Harrisburg: The Wrong Answer

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Quickly now: under Pennsylvania laws that govern land development, which organization has to deal with variances, setbacks, special exceptions all in the guise of hardship?  If there’s a non-conforming use coming to your neighborhood which agency is likely to be able to approve it?  Do you even have a clue what any of this means?

Welcome to what used to be the most boring and thankless job in local government: sitting on a local zoning board.  For those of you who only find out what they do when a large, noisy convenience store buys the vacant lot next door, in Pennsylvania zoning boards are one of the most powerful instruments of local government.  The decisions they make on a host of issues can affect you forever.  In highly developed areas technical matters like storm water runoff, erosion, traffic management and wastewater disposal are today’s hot buttons.

State law closely governs what zoners can do.  It says they are to behave more like judges than kings, though disgruntled residents rarely understand that concept.  Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that leaves the zoning authority in local hands.  While some critics of community zoning control claim that centralized county zoning would lead to smarter land management practices that certainly hasn’t been the case in neighboring Maryland.

But zoning jobs in a lot of places will be a lot more thankless and a lot less boring than they used to be.  From one end of the state to the other local land use authorities are trying to cope with developmental proposals of monolithic proportions fueled by the only thing in this country that probably makes more money than Microsoft: legalized gambling.

In western Montgomery County, near the Chester County line, Boyd Gaming plans to ask burgeoning Limerick Township to change zoning on an industrial tract to create an elaborate palace for 3,000 slot machines attached to a 600 room hotel.  A companion developer wants to build a mega-outlet strip mall across the street.  In Adams County near Gettysburg Battlefield Park, Crossroads Gaming and Resorts has applied for a gaming license.  Townships and boroughs in the Lehigh Valley are getting anxious about plans by the Sands and Tropicana Casinos to build in the region.  The Sands has plans calling for 126 acres at a former Bethlehem Steel site to be developed for betting parlors.  In Pittsburgh a gaming task force is mulling whether or not to stake some revenue for a new arena from anyone who even applies for a license.  At least the approval payoff will be legit, as they say in the gaming industry.

Under the New Jersey model, the state gaming commission controls virtually every aspect of gambling in Atlantic City.  Locations, building heights, even hours of operation by and large are shots called in Trenton.  Walk a couple of blocks from any Atlantic City casino and after 30 years of legalized gaming that has generated billions in revenue, little, if anything has improved for residents.  The casinos meanwhile have an expensive new tunnel to add development to the city’s marina district and a state-of-the-art convention center downtown.

In Harrisburg there are elements in the General Assembly that want to rob Adams County and the city of Philadelphia of their zoning powers over casino development.  The Adams County goal is cloaked in nobility: to prevent gambling near Gettysburg’s hallowed ground.  In Philadelphia the allegation is that city officials are too corrupt to manage gaming interests.  These claims come from the capital that has had two embarrassing resignations from its Gaming Control Commission before even the first bet has been placed.

Zoning questions about casinos are a tough, new proposition in this state but they belong where they always have been scrutinized: the local zoning authorities.  Harrisburg legislating Adams County and Philadelphia out of zoning casinos is the wrong answer.  If that precedent is established someday it’s unlikely you will have anything to say about the betting parlor that might come to a neighborhood near you.

Albert Paschall
Senior Fellow
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.