The Lehigh Valley League of Women Voters threw a party and no one came! Well, a few intrepid Forks voters were there and they did learn some things too. What follows is our attempt at a summary of the questions and answers from the April 22nd League of Women Voters Candidates Forum at the Faith Lutheran Church. The candidates - in alphabetical order - are John Ackerman (R), David Billings (R), Erik Chuss (R), Robert Egolf (D), Leon Fisher (R), and James Wideman (D).
Opening Statements (in brief):
- Ackerman - Born in Forks - enjoyed his six years as Supervisor - sees role as that of a "watchdog" for the people - says he answers almost all residents' calls and helps solve their problems - involved with soil & water conservation and conservation director for 35 years.
- Billings - Key issue facing Forks is "quality of life" - how to preserve open space - candidates must have strong ethical backgrounds -believes in open/transparent government, including online access to public documents - would like the Supervisors meetings broadcast - believes Forks needs fiscally responsible planning as well as sound traffic management - wants to maintain recreational opportunities and public services.
- Chuss - Lived in Forks for 15 years - on the Planning Commission since 2000 and currently Chairman - served on economic development subcommittee for the Comprehensive Plan - served on Northampton County Planning Commission - learned about the history of Township issues and the options available to address them - asked that the candidates track records on issues be looked at and said that "we are on doorstep of the future of Forks Township."
- Fisher - Lifetime Forks resident with an investment in the Township - former fire chief - lifetime member of the fire department - former police chief - remembers sewers first coming in - says that with rapid growth the fees from developers are enough for now but will stop and Forks needs a plan to pay for future repairs when all the developments need them (all at the same time) - wants to promote industrial park with industries "we want."
- Egolf - Lifetime Lehigh Valley resident - on the Zoning Hearing Board since 2004 - recognizes the importance of being vigilant and doesn't want to see Sullivan Trail become another MacArthur Road - said Forks needs balance in its growth with infrastructure - believes in researching for better solutions and cooperation to get things accomplished.
- Wideman - Former Planning Commission member and current business owner - does not want school tax burden increased - sees the needs for industrial growth (the promotion of the new Fort James III industrial park and redevelopment of the old Laneco site), infrastructure strength (support for PD, FD, DPW, and Parks & Recreation department) and integrity in government (public access) - all public documents should be available on the Township website - vowed to endorse sustainable and sensible development and to uphold Township policies and be guided by the Comprehensive Plan.
Creation of an Environmental Advisory (EAC) Committee in Forks - LoWV: Each of the candidates was for it.
- Billings thought that partnering with Northampton County and the State on greenways and open space issues would bring positive results. He feels that the impact of development on Forks' greenways and open space should be monitored. He said that now we are "reacting" to things and not planning them.
- Chuss noted that there are local organizations like the Northampton County Soil & Erosion Committee and the Bushkill Conservancy that the Township already works with but that he thinks Forks can do a lot more and that a focused EAC would be very beneficial.
- Fisher said that there's a water run-off problem and that the growth has changed the Township. He felt that an EAC committee would help, as best as possible, to keep the Township the way it is.
- Egolf noted that committees are often formed but given no clout and he thought that this one should have powers to suggest and recommend solutions.
- Wideman said that "green is the new red, white, and blue in America" and added green technology could be introduced into the industrial parks and that the Township could begin to purchase hybrid vehicles. He said too, that the storm water maps/plans should be reviewed. He felt that the committee should be set up much like the Planning Commission in an advisory role to the Supervisors.
- Ackerman thought the committee should be a watchdog committee because a lot of things go on in the Township that the Supervisors do not know about. He added that the COG (Two Rivers Council of Governments) has talked about it (an EAC) on a regional level as a way to keep townships under control.
Plans for managing growth - Coutney Lomax, Express Times:
- Wideman noted that the Township has committees in place to handle each department and said that the Board must hold strong to its zoning laws and meet challengers head-on.
- Egolf said that there is definitely growth - traffic, development, business - and that the Supervisors will need a fair and equitable method to manage it.
