National Park Service meets with township a year after raising concerns about River Pointe project
| July 5, 2023
More than a year after the National Park Service first raised concerns about the River Pointe Commerce Park project — one of the largest developments along the Delaware River corridor in Pennsylvania — federal officials last month finally got to meet with municipal officials overseeing its approval.
The meeting with some members of the Upper Mount Bethel Township board of supervisors in Northampton County, Pa., in the Slate Belt region comes as the mammoth project slowly winds its way through a maze of multiple regulatory reviews. Among other steps forward, the township last month granted conditional preliminary plan approval for subdivision and infrastructure improvements for three of the project’s lots.
The NPS first raised concerns about the project in a June 6, 2022, letter to township supervisors that went unanswered.
That prompted NPS staff members to send a follow-up that a natural resource specialist for the Park Service’s Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, Sarah Bursky, described as a “reminder letter, saying that ‘NPS is out here concerned,’” according to internal NPS emails Delaware Currents secured through a public records request that also reveal the service has a dedicated “River Warehouse Team.”
In another email, from March, Bursky recalled hearing from a local activist who described the supervisors as “being informally in touch but apparently aren’t formally responding to anyone.”
In the follow-up letter that prompted the recent meeting, the NPS reiterated its concerns about the development, which is so mammoth that planners have cast it in sweeping terms, describing it as “the largest in the Lehigh Valley in decades and possibly ever.”
At full buildout, the overall development of a more than a dozen large buildings for warehouse, distribution or manufacturing space could represent an investment of well over $1 billion.
Critics say warehouses, with their immense building footprints and parking lots, create acres of impervious surfaces that contribute to increased contaminated runoff, as well as increased noise, air and water pollution.
A Park Service spokesman, John Harlan Warren, said the Park Service was following up with the township manager, Ed Nelson, to schedule another meeting that would include the developers, Louis and Lisa Pektor.
Warren added that the Park Service had “no intention” to stop the development nor did it make any “claim of jurisdiction over the land that will be used for this project.”
“Our role is to learn more about the project, so that we can fairly evaluate its potential impacts,” he said. “We look forward to working with the township to avoid, minimize or mitigate any impacts that may be identified.”
The specifics of what was reviewed at the meeting were not immediately clear.
Nelson, the township manager, said “several aspects” of the project were discussed and “NPS officials were satisfied the municipality is doing due diligence in administering the development of the park.”
Other NPS concerns raised
The NPS letters raised concerns that the project could potentially affect three different NPS units: the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Appalachian National Scenic Trail and Lower Delaware Wild and Scenic River.
Specifically, the service said the development could affect the viewshed from the Appalachian National Scenic Trail and Mt. Tammany at the National Recreation Area as well for boaters along the river.
“The large scale of this proposed project (725 acres) has the potential to substantially change the landscape of the western boundary of the Delaware River corridor in eastern Pennsylvania and to impact key NPS resources in the immediate and adjoining areas,” reads a March 30 letter.
The NPS also noted that the project’s stormwater runoff could affect the Delaware’s water quality. Other potential impacts on NPS resources could arise from “the expected lengthy construction phase,” the March letter says.
“This and other proposed industrialized development projects are especially complex, with impacts both direct and indirect in the near-term and long-term,” the NPS said in its letter last year. “The NPS would like to participate in the planning process and be a part of a thorough and comprehensive review of the project in its earliest stage.”
Lisa Pektor responds
Lisa Pektor said through a spokeswoman that the NPS references to viewsheds were unclear.
“If they would like to provide photos from the trail with GPS coordinates, we would be happy to provide a rendering showing the impacts of the view,” she said.
She added that the designers have been “very mindful of the viewsheds” and worked on ways to mitigate any impacts.
“We have discussed everything from green roofs to camouflage buildings to a pixilated application of color to blend the building into the background,” she said.
She noted, for example, that for one phase of the project, the developers are working with an architect “to match the building to the surrounding forest colors to minimize the impacted views from the river during the winter.”
In the summer, she said, the tree canopy would shield the building from view.
Project of enormous magnitude
Three-quarters of the project would be a mix of manufacturing, services and warehousing, and the remainder is expected to be so-called high-cube fulfillment center warehousing, which tend to have taller buildings to accommodate the storage and retrieval of goods for shipment.
The plan for RPL comes amid an enormous explosion of warehouses and distribution centers throughout the Delaware River watershed, particularly in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Delaware Currents has previously reported that nearly 90 million square feet of warehouse space has been approved, proposed or built since 2021 in the parts of the 14 counties that make up the watershed in New Jersey.
The expansive construction of warehouses generally in the Lehigh Valley has been linked to the degradation of overall water quality, leading to the Lehigh River being named by an environmental group as one of the 10 most endangered rivers in the country.