Conducting their meeting before a packed room, Monday night, the Manheim Township Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the High Real Estate Group's proposal to construct a $100 million shopping complex across from Long's Park on Harrisburg Pike.
There had originally been some confusion as to whether the vote would be held Monday since Commissioner Chairman Larry Downing is recovering from surgery and was not able to attend.
But, linked into the meeting by teleconference, Downing cast the critical third vote in favor of the project.
He was joined by Commissioners Carol Simpson and Michael Flanagan.
Commissioners Nancy Keebler and Rick Casselbury voted against approval.
Keebler stressed her obligation as an elected official to listen to what the residents of the township actually want.
She cited statistics from a survey of Township residents indicating that "65% of residents on the survey discouraged commercial shopping centers" and "74% indicated satisfaction with the existing shopping."
She also worried about the impact on the floodplain, on wildlife in the area, and on the quality of life immediately surrounding the project - concerns with which Casselbury agreed.
For their part, the majority cited economic growth as a primary factor.
Commissioner Carol Simpson said, "This vote is about revenue for Manheim Township," going on to argue that the project will bring in "$2 million in income every year for the Township and its schools."
"To decline this opportunity," she said, "would be a slap in the face to all of our residents, especially those just starting our and those on a very low income."
She called the traffic improvements "unprecedented," saying, "There is no money for roads in Lancaster County."
Downing, chiming in by teleconference, echoed Simpson's position, arguing that the project would be beneficial "not just for Manheim Township but also for East Hempfield and the City of Lancaster."
He assured those present that the Commissioners listened to their concerns and he agreed that the project is a good way to stimulate economic growth and help improve roadways "with no cost to the municipalities."
Commissioner Michael Flanagan, speaking last, said "It is likely that this particular shopping center will be built somewhere in Lancaster County in the coming years. The question is 'should it be here?' "
He explained that the Township is placing conditions on their approval including certain traffic improvements and concluded by saying, "Should we fail to approve this, we are missing an opportunity for regional benefits at little taxpayer expense."
Surprisingly, there was little public comment at Monday night's meeting, although many outspoken opponents and supporters of the project were present.
One person who did comment was Kathy Ashworth, who lives on Farmingdale Road and is also involved with the TRAC committee - a group of citizens concerned about F&M's plans to relocate the Dillerville rail switching yard.
As it became evident that the Commissioners were likely to conditionally approve the plan, Ashworth told the Commissioners that the public should be allowed to see those conditions and comment on them prior to the vote.
Acting Chairman Michael Flanagan decided to go forward with the vote but ensured that copies of the conditions were made available to the public immediately following the meeting.
Ashworth said in an interview that she is disappointed but not surprised with the vote and that the proposed traffic improvements are "extensive, but not enough to make it work."
The High Group anticipates that 1,800 permanent jobs and 1,400 construction jobs will be created by the 646,000 sq-ft project, dubbed a "lifestyle retail center."
It will occupy 90 acres of land and cost roughly $100 million to construct.
But project supporters must still clear another hurdle before the project can go forward. They must put forward a "land development plan."
The High Group said in a press release that "the project will be presented to the community in technical detail" during this phase.
High expects the land development process to be concluded within a year and hopes to have construction well underway by 2010.
More information is available on the project's website at http://www.crossingsatconestogacreek.com.