- Ackerman stated that the Township must abide by the laws, the zoning and the SALDO (Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance) to manage growth and that good industries must be found to provide jobs for local people.
- Billings offered a revenue stream from increased real estate transfer taxes to fund open space, working with the county and other municipalities to identify and purchase prime lands at fair prices, and creation of an open space policy. He suggested changing the FP zoning from 3 acre minimum lots to 5 acres per house.
- Chuss noted that the the focus of growth issues is development and the pressures it brings on services, roads, schools, flood plains, and taxes. He suggests that the Board approach the pressures in a fiscally responsible manner and surround itself with good people (in the Township), let them do their jobs, and manage them appropriately.
- Fisher noted that growth management is very difficult and that there must be compliance with the zoning and SALDO. He believes that the courts are stacked against the townships. He said too, that plans must be formed to deal with the issues the growth has already caused.
The vacant LANECO building and the roll of the Board of Supervisors to call a developer to task - Courtney Lomax, Express Times:
- Egolf said that the Supervisors must stay on top of blight and do their utmost to hold people responsible.
- Wideman noted that the building is slated to come down and reminded all that its a difficult site because the strip mall next to the LANECO has a different owner and that development will require a lot of cooperation between the two owners. He said too, that the Supervisors should get a professional survey done to get ideas for the property.
- Chuss agreed that it is blight and that it is supposed to be knocked down. He said that the first proposal for the property was apartments and that he "went ballistic." The developers came back with another less disappointing plan. He added that the property's deed restrictions are a problem and that the Township needs to work with and encourage the developer.
- Fisher said that it's been empty a long time. He said that the Supervisors should keep the developer's "feet to the fire" and work with the developer to get him to build other buildings there or to get other businesses in the existing building.
- Ackerman thought that the property owner should be encouraged to get something done as soon as possible.
- Billings stated that the Supervisors should be a responsible watchdog and be pro-active and work with the developers to get something done.
Raising the EIT to purchase open space - Robert Orenstein, Morning Call:
- Billings said that he was in favor or raising the Real Estate Transfer Tax (RETT)to fund open space, not in favor of raising the Earned Income Tax (EIT) for it.
- Chuss said that he thinks raising the RETT to fund open space is a great idea. He noted that pressures are there to raise the EIT and that there are a lot of other options that should be explored.
- Fisher said that if farmland is to be preserved it must be purchased. And, that funds must be raised for open space either through the EIT or the RETT.
- Egolf agreed as well and added that in order to preserve open space, money is needed. He thought that both ways (EIT and RETT) should be examined.
- Wideman said that he favors using the RETT because it doesn't effect people until they sell property where it can and added into the selling price. This money would supplement the county open space money for open space.
- Ackerman is not in favor of taxes on residents for farmland. He said that 60% of the FP is under contract to developers and "there's not that much farmland left anyway." He thought that the burden of providing open space should go to the developers so the Township doesn't have to buy it.
Police department expansion because of growth - Robert Orentstein, Morning Call:
- Fisher said that as the population grows the police department (size) as well other departments must grow.
- Egolf said that Forks has an "absolutely fantastic police department" and that he never want to stand in the way of public safety (by not expanding) - with personnel, equipment, and other things that the police chief feels necessary.
- Wideman expressed support for the police department and noted that in the police department five-year plan "the force is supplemented over time as the population increases." He said that Supervisors should strive to maintain the population at a sensible rate and that they should not "densify" any current zoning. He added that 5-acre zoning in the FP would help to control growth.
- Ackerman thought for 2007 that the level is adequate and that when the budget comes up again he'll see how much more the chief asks for.
- Billings said that the force should be expanded as needed and that the Township should "think outside the box" and perhaps look to regionalization with Palmer and Easton. He thought although it's adequate for today, with the growth, it may not be for tomorrow.
- Chuss said that the police department is excellent and doing a great job. He said too, that the pressures are on them as well as on the fire department, emergency squad, public works, etc. and that their plans for growth must be examined. He said that the all the emergency services must work together for the good of the Township.
- Ackerman said that he did not agree 100% with the proposal presented.
