Township embroiled in struggle over zoning

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WASHINGTON, Pa. – Washington County dairy farmer Bobby Miller has enough acres to expand his operation, but under new zoning regulations, the township zoning officer may have veto power if Miller wants to build a small milk processing plant.



The Canton Township board of supervisors voted Nov. 8 to revise the township’s zoning map, and passed an amended zoning ordinance.



Land in the township, which had been zoned 65 percent agricultural and 35 percent residential, is now 15 percent agricultural and 85 percent residential.The board voted to grandfather any land that is currently agricultural, allowing current residents to continue agricultural use until the family ceases farming, or until the land is sold.



Once farming stops, that land cannot be returned to agricultural use.



The fact that their farms have been labeled nonconforming, and will be subject to annual inspection and to the requirements of the zoning ordinance, has many residents alarmed.



The zoning officer must evaluate applications to make any changes in the structures or use of the nonconforming property, but those changes must “otherwise meet the requirements of the zoning ordinance” and the structure or use must not become “more nonconforming than it was before.”



Bobby Miller’s farm has become a grandfathered nonconforming agricultural property in an area that is otherwise zoned residential. He’s concerned that a processing plant he has been considering may be deemed “more nonconforming” than the milking parlor he already has.



Miller and other residents in southern Canton Township have been waging war on the township’s plan to rezone.



To Mark Subrick, who lives on the farm where his grandparents settled in 1914, it feels as if the township has devised “a long, drawn-out way to run us off.”



The rural residents are hoping the board will approve an agricultural security area designation landowners requested before rezoning was raised.



According to Subrick, there are about 700 acres in the proposed ag security area.



An ag security area, under Pennsylvania law, provides farmers located near suburban development with certain protections.



Local governments cannot impose ordinances that unreasonably restrict normal farming structures or farming practices, nor may nuisance ordinances be enforced unless health and safety are involved.



An ag security area also protects farmland from being subject to forced acquisition under powers of condemnation.



In Washington County, approximately 20 of the 67 municipalities have included ag security areas.



But, according to Canton Township Manager Sam Stockman, Canton Township, which lies just southwest of the city of Washington, is not really like other townships where these security areas have been established.



Canton, he said, has a population of 10,000 in an area of 14 square miles, and has a large industrial base.



Besides steel companies still there, he said, there is a plastics manufacturing plant, a paint pigment company, and a company that makes industrial grouts.



The township considers itself industrial and residential, and its comprehensive plan calls for a growth in population over the next five to 15 years.



Stockton said the conclusion of the agricultural security advisory committee and the planning board was that the land in the proposed ag security area does not qualify for protection.



It is not, he said, the prime agricultural land the ag security law was designed to protect. Most of these farms, Stockton said, will never be able to make themselves independent again.



A public hearing on the request for a security area has been set for Nov. 22. However, the township has published a legal notice that the petition for a security area is open again for public comment, proposed modifications, and objections. The 15-day comment period will not have expired by Nov. 22.



“It doesn’t look as if they will be able to have the hearing on the 22nd,” said Laura Walker, who boards horses and raises sheep on 17 acres.



Walker has been spearheading the drive to protect the area’s agricultural character. In addition to the ag security area status, she has also been investigating the idea of an overlying historical area.



Stockton said the decline in the township’s industrial base has made the township look more toward population growth, which he said he thinks is going to happen whether residents want it or not.



“Sooner or later,” he said, “residential development will envelop our township. “If we have a plan in place, we will be able to control it, and encourage good development.”



“No one is telling anyone he can’t farm,” Stockton said. “Under our new zoning ordinance, the use stays the same until they make a conscious decision to stop farming.”



Walker said she sees the rezoning as a “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could double the population” type of speculative move. “I’m not sure they even understand the implications of all the provisions they have enacted,” she said. “They only want to increase their tax revenues.”



At the board meeting in which the zoning ordinance was adopted, a fact sheet said the township relies on a 1 percent wage tax for the largest proportion of its revenues.



The fact sheet predicted a gradual decline in revenue by 2005, forcing an increase in the property tax from 4.5 mills to 6.5 mills.



Township Supervisor Emil Stanish explained he was voting in favor of the new zoning because no one was being denied his right to farm, because residential land is more valuable when sold than agricultural land, and because the R-1 zoning being proposed allows more room for green space by reducing housing density in any proposed development.



Walker said officials do not understand the quality of life issues that brought current residents into the area. “Why are they so determined that they have to rezone this area when that’s not what the residents want?”

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