July 19, 2017 11:15 AM, EDT

Local Dispute Over Mammoth Warehouse Complex Hinges on Truck Traffic

Worker in warehouse Mark Blinch/Reuters

The developer’s proposal would bring a mammoth warehouse complex to the heart of Lower Nazareth Township in Pennsylvania. It has been fiercely fought — rejected by township supervisors who fear a glut of tractor-trailers on local roads, but resurrected by a Northampton County judge at appeal.

Now, Lower Nazareth and developer Liberty Property Trust will take another stab at coming up with reworked plans that the township, the builder and residents can stomach.

On July 18, Judge Jennifer Sletvold was slated to take testimony in order to decide the root question in dispute: just how much traffic the 525,000 square feet of warehouses between Route 191 and Daniels Road would bring.

But instead, Sletvold urged the parties to settle, and they agreed to delay the hearing until autumn in order to sit down to try to make that happen.

Lower Nazareth solicitor Gary Asteak called the upcoming discussions a “last bid” for the developer “to come up with a project that is acceptable for what’s there — a project that is acceptable with our zoning.”

James Preston, Liberty Property Trust’s attorney, said the looming deadlines could put pressures on both sides to reach agreement.

Preston said he did not believe the effort would be a futile exercise, despite the history.

“I would hope that it is not,” Preston said.

In 2015, township supervisors unanimously rejected a conditional-use permit for the project, a relatively low regulatory hurdle, charging it would cause “significant traffic congestion” and harm public safety.

But last year, Sletvold overturned the township’s decision, after a hearing in which Liberty Property Trust argued that Lower Nazareth had overestimated — by a factor of two — the number of tractor-trailers that would be expected at the two warehouses.

Sletvold’s ruling prompted the township to appeal to Commonwealth Court. In December, that court vacated Sletvold’s decision, saying more testimony was needed on the traffic impacts. The court instructed Sletvold to hold a hearing in which she determined just how many tractor-trailers a day would be likely.

At issue is zoning that seeks to keep high-volume truck traffic off local roads and on major expressways. Under the rules, developments in Lower Nazareth that serve more than 100 tractor-trailers per day are required to be within 3,000 feet of an entrance to Routes 22 or 33.

Liberty Property Trust’s proposed 51-acre site isn’t within that distance. But the developer argues it doesn’t need to be, saying the project would fall under the 100-tractor-trailer threshold — a contention the township disputes.

When supervisors voted down the proposal in May 2015, they did so at a standing-room-only meeting in which nearly 200 residents turned out, some holding signs and wearing T-shirts opposing the plans. Opponents complained of traffic, the noise of incoming and outgoing tractor-trailers, and falling property values.

Under the July 18 agreement, the two sides will appear before Sletvold on Sept. 8 for a conference on the status of the case. If a resolution hasn’t been reached, a trial is slated for Oct. 10.

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