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State of the Township Report
South Middleton Township
Presented to the Board of SupervisorsCory S. Adams, Township ManagerMarch 29, 2021
In past “State of the Township” reports, I have often started with a look back to our region’s history, its significant structures and natural features that have laid witness to some of the most profound and resonating events in American history. Our community has been settled for at least 12,000 years. Susquehannock and Shawnee tribes made their homes here and were soon joined by European settlers. Our community hosted the first iron mills in what was then the American western frontier. These furnaces were called upon to produce the needed ordnance to support the Patriot cause during the Revolution. Though freedom was won by South Mountain iron, liberty was still out of reach for many Americans. Untold numbers of oppressed people found freedom on the Underground Railroad which passed directly through Boiling Springs. These escaping slaves were soon followed by invading Confederate soldiers. The future of American prosperity and justice, which was promised almost a century earlier but never fully delivered would now be finally decided by blood and bellicose toil. In the years following the Civil War, South Middleton become home to a new generation of immigrants, who fueled innovation, entrepreneurship, and civil advancement to build America and our Township into what both are today. Wars and economic downturns have pummeled us since our nation’s founding, but we have been resilient. For over the past 12 months, we have spoken long and often about the latest societal challenge to beset our people and community. A virus, imperceptible to the human eye has made its presence felt nonetheless large in a multitude of ways with which we are all too familiar and need not be repeated again here. Indeed, despite the hits leveled by the COVID-19 pandemic, some endemic to the disease itself, others manmade, the state of the Township is nevertheless stronger than it has ever been.
The Township ensures that public services are provided in the most effective and efficient manner while also keeping taxes low. For instance, South Middleton continues to meet its revenue needs without relying on a general real estate tax. Indeed, our overall tax rate is lower than 39 percent of all similar-sized communities and below the per capita state average (Cleargov). Township residents, when factoring in all local taxes paid (i.e. school, county, municipal), are well below the county average as well, in both per capita spending and total tax burden (Department of Community and Economic Development). Township taxes and expenditures are actually lower than 55 and 65 percent, respectively of similar-sized communities in Pennsylvania. Furthermore, unlike many surrounding communities (including ones without local police departments) we do not levy a per capita tax, amusement tax, street light, sidewalk, or fire hydrant assessment or any other type of head tax. In fact, for every dollar our residents pay in property taxes, only five cents go to municipal services, and of that nickel, three cents are locked into road maintenance and two cents go straight to the Township’s three fire companies. Absolutely zero real estate taxes go to the Township’s General Fund. We keep your tax burden low and the use of your money is clear and easily understandable by the public. That is the hallmark of good and transparent government.
According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Cumberland County is at the very top of the fastest growing counties in the state, having grown by 4.5 percent between 2010 and 2015. Many of these people have settled in South Middleton which, it is estimated, has added at least 100 people per year since 2010. Lower interest rates last year may have encouraged people to reinvest in their homes, or purchase new ones, leading to an increase of 23 percent in residential building permits issued in 2020 over the previous year (86 new homes). In addition, 100 permits were issued for home additions/alterations contributing to the average home value in the Township rising to $249,207, about a 12 percent increase from the previous year (Greater Harrisburg Association of Realtors). The median sale price for new homes in Cumberland County as of February 2021 was $232,000. As can be seen, new home sales continue to be robust in South Middleton, which bodes well for the community’s future but also presents its fair share of challenges, more on that in a moment.
Speaking of population growth, in an ordinary year following the decennial Census, we would have our new population figures. Well, 2020 was not an ordinary year, so we may not know even our preliminary population estimates until perhaps this summer or even early fall. As we all know, Census population data is vital in assigning representation in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., but here at the local level our population also determines eligibility for certain types of funding. For instance, the Township is entitled to receive a portion of the State’s gas tax, which is partly based on our population. To get our fair share, it is vital we know how many people live here. Thank you to the 82 percent of our residents who took the time to respond to last year’s Census online, which was 17.5 percent above the State self-response average.
