River Pointe project to be in spotlight again at hearing
| November 10, 2023
A public hearing set for Monday will spotlight a sprawling commercial building plan of nearly 6 million square feet in the Slate Belt region of Pennsylvania near the Delaware River that has pitted project supporters, who tout the project’s economic benefits, against opponents, who foresee environmental degradation and an erosion of quality of life in their rural communities.
Though the hearing, to be led by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, is to narrowly focus only on water discharge and related permits, it is certain to resurrect the battle lines that have been set over the project, which is known as River Pointe Commerce Park.
The project, which at full buildout would consist of a dozen buildings across 800 acres in Upper Mount Bethel Township, has serpentined its way through multiple layers of reviews and feedback, including from Upper Mount Bethel planners, the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, National Park Service and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, among others.
Last month, the proposal, which is listed in county planning records as consisting of a dozen buildings but a project spokesman said the number is 14, gained conditional use approval from the township to develop a 1.5 million-square-foot building on the site.
“We are seeing great demand from manufacturers looking for large-scale buildings in this area,” Lou Pektor, president of River Pointe Commerce Park, said in a statement last month. “With other one-million-square-feet-plus buildings leased, and industrial occupancy in the area staying as low as 3.5 percent, River Pointe Commerce Park has a unique opportunity to target some of the largest manufacturers, expand the employment base, and strengthen the manufacturing industry in the Lehigh Valley.”
Emphasis on manufacturing
Supporters of the project have cited the economic benefits that the project would bring, including thousands of jobs and a tax base boost for the township and school district.
Pektor and other backers have repeatedly cast the project as catering to manufacturing and industrial uses as opposed to warehouse or logistics centers, the widespread development of which in the Lehigh Valley has drawn concerns about air, water and soil pollution.
Pektor has said that the project, which is near Route 80, offers strategic proximity to ports in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.
“This capability provides River Pointe Commerce Park the opportunity to target some of the largest manufacturers,” he said in a statement last month.
At a regulatory hearing last year, he testified that while the property is zoned for warehouses, “it’s clearly not our targeted-use development.” Instead, he said, he is looking to attract an “industrial use to be determined.”
It’s unclear what the makeup of the buildings’ uses will ultimately be; no tenants so far have been publicly announced.
Somewhat confusingly, a Pennsylvania DEP landing page for the project describes RPL as a “proposed 6-million-square foot warehouse project” and a news release about Monday’s hearing carried the headline “DEP To Host Public Hearing on Proposed Warehouse Project in Northampton County.”
Further, the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission cited a Transportation Impact Assessment filed by the developer that anticipates 75 percent of the project will be a mix of manufacturing, services and warehousing, and 25 percent would be high-cube fulfillment center warehousing.
Whether the project is predominantly manufacturing or warehouses, it’s still a mammoth undertaking that will introduce vast areas of impervious surfaces, leading to stormwater runoff and contamination in the Delaware River and Martins/Jacoby Creeks Watersheds, said Fred Stine, a community action coordinator for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
“Right now, it’s just semantics,” he said. “You’re still cutting down trees and filling in wetlands and riparian buffers to build big-box buildings. The impacts will all be the same.”
A spokesman for Pektor and RPL said on Thursday that the company would not be providing a comment ahead of Monday’s DEP hearing.
Others who testified at a regulatory hearing last year also raised concerns about stormwater runoff.
Charles Cole, who has a doctorate in environmental engineering, said that runoff coming from uphill would affect the quantity and quality of what comes from the 303 Demi Road site.
“This wooded piece of property had been relatively undisturbed for a couple hundred years,” he said. “There are farm fields above it and wetlands below it. It’s a steep and narrow site running along the contours of the land. Previous owners looked at how it might be developed and concluded a building of one or two acres was appropriate.”
He said the RPL project would have a “major deleterious impact” on the environment, adding: “What are we doing on this steep hill site of a forest? What do you think is going to happen when they put in 20 acres of impervious surface?
Others testifying raised questions about nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous that could pollute the Delaware, citing a Virginia Polytechnic State University study that found “total suspended solids in percentage measure runoff volume, from industrial land uses, such as warehousing, was significantly greater than other land uses.”
“Most of us are not scientists but have common sense to know that the risks to the schools, river, wildlife, overall ecology and ultimately the watershed that serve many, are high,” Sharon Duffield testified.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Stine noted that the section of the Delaware River near the project site is designated a National Wild and Scenic River. He said it is underutilized for water-based tourism and that the RPL development could have a harmful economic effect by marring the viewshed and aesthetics.
“You’ll come down through and instead of paddling through this wild and scenic area, it will be an industrial area,” he said.
He also raised concerns about induced development that could come as a result of improvements to a railway overpass that has been the center of repeated concerns raised by county planners and others because trucks will have to navigate under it en route to the RPL site.
In a letter last month, county planners said the limited clearance beneath the railroad trestle “poses a severe safety and mobility concern,” adding: “Trucks get caught underneath or scrape the overpass multiple times per year, especially when road repaving reduces the amount of clearance underneath. The overpass in its current condition is not ideal nor in line with current design standards.”
Stine said RPL could be “just the tip of iceberg” and usher in more big-building projects in the region.
“You improve — I say ‘improve’ in air quotes — the infrastructure to allow trucks to pass through the railroad overpass and it just gets bigger and bigger,” he said.
At full buildout, RPL is projected to generate an estimated 19,250 passenger car and 3,749 truck trips in a typical weekday.
Notably, the findings and feedback of county planners are merely advisory and carry no enforcement or regulatory weight. Final approvals rest with the township.
The hearing, from 6-9 p.m. Monday at the Bangor Area High School Theater, will hear testimony about RPL’s application to the DEP for a National Pollutant Discharge and Elimination System permit and Water Obstruction and Encroachment Joint Permit application.
RPL proposes to construct the first phase of its project, including construction of roadway infrastructure, stormwater facilities and three industrial buildings totaling nearly 2 million square feet, with projected future buildings to be permitted in future phases.
The permit application would allow the discharge of stormwater from construction activities at the site to an unknown tributary to the Delaware River, an unknown tributary to Allegheny Creek and other wetlands and exceptional value wetlands, according to the DEP.
Representatives from DEP, River Pointe Logistics and the Northampton County Conservation District will be in attendance at the hearing.
The DEP noted that testimony will be limited to five minutes and that the department can only review comments made about the discharge application.