A final discussion about the Packerton Yards Land Development project before the Mahoning Township Planning Commission Tuesday evening ended with Attorney Edward Hughes for the Carbon County Commissioners verbally agreeing to an extension for the plan until July 31 and a unanimous recommendation of a rejection of the existing plan by township planners unless a written extension is received. The issue separating the two parties is whether or not to install sidewalks in the industrial park.
Planning Commission Vice Chairperson Bruce Steigerwalt told Hughes and County Engineer Mike Tirpak that sidewalks were required as specified in the ordinance covering the development. When Tirpak proposed a walking trail that would cover a distance of 6,700 feet from Route 209 through the development and along the Lehigh River, Steigerwalt responded, "The walking trail was rescinded."
Tirpak said the trail was option three that was presented previously to the commission, but Steigerwalt responded saying, "Your father withdrew that plan." He pointed out neither the trail nor the sidewalk were represented on the current plan. Tirpak said he believed his father withdrew the option because of subsequent conditions added by the planners.
The sidewalk issue has been discussed at previous planning meetings as well as at least one supervisor's meeting in the township. The township ordinance requires a sidewalk on both sides of the roads throughout the development according to the township's subdivision and land development ordinance (SALDO) which the county used when designing the Packerton Yards plan.
Various waivers were recommended and granted in the past to the county including turning radii on the roads, cartway widths and curbing, but supervisors and planners have stood fast on not granting a sidewalk waiver.
The township officials are requiring them on the side of safety as outlined in the SALDO and the county is holding fast to not installing them due to two major safety concerns they have outlined. The first is the sidewalk would end on Route 209 and not go anywhere else, while the second is the sidewalk intersects with the railroad crossing. According to County Chairman Wayne Nothstein, the PA Public Utility Commission does not allow a sidewalk crossing.
"The PUC rejected putting a sidewalk crossing over the railroad tracks," Nothstein said. He added that it was his understanding they do not like crossings over the tracks as a general rule.
Planning Chairman Bob Slaw questioned why there wasn't an issue with the railroad tracks in Jim Thorpe which lay between the town and the county parking lot. Nothstein said while people cross the tracks there were no sidewalks there. "Hundreds of people cross those three sets of tracks but there are no sidewalks over them," he said. Tirpak added that another difference is that while there are only three tracks in Jim Thorpe, the Packerton crossing has four or five tracking including sidings which may make it a more hazardous area to cross.
"We don't want you to build a sidewalk over the tracks. We just want you to build a sidewalk on either side of the tracks [up to the railroad's right of way]," said Planner Shawn Haggerty who acknowledged the township does not have the jurisdiction to require the county cross the tracks.
Hughes answered Haggerty by pointing out that in the county's opinion building sidewalks on either side of the track is not in the interest of safety. "You are encouraging people to cross the tracks by [requiring us to be] building a sidewalk to the track and then on the other side [of it]."
Steigerwalt moved to recommend the plan be rejected based on the sidewalk issue and any other issues in the letter from township engineer Tim Edinger that was not addressed by the county. Haggerty seconded the motion. He pointed out that without the sidewalks residents and pedestrians in the park will be walking on the same shoulders tractor trailers will be using to turn on the roads creating a potentially hazardous situation.
Planner Pat Snyder added that those sidewalks would also be necessary for township residents living along a township road that needs to be vacated for the project and will need the pavement to access their homes. Tirpak pointed out they can cross the road then as they do now.
She said the county is making a new road they will have to use. Tirpak answered her by pointing out the road will have wider shoulders. The road entering the development will have two twelve foot travel lanes with eleven foot paved shoulders, a total width of 46 feet. Inside the development there is a stretch of road where the shoulder decreases to six feet and would be oil and chip. The planners expressed concerns because the shoulders do not separate the pedestrians from the tractor trailer traffic and the narrower shoulders could be problematic.