To accommodate this growth, South Middleton continues to maintain a highly trained and professional codes enforcement office. Having in-house inspectors and plan reviewers offers us the ability to more quickly respond to community development needs as they arise. Our codes officials are actually in high demand, so much so that in the past we have “loaned out” our personnel to neighboring municipalities to perform inspections for them. This enables us to keep our fees low here while offering our capabilities elsewhere. For example, “The Porches at Allenberry,” though in Monroe Township is being inspected by South Middleton codes officials. This is proficient and cooperative government. To increase our capacity and make home improve less complicated and costly for our residents, the Township will look to hire an additional inspector to focus on electrical inspections in 2021, making our Codes Department completely “full service.”
Here are the specific numbers coming out of our Codes, Planning, Zoning, Fire Marshall, Sewage Enforcement, and Recycling Offices last year: 14 conditional use applications (40 percent increase), 24 subdivision and land development plans (26 percent increase), one master plan (100 percent increase – new use type), 20 Zoning Hearing Board applications (25 percent increase), two fireworks permits, eight peddler permits, 26 sign permits (63 percent increase), 99 highway occupancy permits (five percent increase), four well permits (50 percent decrease), 11 pool permits (45 percent decrease), one land development waiver (67 percent decrease), 294 zoning permits (two percent increase), and 16 septic hauler registrations (one less than last year). Our staff also investigated 144 nuisance complaints (48 percent increase). We also continue to invest in our staffing. In addition to the earlier-mentioned new electrical inspector to be hired, the Township employment philosophy to is train and promote from within to retain institutional knowledge. We filled a new community development coordinator position as well as a new environmental planner though such a method.
Economically, the Township remains very strong. South Middleton’s unemployment rate currently stands at 3.7 percent, well below the national and state averages of 6.3 and 7.3 percent, respectively (Bureau of Labor Statistics). The median household income is $76,357, about a 4.5 percent increase from last year, and approximately ten percent higher than the county average, and an astounding 25 percent higher than the state average (Census Bureau). The Township’s employment sector is fairly diversified, with over half of our workforce employed in the following top five industries: retail trade, health care/social services, manufacturing, government, and science and technology (bestplaces.net).
Closing out this part of the State of Township with a word on development, specifically new home building. As mentioned, there are a lot of people moving into Cumberland County, its population growing by almost seven percent over the past six years. But, with more people comes pressures and increased demand not only on public services (i.e. roads, schools, hospitals, etc.) but also an obvious question – where are these people going to live? Based on a 2020 report from the Center for Land Use and Stability at Shippensburg University, population in Cumberland County exceeded its available housing stock in late 2013 and has remained high. This in itself may not necessarily be cause for alarm, if vacancy rates remain at a healthy point to provide selection it offers enough choices to keep cost of living down. Unfortunately, vacancy rates in South Middleton Township for single-family homes is almost zero. At the end of 2019, average days on the market for a home in South Middleton was 48 days; by the end of 2020, that number decreased to about one month. When there is high-demand, basic economic theory sees prices go up, and it has in South Middleton, by about 30 percent. This creates a two-pronged effect: it leads to more development with higher costs. The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University (2019) shows that U.S. households are cost burdened, paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing. These metrics are even starker in South Middleton. Return above to the median household income and housing costs to see for yourself.
To manage this growth, the Township has long engaged in a farsighted and progressive approach at land use planning. Our regulations, in particular our Subdivision, Land Development (SALDO), and Zoning Ordinances, along with our Official Map and Act 537 sewage planning documents guide development to areas most appropriate for it, ensuring the costs of new home construction is borne by the developer and not current (or future) taxpayers. A growing though misguided concern of some is that this increasing population and new home construction is gobbling up all of our prime farmland. It most definitely is not. As of today, through our sound zoning, 75 percent of the Township is set aside for agricultural use and woodland conservation. Suburban development zoning occupies less than 20 percent of South Middleton’s land area, and much of this area is situated outside of Carlisle Borough or along the Forge Road axis between Carlisle and Boiling Springs. This placement is to take advantage of already existing road access and sewer/water infrastructure and to preserve farms and open space.
