is 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21, in the municipality's public works building, across the street from the township building at 44 Walnut Springs Road.

"It's a bad ordinance," Weibley said. He said the township has received complaints and could face potential legal action from residents based on how much the buffer impinges into their property.

But residents had concerns.

"Removal of this ordinance will remove local control," said resident June Evans. "There are ways to amend it — to make it less restrictive to agriculture," she said, advocating as did several others that the buffer ordinance should be changed rather than repealed.

Weibley said that because of the possible legal issues, they needed to repeal this one immediately, and then they could work to make a new one. In the meantime, the law would revert back to what it had been, which didn't sketch out a specific distance for the buffer, he said.

— Reach Sean Cotter at scotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @SPCotterYD.