LANCASTER, Pa. — The Lancaster County scenery so cherished by the half-million people who live there and the millions more who visit every year is pretty safe from the development pressures that have replaced fields and pastures with strip malls, houses, business parks and roadways in much of the Northeast.
The county’s image is that of a rural area, but it’s not just horses and buggies, roadside stands, cows grazing and tractors working the land.
“We are a combination of rural, productive landscape and a vibrant urban and urbanized community,” James Cowhey said at a Dec. 13 breakfast meeting of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry agricultural issues forum.
Cowhey is executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission, and the ag issues forum meets every other month at the Lancaster Farm and Home Center.
Lancaster County ranks 91st in the Census Bureau’s list of standard metropolitan statistical areas. The largest statistical area is New York City, with 18.3 million people. The smallest is Pascagoula, Miss., with just over 50,000.
The mix of urban and rural makes Lancaster County unique, said Cowhey, who has been with the planning commission for 24 years. “We’re not just rural, we’re not just urban. That makes the planning job more complex than if we were one or the other.”
In the next two or three decades, Cowhey said he expects the county’s population to grow by another 100,000 or so people. They’ll need places to live, work, shop, park their cars. Does that mean those rural vistas will give way to sprawling suburbs?
No, according to the county’s No. 1 planner.
“As a public policy matter, support for agriculture and the rural lifestyle is institutionalized in Lancaster County. There may be some minor conflicts on how things can be done, but we are not going to see sweeping zoning changes that would take away our agricultural lands,” he said.
There are zoning changes, of course, but Cowhey said the vast majority of rezonings are from nonag to ag uses. Between 2007 and 2011, for example, nearly 6,000 acres were rezoned from nonag to ag, which was 35 times the acreage that was zoned from ag use to another purpose.
Lancaster County has a total land area of 630,000 acres. Designated growth areas — which is where 70 percent of the county’s population lives and where most of the population growth will occur —occupy 112,000 acres. Of those 112,000 acres, some 30,000 are considered undeveloped.
Of the 518,000 acres outside the designated growth areas, 425,000 acres are active farmland, which is the major land use in the county. The other 93,000 acres within the county’s borders are taken up by smaller communities and neighborhoods, parks, river hills, forests, industrial complexes, schools and a myriad of other uses.
Municipal planning has some history in the county, Cowhey told the group. The planning commission was established in 1958. The commission’s job was then, and still is, to work with the county’s municipalities, of which there are 60 — 41 townships, 18 boroughs and the city itself.
“As planners, we analyze issues like land use, transportation, economic and environmental issues,” Cowhey said. “It is not our job to force planning issues, but rather to convene and coordinate among our partners.”
Those partners are primarily municipal officials, he said, but also the not-for-profit and profit sectors.
The planning commission’s role is to present public policy choices and tools to local municipalities. “We can give the decision makers a choice of directions,” he said, “but they have to make the decisions about which way to go.”