Housing construction is highly dependent on market conditions and land use controls. The Township cannot control the former, but it can the latter. It is a delicate balance, and well-meaning though misguided suggestions to restrain growth, such as through unreasonably high minimum-lot acre sizes or building moratoriums, though sounding like they may help will not achieve the aims their proponents call for and may actually make matters worse. For example, such actions could make housing so unaffordable that it will exclude future generations from the dream of homeownership while also placing additional pressures on famers, who may not have sold before to now consider selling their land to meet pent-up demand. Neither of these scenarios are favored by this current Board of Supervisors. Instead, the Township has made it a priority to plan for all housing types, to meet all tastes and needs, while preserving open space. Both can (and are being) achieved together in South Middleton.
Finally, with development comes possible impact on schools. I will not speak on behalf of South Middleton School District. They have a highly competent board and staff and can do a much better job than I speaking on their long-term planning. What I can say is that Township staff and board members have regular meetings with our School counterparts where we discuss mutual matters of interest and concern, including housing pressures on schools. The purpose is to get ahead of matters that may require financing and investment of the taxpayers’ money. We have a unique situation in South Middleton, where the municipality and school district share the same area, which lends itself quite nicely to such cooperative planning.
The Township is currently reviewing its Comprehensive Plan which is perhaps our most important planning guide. Last updated in 2007, this document is the blueprint for Township long-term planning and informs land use, sewer expansion, parks and trails, road construction, and other infrastructure improvement strategies. Because projects influenced by it takes many years and millions of dollars to pay for, the plan is updated only every ten to 15 years. Late last year, the Township appointed a steering committee to guide Township staff in the development of the plan’s amendments. The updated plan will be presented to the Board of Supervisors for adoption later this summer. The information provided will then be used to make changes, if needed, to the Township’s Official Map, SALDO, or Zoning Ordinance.
Over the past decade, perhaps spurred by its access to I-81, Walnut Bottom Road has seen tremendous growth and interest in development. Early last year, the Board of Supervisors adopted the Walnut Bottom Road Corridor Master Plan. Complied by national planning firm Michael Baker, Inc., its purpose is to provide guidance for the smart and orderly development of the area, to anticipate and plan for not only foreseen demands on the Township but also to alleviate the area’s housing crisis. The plan calls for transforming the area’s 2,500 acres in a vibrant, walkable mixed-use town center with a variety of housing choices supported by neighborhood-scale businesses, regional employment opportunities, and unique dining, cultural, and public space amenities – all by the end of this decade. To support this development, the Township recently rezoned much of the area into a mixed use “Town Center” zone. South Middleton partnered with not only property owners in the area, but other stakeholders such as nonprofits, government entities, economic development consultants, and residents to provide guidance in the planning process. Already, a large mixed-use development is being planned at the former CenturyLink property, based around a comprehensive master plan made possible by this innovative town center zoning approach. The Walnut Bottom Road Corridor Master Plan can be found on the Township’s website, as can all the other documents mentioned in this State of the Township.
All of this growth is spurred along by our strong local economy, high-quality local schools, public amenities, and low taxes. To meet the demands placed on our infrastructure, in 2019 the Township began collecting a specially-dedicated Road Tax. This tax has provided much-needed assistance to us as we tackle road maintenance and improvements to over 150-miles of public roadways. As mentioned previously, the Township recently completed a comprehensive road system analysis of every square inch of our road network with the goal to proactively approach the system in a holistic manner, performing necessary periodic maintenance to prolong the network’s lifespan. Last year, the Township used this data and fully repaved Shugart Road, Heisers Lane, Cedar Street, Red Tank Road, and the entire Greenfield Development, along with two complete bridge replacements on Zion Road and Petersburg Road. West Hunter Road, Limestone Road, Copper Circle, Woodlawn Lane, Hillcrest Road, Emerald Circle, Buckthorn Drive, and Boxwood Lane were also repaved as part of the Municipal Authority sewer/water line replacement project. Additional maintenance or widening work took place on Lerew Road, Whiskey Springs Road, Petersburg Road, Spring Farm Circle, and Zion Road, along with 30 miles’ worth of re-lining and 55 miles of road-side spraying. Finally, our Road Crew also responded to six snow events last year, a nice respite from the 20 activations of the 2018-19 winter. This year, the Township plans on spending $2.5 million on road projects throughout the Township, which includes the replacement or restoration of two bridges on Pine School Road.
