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History of Sprawl in the Lehigh River Watershed
Lehigh Valley in Danger of Losing Character: A radio address from WDIY

Sprawl is a major concern for Lehigh Valley residents. In a recent Lehigh Valley Planning Commission survey of voters, over half the respondents indicated that they desired slower growth in the Valley. The survey indicates a change in attitude regarding the issue and is somewhat surprising according to Mike Kaiser of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. He credits the rising interest in land use to a growing awareness of and discontent with traffic congestion, diminishing open spaces, and lack of convenience the sprawl pattern presents. Kaiser said these problems have been years in the making.

"A lot of people after World War II fled to the suburbs, and the interesting thing was that they went to the suburbs and you would think they didn't think anybody else was interested in going to the suburbs. So when you have had a lot of people going to the suburbs, you no longer have a rural pastoral environment that people thought they were getting. What you end up with is a subdivided environment and what you really have is a new type of city."

While the Lehigh Valley is not growing as fast as such national hotspots as Atlanta and Houston, it is not far behind Pennsylvania's three fastest growing counties of Chester, Bucks, and Montgomery, which surround Philadelphia. Northampton and Lehigh counties rank 11th and 13th in population. Although the region only grew about 5-6% in the 90's, it is consuming land at a rate that is faster than its population growth. The Valley is swallowing up roughly 3 square miles of open space each year. Some areas, like Lower Saucon Township, are experiencing even more rapid growth. Tom Mackfield of the Citizen's Coalition of Lower Saucon says there is a need to slow this fast pace growth.

"Our township engineer used building permit applications as a judge for this whole thing. He said that the population is growing at twice what would be considered a reasonable rate for the township. Now even at that reasonable rate, we could progress for a while, but then it would have to level off even from that, because we just don't have the land."

Ironically, the growth and sprawl the Valley is experiencing is what brought many residents to the region's open spaces during the 80's. Now that open spaces are being depleted, many fear they are witnessing what some have called the "Jersification of the Valley." State Representative, Bob Freeman, of Northampton County has been a leading opponent of sprawl and has sponsored planning and zoning reform legislation in Harrisburg over the past ten years. He believes sprawl needs to be contained or the consequences may not be kind to the Valley.

"If however, we continue down the path we've chosen, with the suburban sprawl model, I anticipate within the next 10 to 20 years we will lose some of the desirability as a location. Because of the traffic congestion, because of the scarring of the landscape, we'll cease to have anything that is really unique or appealing, and just become another stretch of suburban sprawl, like much of Northern New Jersey."

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