Planners did not appear to want to discuss the issue further and several times indicated that the sidewalks have been a sticking point throughout the planning process. Edinger proposed putting the sidewalk in up to the railroad's right of way and from the right of way to Route 209 so that the county plan is not delayed. He said if that plan is used then the county could try to get PUC approval later on and if they get it, they will install the crossing otherwise it would stay as is.
Steigerwalt said the current letter with the engineer's comments contains nothing about sidewalks or the trail. Tirpak asked if the county returned to the table with a plan for trails, would the planners consider approving it.
Township chairman John Wieczorek was in the audience and requested the floor. He asked Tirpak what his father meant regarding the response to the sidewalk issue. The response to the sidewalk condition made by the county engineer was "No response necessary" in answer to whether the county would use a sidewalk or trail. Tirpak said he believed his father meant that since neither item was on the plan, there was no reason to respond to the issue.
Nothstein pointed out that Walmart and Lowe's have no sidewalks through their properties. Steigerwalt pointed out that both are private developments and in the case of Walmart there is a sidewalk from Route 443 to the driveway adding that the sidewalks serve three lots, Walmart and two future lots. Tirpak responded by pointing out the shoulders on Route 443 were eight feet wide which is large enough for pedestrian traffic while the shoulders on Route 209 are only four feet wide. He added that PennDOT does not encourage pedestrian traffic on shoulders less than five feet wide.
Planner Bill Christman returned to project and pointed out in his opinion people are going to walk in the development and asked what part of the project is the most dangerous. Tirpak said probably the entrance where trucks are entering and leaving and using the shoulders to turn which is why the county does not want to install sidewalks there.
Edinger made a second proposition that the sidewalk be built to the tracks but that the sidewalk on the west side of the tracks be deferred until it was determined sidewalks are needed. Steigerwalt disagreed saying it would just bring the two sides back into the debate in a few years because neither side would probably want to budge in the future either.
"The county has a responsibility to the community as well," said Edinger referring to the idea that the county also is required to watch out for the public safety of county residents inferring that if sidewalks were found to be necessary in the future, he believed the county would do what it needed to do.
Hughes cited regulations from the county code that stated sidewalks on county roads are required when deemed necessary for safety reasons. Solicitor Tom Nanovic pointed out that it sounded like Hughes was trying to supersede township regulations with county laws. Hughes said he was trying to work with the township and Nanovic responded to the assertion by saying he believed Hughes was trying to usurp township regulations with county rules.
Nanovic encouraged the planners to continue discussing the sidewalks pointing out that each time they get close to making progress on the issue the discussion stalls. Tirpak asked if the county would return with a plan to do something one the west side of the tracks, would it be acceptable.
Steigerwalt said, "I think the conversation is moot at this point. You gave us a deadline of June 26th which leaves us with no time to consider anything." Hughes said, "We gave you until July 31st." Christman answered saying that Hughes took back that deadline and left the planners and supervisors with June 26th.
At that point the planners voted unanimously to reject a waiver accompanying the plan for a twenty foot wide road with six foot shoulders.
The debate continued for a few more minutes on the sidewalks. Snyder said she recalled the county saying two months ago they couldn't afford sidewalks, but tonight the county's position is the problem is a safety concern. "Which is it? Can you afford sidewalks or not?"
Nothstein said the two concerns over the issue or safety and costs, but Slaw rebutted pointing out that some of the waivers that were granted saved the county quite a bit of money. Haggerty added that curbing was one of those waivers meaning the sidewalks would be flush with the ground.
Hughes then proposed a sidewalk on one side with a barrier and walking trail on the other side. Steigerwalt said he wanted motorists and pedestrians separated but added that he would not recommend anything until he saw it in writing.
Nothstein told the planners he couldn't guarantee anything. "The county is as financially strapped as you are. I can't guarantee we can afford it [installing sidewalks] in the future."
Hughes concluded by stating the county would grant an extension until July 31st to discuss the sidewalk issue further. Planners then decided to conditionally recommend rejecting the plan unless they receive the written extension granting until July 31st to continue the discussion. The vote carried unanimously.