One statistic stood out the most, judging by how often it was repeated throughout the day.
There are about 4,300 homes in Lancaster County with rents low enough to accommodate families of two or three making around $40,000 a year or less.
To meet the demand for such units, the county would need about 1,150 more to come online each year over a decade, according to Michaela Allwine, director of housing and community development at the Lancaster County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities.
Under current conditions, “We’ll be lucky if we hit 100, 80 in a good year,” said Claude Hicks, senior vice president of real estate development at Lancaster-based HDC MidAtlantic.
Allwine and Hicks were among the dozens of experts who spoke Thursday at the Places2040 Summit, a conference that centered on how Lancaster County could speed up efficient, affordable developments and grow responsibly over the next 20 years.
The conference also hit on other related topics, like how Lancaster County could become carbon neutral by 2040 and how municipalities and the county could coordinate on spending millions from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The summit gets its name from the county’s 2018 comprehensive plan, a planning document that sets out guidelines for how the entire county could plan its population and economic growth up to the year 2040.
The event at the Ware Center, presented by the Lancaster-based housing nonprofit Tenfold and the local advocacy group Coalition for Smart Growth, indicated there may be more interest than ever in the issue of land development and community planning.
Architects, nonprofit developers, social workers, engineers, researchers and municipal officials were just some of the more than 250 people on hand at the sold-out event, trying to glean some insight to help them with development issues that sometimes seem intractable.
The strategies they discussed throughout the day included the need for municipalities to coordinate zoning ordinances to make them more uniform and predictable, remove highly restrictive zoning that deters anything but single-family homes and find better ways to engage their constituents so it’s not just angry residents who show up at important municipal meetings to oppose new developments.
“Most of the big changes we’ve made to our zoning happened when no one showed up to our meeting,” said Ethan Demme, an East Lampeter Township supervisor and speaker on Thursday. At a few standing-room-only public meetings, he said, “they almost carried me out with pitchforks.”
Demme is an independent who made a very public break with the county’s Republican Party after serving as its youngest-ever chair. He made clear Thursday he does not plan to run for reelection.
American Rescue Plan Act
The conference also went beyond affordable housing and land-use issues.
John Trescott, the newly appointed member of the county board of commissioners, spoke up at the 2040 session dedicated to American Rescue Plan Act spending to note that the U.S. Treasury Department’s final rule on the program takes effect April 1. As a result, he said the county government plans to ask the public for their ideas on how to put that pool of money to use.
Lancaster County received $106 million in federal COVID relief funds as part of that rescue plan, signed into law a year ago by President Joe Biden. Very little of that money has been spent, as the county board of commissioners has said it would be premature to commit those dollars to projects until the federal government finalizes the rules for how the money can be spent by local governments.
Trescott, who is filling the final two years of former Commissioner Craig Lehman’s term, said the commissioners will hold some form of public session where those ideas are discussed, but he didn’t offer more details on when that process would begin. In the meantime, he encouraged session attendees to attend weekly commissioners’ meetings or write directly to him and his colleagues with ideas.
The county’s process for spending the federal relief funds trails the City of Lancaster’s process, where officials last year launched a coordinated campaign to solicit public input into how to spend $39 million in such funds. The result, according to a city official at the session, was a final list of priorities: affordable housing, behavioral health, homelessness, education and critical home repairs.
A Green Lancaster County
Just before lunchtime, Eric Sauder stood at the front of an upstairs conference room, where he talked to a crowd about the multi-billion-dollar cost of the county’s reliance on fossil fuels, as well as its environmental toll.
Then, he spoke about the potential for change — a shift to renewable energy and other climate-conscious technologies, which he said could create jobs and improve the local environment, in turn, improving the health of those who occupy it.
Sauder is the founder and executive director of RegenAll, a nonprofit that aims to identify sources of carbon emissions and aid businesses, communities and individuals in their transitions toward cutting them.
On Thursday, the title of Sauder’s talk was “Uniting Diverse Stakeholders to Achieve Carbon Neutrality,” and he said he’d ideally like to see carbon neutrality by 2040. It’s a goal that Sauder said will require buy-in from those living in both urban and rural areas. That means a bipartisan approach that relies on individual action, not necessarily government policy, he said.
“There is no climate silver bullet,” Sauder said, explaining the effort will require a patchwork of solutions implemented throughout the county.
Lancaster County, with its diverse landscape, could serve as an example for the rest of the United States if there is local success, he said.
The sold-out attendance and interest at the Thursday conference may spur the Coalition for Smart Growth to plan similar future events, said the group’s president, Joshua Druce, after the summit concluded.
“The fact that we exceeded all our exceeded all our expectations means there’s a demand out there,” Druce said.
— Staff writer Aniya Thomas contributed to this report.