York County balances growth and farm land preservation

David Weissman
  • Property owners have options in York County to permanently preserve their land for agricultural use.
  • Land easements take precedence over any municipality's zoning ordinances.

News that a local township supervisor sold his family's farm land for millions after it was rezoned for industrial use has drawn significant ire from the public, but local conservation officials say preserving farmland should be balanced with economic growth.

Steven H. Gross Jr., a longtime supervisor in East Manchester Township, and his family made $12 million from the sale of a 97-acre property that had been assessed at less than $310,000 when it was zoned for agricultural use.

The property, which is now occupied by a 1.2 million-square-foot warehouse that will house a Starbucks distribution center, was included in a rezoning amendment that passed in 2005 while Gross was serving on the board.

Ed Swierzwski, of Windsor Township, tills his plot of land in the community gardens at Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education in York Township, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The board approved the rezoning despite objections by the York County Planning Commission, which noted the area contained "a large percentage of Prime Agricultural Soils," and the township already had other vacant industrial lands available.

Gross' land had been included under the county's Clean and Green Act, which provides in-use agricultural land owners a property tax reduction, before it was sold for development, according to assessment records.

Board chairman made millions on new Starbucks center

An Aug. 17 York Dispatch article describing this series of events drew Facebook comments, such as, "Can we say conflict of interest and personal gain" and "That smells a little fishy!"

Meeting minutes dating back to 2008 on East Manchester Township's website show that Gross had recused himself from the board whenever the project involving his property was being discussed. And the county planners' recommendation to the board about its rezoning was just that — a recommendation.

A few commenters did come to Gross' defense, mostly lauding the fact that the deal will ultimately bring jobs to the township. Starbucks has said it plans to add 300 full-time jobs during the next three to five years as a result of the expansion.

Gross did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

The balancing act: Officials at Farm and Natural Lands Trust of York County and the county's Agricultural Land Preservation Program work to maintain the county's high-quality soils but say they understand not every farm can be saved.

"It comes down to municipalities to decide what works for them," said Sean Kenny, executive director of the trust. "Unfortunately, that sometimes results in some quality farmland being rezoned."

Patty McCandless, executive director of the county's preservation program, said she feels the townships and planning commission work well together reviewing land-use plans.

"I don't think rezoning is taken lightly in York County," she said. "We just want good planning and feel like we do have good planning. As long as the public's voice is heard and the logistics are there ... we're not anti-growth."

Horn Farm: The public's voice has won out in past rezoning discussions, most notably in the early 2000s when Hellam Township and the York County Industrial Development Authority were pushing plans for the county-owned Horn Farm.

The development authority first proposed in 2000 that the county approve plans for an unnamed company — widely believed to be Harley-Davidson Inc. at the time — to develop the site, a project proponents said would create 1,400 jobs.

A top economic developer at the time called it "the project of the decade," but county commissioners withheld approval amidst widespread resident objections.

The authority returned to the commissioners in 2001, proposing to turn the farm into a high-tech industrial park. Township officials supported the plan and proposed an amendment to their comprehensive plan — a municipality's blueprint for future growth — that would rezone the farm for industrial use.

Township officials quickly relented amidst opposition from the county planning commission, which recommended the land remain an agricultural zone. However, the supervisors submitted a new plan that placed the farm in a future growth area, which meant that it would likely be developed within 10 years.

Eventually, resident lobbying groups won out, as the farm was removed from the growth area and from consideration for an industrial park.

The Horn Farm has since become an agricultural education center and farm incubator, according to its website.

Alyson Earl, the center's executive director, said the land also was  recently approved for a conservation easement, with its lease extended 99 years.

Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education in York Township, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo
Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education Executive Director Alyson Earl talks about malabar spinach amid the trellises used for vining plants in the incubator farm project section of the center in Hellam Township, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo
Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education Executive Director Alyson Earl talks about sunflowers in the incubator farm project section of the center in York Township, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"(The easement) trumps zoning," she said. "It's a powerful tool."

Easements: Kenny and McCandless said their programs consist of landowners voluntarily applying for easement protections, which are permanent, but they often have a backlog of requests.

The program has preserved more than 274 farms, totaling more than 41,000 acres, according to its website.

Gross, the township board chairman who doubles as a farmer, owns one of those farms, at 520 Codorus Furnace Road in East Manchester Township.

Because these easements supersede zoning, Kenny said, the protected properties often inform municipalities' future zoning decisions.

McCandless said her board is preserving areas where the agriculture community is strong.

"If it's an area slated for growth, the community should understand," she said. "If public funds have already been used to create the infrastructure (for development), farmland should not be preserved."

When landowners are seeking easements, Kenny said he makes sure they know this is a permanent decision.

"If they want to sell their land in the future for top dollar, this isn't going to be the best option," he said. "Their No. 1 thing has to be wanting to preserve their property permanently."

Earl, of Horn Farm, said she understood some farmers' desires to sell their land for as much money as possible.

"For many, this is their retirement, their inheritance," she said. "It's a tough call."

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.