Wal-Mart wants to build a 150,000-square-foot supercenter in Upper Hanover Township, a rural corner of Pennsylvania about one hour northwest of Philadelphia. The supercenter would anchor a large shopping complex, including twin strip malls on opposite sides of the highway.
Two years ago, Wal-Mart would have needed no more than an okay from Upper Hanover officials to proceed. But thanks to a regional plan adopted in July 2001, Wal-Mart must persuade not only the township, but five surrounding communities to approve the development.
The regional plan, which encompasses four villages and two rural townships, steers new residential and retail development into the villages and preserves outlying areas for farms and open space. The plan also prohibits retail stores over 60,000 square feet.
Wal-Mart needs two zoning changes to move ahead: one lifting the retail store size cap and another allowing retail development on land designated for open space. Zoning changes require a unanimous vote from a 12-member regional planning commission, which includes two representatives from each community.
Several commissioners have already expressed concerns about the project and wondered why Wal-Mart cannot locate in a vacant Ames department store building in the village of Pennsburg.
If Upper Hanover Township decides to pursue the development without regional support, it must give one year’s notice to pull out of the regional plan.
Communities throughout Pennsylvania are following the situation closely, because the region was the first to adopt a joint land use plan after landmark revisions to the state’s Municipalities Planning Code in 2000.
The rules encourage neighboring communities to enact joint land use plans and stipulate that local zoning must comply with regional plans. The law does not mandate regional planning, but does provide several carrots. Towns that participate in regional planning are exempt from a state law that requires every town to zone some space for every land use (farms, offices, etc.). Other carrots include eligibility for state planning grants; priority consideration by state agencies for infrastructure investments and other aid; and the power to establish regional tax-base sharing.
According to Janet Milkman of 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, a statewide membership organization which led the effort to enact the new rules, about one-fifth, or 550, of the state’s municipalities have started the process of regional planning.