- Billings does not agree with the proposal and he said that the Supervisors should have the political will to fight it through the courts. He said his fear is that the developers will try to get a compromise.
- Chuss said that not one more house than is allowed should be built and pressure must be put on the State and elected representatives to stop the imbalance in favor of developers. He added that the "3000 homes proposal is preposterous."
- Fisher noted that the "zoning is the zoning." He added, "Unfortunately, the courts haven't been very favorable to the townships" and that before it's done "the Township will probably end up with some sort of negotiated plan."
- Egolf was not able to comment because he is on the Zoning Hearing Board and the issue is in front of the board.
- Wideman said that Forks does not need Supervisors who are not wiling to stand behind the zoning laws. The zoning laws in the FP allow three acre lots or 1 acre lots (in a cluster) with equal open space. He said too, that in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania farmland is "developed land" and this project would require "redeveloping" the land. He added that the Kings Mill proposal, per Superintendent Riker, will result in a minimum increase in school taxes of 21 mils.
Votes for grocery in the EC - Audience Question:
- Egolf noted that the Zoning Hearing Board voted 4:1 and affirmed that it is not spot zoning. He said, "...it looks like a train that's on the track and it's going towards a Weis Market."
- Wideman said that Ordinance 298 simply added a conditional use to the EC (Economic Center) and that the Board arrived at its decision after numerous public open meetings. He added that it conformed to the MPC (Municipal Planning Code), the Zoning Ordinance, and the SALDO. As a Planning Commission member, he supported the ordinance and feels that it will lead to substantial improvements to the intersection. He said that the uses contained in the grocery store were all allowed as stand alone uses in the EC district.
- Ackerman said that although he is in favor of the grocery use in the EC, he is against the configuration of the right-in/right-out on Sullivan Trail.
- Billings said as a Supervisor, he would have voted two ways, one FOR the Ordinance 298 adding a grocery use in the EC but against the Weis market in its intended location (Uhler/Sullivan) - because of the "unresolved traffic studies" and traffic safety. He said that going from a low F rating to a high F rating wasn't sufficient. He added that he would support a second supermarket in Forks and that he believes the Supervisors have the right to establish the zoning laws.
- Chuss noted that residents who spoke with him were overwhelmingly in favor of the grocery. He added that by bringing in competition against the Giant, the cost of living for every Forks resident can be lowered by a few percentage points - food and gas prices will be lowered and it will be a big help to people on fixed incomes. "The traffic issue is huge." Eventually though, he sees the intersection improvements as sufficient.
- Fisher said that a second supermarket is "definitely needed" in Forks, that residents are in favor of it, that the procedures to change the ordinance were proper, and that he has some concerns are the traffic. He hopes that as the intersection is developed some of the issues will be fixed.
- Billings stated that it would not be good for Forks and that there should be no compromises - that the impact on the police department, roads, schools, etc., should not be discounted.
- Chuss said that there is a line in the sand and that there should be no sewers north of Newlins Road. He said that there are pressures from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, from developers, and from landowners but Forks should stick by the "line in the sand" or else the entire northern end of the township will be opened up for dense development. Opening it to sewer will exacerbate the existing rapid growth problems because of the high density that will come with it.
- Fisher expressed concern over prohibiting sewers in the FP because (he said) it will be developed and that the land has been purchased by developers. He thought that the developers should pay now for the sewers instead of the Township paying later after the DEP finds problems there.
- Egolf recused himself because of the Kings Mill suit before the Zoning Hearing Board.
- Wideman agreed with the line drawn by Act 537 at Newlins Road and added that the new industrial park will use almost all of Forks' remaining sewer capacity. The developers knew what the zoning was when they bought the property. He is against allowing developers to bully the township while they "line their pockets" and apply the "royal screw to us" with the school tax increases and the infrastructure costs that will follow. He feels that Forks needs to uphold the zoning laws and keep Act 537 as it is.
- Ackerman said that although he is not in favor of putting sewer above Newlins at the present time but if, "through the courts," the developer goes ahead with the plan (and the Supervisors cannot stop it "for some reason") he would have to look at it again. He said that water is needed in the FP more than sewers right now and that his well, and other wells, are polluted because of septic systems. Water yes, sewers... he'll have "to look at when the time comes because it's a hairy situation."
