Developer: Sewer stalls southern York County growth

David Weissman

Any future development in Shrewsbury Township is looking like a crapshoot.

Southern York County developer Phil Robinson, of Southern Chestnut Commerce Center, is shown on land that he has owned, since 1992, in Shrewsbury, Pa. on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. Robinson has been unable to develop the property, despite the 600-800 jobs it could provide, due to a lack in sewer credits.

Developers in the southern York County municipality have been held up for years because they can’t get the sewer capacity needed to begin construction, and the future prospects for receiving that capacity look bleak.

The township barely has enough sewer capacity available for one more restaurant, and neighboring municipalities appear either unwilling or unable to assist by making their capacity available for purchase.

Phil Robinson, a longtime developer in southern York County who resides in Shrewsbury Township, has owned a large piece of land just east off Interstate 83's Shrewsbury exit for more than 20 years. He’s tried unsuccessfully for a decade to attain sewer credits to begin developing that land, he said.

Southern York County developer Phil Robinson, of Southern Chestnut Commerce Center, walks on the Shrewsbury Township he's owned since 1992,  Robinson has been unable to develop the property due to a lack in sewer credits.

The development he and his partner are planning, along with another development group’s adjacent property, would create 500 to 800 retail and business jobs, Robinson estimated.

Despite both lands being zoned commercial, an intermunicipal agreement from the early 1990s could block those potential jobs.

Definitions and explanations: Shrewsbury sewer capacity

Buck Buchanon, president of Shrewsbury Borough Council, said the story dates back to 1988, when municipalities began planning to expand the sewer plant in Railroad Borough.

Shrewsbury Borough and New Freedom Borough, the actual owner of the plant, each took out large bonds to pay for the expansion, while Shrewsbury Township decided it didn’t want to be in the sewer business, he said.

Based on the agreement, Shrewsbury Borough and New Freedom paid for enough capacity to plan for major development expansion, while Shrewsbury Township allowed its residents to purchase a certain amount of capacity based on the size of their properties, Buchanan said. It also purchased a limited amount of reserve capacity to sell in the future, he added.

Sewer capacity is sold by equivalent dwelling unit, or EDU, and businesses typically require multiple EDUs. A single restaurant likely requires about 25 EDUs, according to Robinson.

Shrewsbury Township currently has 38 EDUs remaining, according to township manager Todd Zeigler. Robinson needs about 200 EDUs for the developments, he said.

Southern York County developer Phil Robinson, of Southern Chestnut Commerce Center, marks boundaries of his land on a map in Shrewsbury, Pa. on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015.

Robinson said he had initially reserved 140 EDUs for the property, but several economic factors limited company interest, and he was stuck paying $20,000 each year to keep them reserved. He ended up allocating that capacity to other development projects in the area, he said.

With renewed interest in his project, Robinson is now aiming most of his efforts at Shrewsbury Borough, which runs the Shrewsbury Borough Municipal Authority, the entity responsible for maintaining the township’s sewer lines.

Shrewsbury Borough has insisted throughout that it will not make its EDUs available for purchase for Shrewsbury Township properties, but Robinson argues the township residents helped pay off, through sewer fees, the borough's bond and therefore it should not be able to withhold that capacity.

Buchanon and other Shrewsbury Borough officials insist the authority, which is in the process of creating a separate budget from the borough, has no EDUs for sale.

“Phil Robinson has the right to buy any piece of land in Shrewsbury Borough, and we’ll supply him with the EDUs he needs because we planned it,” Buchanon said. “Phil is trying to take our EDUs, and if we were dumb enough to do that, at some point … we’ve put Shrewsbury Borough in the situation where we have (to pay) to expand the sewer plant again … because we gave it to the township.”

A 2009 report written by Shrewsbury Borough’s engineer indicates that, if the borough was completely built out, it would have 3 EDUs remaining. Buchanon said it’s possible businesses that move in may require more EDUs than planned, meaning it actually would be short capacity.

Frustrated with his failed attempts to receive capacity from Shrewsbury Borough, Robinson approached New Freedom about its capacity.

Tanya Crawford, New Freedom’s administrator, said her municipality is willing to work with Robinson, but it’s in the midst of a lengthy process to determine whether it actually has excess capacity.

Due to sewer inflow and infiltration, New Freedom’s sewer statistics are skewed and can’t be accurately assessed until it can repair problems with its pipes, Crawford said.

Robinson helped secure New Freedom a state grant to assist that effort, but Crawford said they have yet to actually receive that funding. And if New Freedom does receive that funding, it still would not guarantee it could sell capacity to Robinson, she said.

Ultimately, the sewage would still need to run through Shrewsbury Borough’s lines, which its officials aren’t too keen to allow.

“The pumps have to work harder, our lines have more coming through them, who’s going to pay for that?” asked Michael Ridgely, the former borough council president. “These are the kinds of things Phil needs to get his check book out for.”

Robinson said he and the other developers are willing to pay for any upgrades to the system that their work would require. But that wouldn't solve the issue of limited EDUs.

Crawford said she doesn’t see any economic advantage to New Freedom selling Robinson the EDUs, but they’ve always been willing to work with neighboring municipalities.

“The one who should’ve been working with Phil all this time is (Shrewsbury Township), where all his property is,” she said.

Land owned by Southern York County developer Phil Robinson, of Southern Chestnut Commerce Center, with Shrewsbury Borough in background.

Todd Zeigler, Shrewsbury Township manager, said Robinson’s property is within the township’s primary growth boundary, but he acknowledged their role in the sewer business is limited.

A few years ago, Robinson tried working with Shrewsbury Township and adjacent Hopewell Township to build a sewer plant straddling both municipalities along Deer Creek. However, a variety of factors, including the creek being rated as a cold water fishery stream, halted that process.

Paul Solomon, chairman of the Shrewsbury Township Board of Supervisors, said he’s opposed to putting a treatment plant on the creek.

“We have a responsibility to protect the natural resources in our township,” he said.

Solomon pointed out that Robinson doesn’t necessarily need to develop the property in a way that’s going to require so much public sewer capacity. He added that he doesn’t feel attaining more sewer credits should be a township priority.

“I’m not interested in developing wall-to-wall housing in Shrewsbury Township,” he said. “Agriculture is our number one industry, and every piece of farmland is important.”

Robinson, for his part, said he doesn’t plan on giving up. If he’s unable to attain EDUs from New Freedom, he’s planning for litigation with Shrewsbury Borough.

“Other activity (in Shrewsbury Township) is stirring (including) a group looking to do a hotel and groups doing restaurants,” Robinson said. “Everything is stopped without the sewers.”

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