Transportation comes in many forms obviously, including in the air. The Carlisle Business Airport is located off of Petersburg Road in the northern end of the Township. According to a 2019 economic impact report issued by PennDOT, the total financial effect of the airport on the surrounding community was just over $8 million. A 2011 study conducted by the Cumberland Area Economic Development Corporation (CAEDC), the county’s economic development agency, recommended that the airport, currently privately owned, be acquired by a public entity in order to leverage additional State and Federal funding opportunities. A subsequent CAEDC report released eight years later made a similar recommendation and stated that such public ownership could be used to implement the airport’s long-term expansion plans and lead to an additional $10 million in economic growth to the region. After reviewing these documents, and other reports, and performing over three years of due diligence, the Township felt that the opportunity was now right to proceed with purchasing the Carlisle Airport. Already, the Township has used our position to leverage State financial support for the airport’s acquisition and future expansion. We are optimistic that we will receive a $3 million grant to assist us in the acquisition to be fully executed this summer. We also have lined up about $20 million of future expansion projects that will see the airport continue to be profitable and assume its rightful place as an anchor for commerce and travel in the Cumberland Valley. More information will be coming soon on this very exciting undertaking.
2021 marks the final year of the Township’s initial three-year municipal solid waste/recycling contract with Waste Management (formerly Advanced Disposal). The Township will have the option to extend this contract for two additional one-year increments, if the Supervisors see fit to do so. The Township will evaluate market conditions, particularly the cost of recycling to determine whether rebidding would be necessary or wise in 2022. As ratepayers, our residents must be made aware that the recycling market is exceptionally volatile. For instance, the average price of cardboard fell 85 percent in two years to $28 per ton in 2019 which correlated to significant cost increases in trash and recycling services nationwide. A recent New York Times article (2019) actually wrote that many municipalities are doing away with their recycling programs to save money. The Township’s current contract, negotiated in the midst of this unpredictable market, has sheltered our residents from these severe price fluctuations that has plagued other nearby communities and protected our recycling program.
Though I truly tried not bring-up COVID-19, it is difficult not to do so as I transition now to discussing parks and recreation. The pandemic came upon many of us quite unexpectedly. And though it treated us all in different ways, its influence on planning for leisure activities, whether it be going to dinner, attending a ballgame, or travelling, was felt by everyone. Many a holiday or trip was cancelled in 2020, and for a lot of people the only vacation to be found was in public parks. Last year, our Parks & Recreation staff kept our parks open as a refuge for those sheltering in place, and they worked extremely hard to keep as many recreational programs open as possible. All told, we were able to salvage over 200 planned programs/events. We were obliged to reimburse over 1,200 transactions for programs that had to be cancelled, but even this shows our prudence and dedication to safety while also striving to keep programs afloat for as long as we could, despite the pandemic. According to a recent article from Rice University’s Institute for Urban Research (2020), “During this time of heightened stress and anxiety, stay-at-home orders and social distancing, the respite provided by simple things like a walk or run in the park has proved to be more important than ever.” We agree completely. A silver lining of the pandemic has been renewed public appreciation for our Township parks and recreational programming.