Building in the flood plain - Audience Question:
- Egolf said that as Supervisor, he would go back to the PC. He said that since he's not on the PC, he has no idea why they allowed it.
- Wideman stated that as a PC member, he was very much against the Courts at Newlins even though the Township's engineer and solicitor told the PC that DEP permits allowed the project. He added that the PC is only an advisory committee to the Supervisors and cannot make final decisions on anything.
- Ackerman said that the developer (Newlins & Sullivan) is not putting the houses in the 100 year flood plain and that it was approved by FEMA and the DEP.
- Billings stated that the township must proceed cautiously with development near or around the flood plains.
- Chuss said that this is the worst plan that ever came before him on the PC and that he totally agrees with Wideman. In the SALDO revision, structures will be moved out of the flood plains. He added that when it rains, the flood plains are a mess and that major arteries are shut down. He thinks that the township has been waiting for developer money but that without it, the township must do it on its own.
- Fisher agreed that the PC is merely an advisory committee and that this should be resolved with the zoning laws.
Single most important Forks issue that has not yet been addressed - Audience Question:
- Chuss answered that the underlying goal is to run the township as efficiently as possible and to keep tax burden down in the face of the growing pressures to increase services, improve roads, etc. - to be "fiscally responsible and legislate in an intelligent manner."
- Fisher said that down the road, the expenses to maintain what is already here is one of his biggest concerns. He said that the township must look for industries that will create jobs, expand the tax base, and not be harmful to the community - offering incentives to get them.
- Egolf said that everything talked about depends on the "education and the quality of if for our children." It's overlooked because of being "blindsided" by development, long range planning, etc.
- Wideman said that he thinks a business advisory committee and green industries - "industries that we like and are friendly to our environment" - that will hire as many Forks citizens as possible - are important and that public transportation in the township should be addressed.
- Ackerman said that many things to make it better in the township are already being addressed. He said that the DPW is headed in the right direction. He said that next year, he will really take a look at the financial situation of the township because the budget is "right on the line."
- Billings said that open access and transparency in the local government is needed. He said that the meetings should be broadcast and that documents should be available on the township website. He felt too, that one or two meetings should be held on Saturdays - Supervisors and residents currently have little interaction.
- Wideman said that his Planning Commission experience showed him that unchecked development will adversely affect infrastructures and taxes. As a Supervisor, he will strive to maintain and improve the infrastructure, find sustainable and sensible development that will not place a burden on the school system, and promote the integrity of open government via public access to public records.
- Egolf said that if elected, he will do his best to insure that we are not satisfied with "adequate" - in the school system, the zoning laws, etc. He said, "Forks Township deserves a lot more than adequate."
- Fisher described Forks as a very nice community that people are flocking to and he want to maintain the quality of services at the most reasonable cost possible. He added that Forks should get together with its neighbors for some solutions because problems, like traffic, do not stop at the border. He said too that the industrial parks should be promoted in order to provide the means for services in the future.
- Chuss spoke of his years serving the Township - mostly with volunteer hours - and that he's learned about of lot of issues, particularly traffic, preservation of farmland, and controlling development in the FP. He agrees that economic development is needed. He stressed that the candidates' backgrounds and track records should be considered.
- Billings said that this election is about hope - hope for a better quality of life, hope for a better quality of government... He said that he's walked the neighborhoods with his message that "we can do better" - we can manage growth better, manage traffic better... He pledged to openly and honestly represent the people of Forks and to "be an independent voice of reason on the Board of Supervisors." He added, "It's time for a change."
- Ackerman thanked his supporters (of the last 5+ years) and said that he has a very good track record. He said that he bases his decisions on what "would the people want" and "what's best for the Township." He said, "That's the key to the whole thing."
We are not perfect and hope that we got it right! Please let us know if we did not and we will try to correct it. And, do visit the FAC Primary 2007 page and the Candidates' blog to learn even more about the candidates.
You have choices to make on May 15th!