This year, the Township will complete its master site development plan for our “Park Drive” parks, a total area of 145 acres. Located near the municipal campus, this includes South Middleton Park, Leaman Park, and the future Yellow Breeches Park. This comprehensive analysis will provide invaluable guidance to Township staff and local sports organizations for future investments and program development. A similar study was done for Spring Meadows Park in 2015. Regarding the Spring Meadows plan, this year we will construct a large playground and adult fitness track to be located in the center of the park. This project will be aided by a $366,500 grant from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Improvements, either recently completed or ongoing at our parks elsewhere include the installation of a new backstop at Woodcrafters Baseball Field. We paved and restriped the lower parking lot at South Middleton Park and installed new LED lights at the volleyball and tennis courts. We continue to plan for the construction of two new tennis courts and a pickle ball court there as well. Our memorial bench program continues to be popular, as is the work of the South Middleton Blue Bird Club, which installs and maintains scores of blue bird homes in our parks and along our various trails. Keep an eye out for efforts this year to build butterfly habitats in our parks as well. Picking back up on an earlier theme, protecting nature and open spaces, a recent major initiative of the Township has been tree planting. The U.S. Forest Service observes that trees can reduce temperatures and remove air pollutants, among many other benefits. To play our part in cleaning the environment, the Township recently began a multi-year reforestation project throughout South Middleton. Already, the Township has planted thousands of trees at South View and South Middleton Parks and elsewhere. Our Parks Master Plan will provide further guidance to us in this effort. The Township now has two certified arborists on staff to help us manage our overall tree canopy.
A natural extension of these efforts is further developing the Township’s already extensive trail network, now over ten miles in length. While most of these trails are in our parks, future trail work will now go directly into the community itself, to enhance overall pedestrian connectivity.
Trails are vital parts of any vibrant and healthy community. There is an erroneous belief that walking trails will have a negative impact on home values or pose a safety risk. Nothing can be further from the truth! Numerous studies have shown that the presence of a pedestrian trail actually increases property values. Texas A&M University (2018) recently analyzed nine separate studies and confirmed that “natural resource-based parks and open spaces (including trails) substantially enhance the value of (nearby) properties.” As for safety, criminal routine activities theory suggests that bad guys tend to ply their trade in places they are familiar with and offer them ease of access and escape. Nature trails connecting residential communities do not offer the typical criminal these advantages and are thus less likely to introduce crime to properties abutting trails. Also, with increased casual walkers, there are too many “eyes” to make criminal activity in such places worth undertaking. So, trails are good for your property values, contribute to your health, and are shown to be safe and a net benefit to the community. So, in 2021, the Township will perform a Township-wide active transportation plan, an analysis of our trails and sidewalks, very similar to the completed road analysis discussed earlier. Funded by a WalkWorks grant, this undertaking will enable us to plan for future trail installations in the Township. We are already underway in this effort. We received funding from the County’s Land Partnership program to extend the Letort Nature Trail an additional mile to the south from its current terminus at South Spring Garden Street. Though COVID-19 delayed this project a bit, it is moving fully forward now. The Township has partnered with the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy to preserve the historic Letort Spring watercress beds in this location, and it is our hope in the coming years to connect this area to our central parks system and developments via an extended walking trail network.
We continue to engage with our grant writing/economic development consultant firm (GMS Funding Solutions), which over the past five years has secured millions of dollars in funding for various projects and initiatives in the Township. A brief look at the Township’s recent budgets, including this year’s spending plan, will show how much importance we place on grant funding. Grants are a great way to maximize spending while minimizing the local tax burden.
A prime example of this can be found in the ongoing $2.8 million Children’s Lake restoration and rehabilitation project. Final design and permitting has wrapped up with work to start this summer (pushed back due to COVID-19). When it is complete there will be a new dam, improved spillways, a restored lake wall, and a number of other parking and pedestrian improvements. It is our intention to create a walkable network around the lake with plazas, sidewalks, and lighting to enable visitors to the village to safety walk around the entire area. This will include a new pedestrian plaza at the southern end of the lake that can be closed for special events. Bucher Hill Road will be made one-way to make the area safer for pedestrians and those fishing the lake, and will remove heavy truck traffic off of the new dam. The installation of brand new sidewalks on Front Street, currently in the planning process, may see that road turned into a one-way street as well, along with pedestrian safety improvements and improved parking areas for lake visitors and village residents.
Elsewhere in Boiling Springs, the Township recently secured a DCED Multi-Modal Transportation grant that will support a $1 million street-scaping and sidewalk improvement project along 1st Street. This project has been in the works for quite some time and is finally moving forward, despite a brief delay by COVID-19. The Township has partnered with engineering firm Traffic Planning & Design (TPD) to design the project with permitting and bidding to occur in the coming months. A similar project is in the works to install street-scaping and sidewalks from the Boiling Springs Tavern up Forge Road to the School District campus. This too may entail making part of the northern extension of Front Street one-way. All told, the Township has invested/will invest almost $5 million into the village of Boiling Springs over the next five years.
An area like South Middleton is rich in both historic and natural resources, therefore we feel it is our duty to protect them. In addition to ensuring the trees in our parks remain healthy, our arborist staff will continue to manage our Heritage Tree program. We are also looking to better preserve our historic structures and notable community artifacts. As you may know, the village of Boiling Springs is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The average age of structures in the village is 105 years old, with some buildings dating to before the Revolutionary War. These structures tell the story of our community. So, we will perform a comprehensive inventorying and analysis of all of the historic structures in the village. This will be an update to the last study that was conducted in the early 1980s. We hope that by knowing what buildings we have in the village, we can work with property owners to ensure they have the knowledge to properly manage and protect their properties for the long-term. Also, these structures will be included on the Township’s Official Map to bolster their enduring protection.
We will continue to proudly offer to Township residents access to our compost recycling facility year-round, on most days of the week and weekends – at no cost. This is almost unheard of at many similar municipal facilities. We also offer curbside brush pickup in the spring, leaf pickup during the fall, and street sweeping throughout the year – again, at no additional charge to our residents. What will be different this fall though will be the use of a brand-new vacuum truck, made possible by a $300,000 grant obtained through the Department of Environmental Protection. It was supposed to be here last fall but, you guessed it, COVID-19 delayed it. Gone now will be the days of having to bag the leaves and place them on the curb…we will just suck them up.
Also related to public works, we have always taken great care to ensure the waters in the Township were clean, but due to our growing urbanized footprint the Township is newly tasked with adhering to Federal mandates under Municipal Separate Storm System (MS4) regulations. This requires us to develop a robust set of storm water management plans to treat onsite all storm water entering into pipes and storm drains that are not treated at a treatment plant. Furthermore, due to our location in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the Township must also implement additional pollution reduction measures meant to clean the Bay. Our environmental planner is administering this program and provides that extra level of analysis to incoming building plans and developments to ensure our streams and waterways are protected. Though vital, some other MS4 projects may be costly. But, moving forward we are proud to say that, unlike some surrounding communities, South Middleton has no immediate plans to levy a storm water fee (erroneously called a “rain tax” by some) to fund this program. The Township did implement a fee to cover the Westgate development, but this was done to address an ongoing and unique storm water issue there. While some may see MS4 as another unfunded mandate we choose to see it as an opportunity to ensure that our waterways remain clean for generations to come. This is the essence of environmental stewardship.
A core function of government is providing for the public’s safety. In this effort, the Township continues to be served by a number of valued emergency services organizations and capable paid and volunteer personnel. The Township is partnering with our neighboring communities to review current funding and support for our fire and EMS companies, to ensure that they have the resources they need to recruit, attract, appoint, and retain volunteers. On average, the Township appropriates almost $600,000 annually to our fire and ambulance companies. As mentioned, the Township has long had a dedicated fire tax that supports our three fire companies. We have also enacted a tax rebate and credit program to provide an extra incentive to those who volunteer for these organizations. Words cannot adequately express how important these first responders are to our community. As such, the Board of Supervisors feels that we owe these men and women whatever support the Township can provide. The Township’s emergency management operations also had a vital and ongoing role in setting up the COVID-19 mass vaccination site at the UHaul location (former K-Mart) on Walnut Bottom Road in the Township.
The Township is looking forward to 2021. We have huge projects planned for this year and are excited to get started. Many are currently underway. We owe it to our taxpayers to continue to be good stewards of their money and to do the best we can to provide services at the highest levels, as we have done in the past. We celebrate all that we have accomplished over the past two centuries of the Township’s existence and look with promise towards the future. We owe it to all of those who have contributed towards making South Middleton Township what it is today to carry on their vision of what this place can be. COVID-19 has also had an impact on Township operations, knocked us around a bit but certainly not out. We will persevere.
Cory S. AdamsTownship Manager