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Palmer Township’s warehouse boom has redefined a community. Why everyone in the Lehigh Valley needs to pay attention

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The Chrin Commerce Center in Palmer Township has 6 million square feet of warehouses, seen on Nov. 30, 2023. (Saed Hindash | Courtesy of lehighvalleylive.com)
The Chrin Commerce Center in Palmer Township has 6 million square feet of warehouses, seen on Nov. 30, 2023. (Saed Hindash | Courtesy of lehighvalleylive.com)

Editors’ Note: The following is a collaboration between mcall.com and lehighvalleylive.com. The websites, affiliated with 첥Ƶ and The Express-Times in Easton have historically been competitors and will remain so. But editors from both newsrooms met in early June to discuss partnering on an issue that we believe deserves more attention — the proliferation of warehouses in the Lehigh Valley. Reporters, photojournalists, and others from both outlets worked together for several months on this story, which explores the Valley-wide ramifications of rapid warehouse development in Palmer Township — both in the immediate and surrounding communities. We hope this is the first of a number of collaborations between the newsrooms. 

Hazel DeReamus has lived on Main Street in the small borough of Tatamy for more than 50 years.

The previous owner of her modest-sized home once sold appliances out of a small shop built into the home’s west side.

That would be unthinkable today. The once-quiet street is now a throughway for thousands of vehicles every day, including tractor-trailer after tractor-trailer heading for the highway.

It’s no longer safe to park on or cross Main Street, DeReamus said.

“I can’t get out of my driveway,” the widow and retiree said.

Hazel DeReamus stands outside her home Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, as traffic passes by Main Street in Tatamy. The two-lane street, which is being widened at one end of Tatamy, has been a source of contention to DeReamus and others in the borough since the Chrin Interchange opened in 2015, leading to more traffic. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
Hazel DeReamus stands outside her home Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, as traffic passes by Main Street in Tatamy. The two-lane street, which is being widened at one end of Tatamy, has been a source of contention to DeReamus and others in the borough since the Chrin Interchange opened in 2015, leading to more traffic. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

DeReamus and others say their quality of life has been altered dramatically by the rise of warehouses in neighboring Palmer Township. In the last two decades, 6 million square feet of them have cropped up on land long used to grow corn. That’s enough square feet to fit 37 PPL Centers.

Today, some — even elected officials — are questioning whether Palmer Township could have stalled some of the warehouse development, or planned it more effectively. The ongoing debate in the community mirrors what’s happening in other Lehigh Valley towns where developers can’t build warehouses fast enough to meet demand.

Communities like Palmer Township are raking in real estate tax revenue from the landowners and earned income tax revenue from the workers.

Yet critics say those benefits are outweighed by quality-of-life issues: noise, traffic and the increased need to invest in police, emergency services and road maintenance.

Rise of the Chrin Commerce Centre

The Chrin Commerce Centre was the definition of “new urbanism.”

Charles Chrin had a vision for about 1,000 acres of farmland in the township’s north end. He dreamed of a cluster of warehouses mixed with office buildings, retailers, restaurants, maybe a hotel or two.

In 2002, the real estate developer proposed a Route 33 interchange on Main Street near Tatamy to attract commercial development. Chrin, who died in 2018, would pay some of the $30 million-$40 million needed to build the interchange. A plan to defer tax revenue for the next 10-20 years, known as tax increment financing, would cover the rest.

“The new urbanism concept promoted the creation of diverse, compact neighborhoods with open space and plenty of sidewalks,” said Greg Chrin, Charles Chrin’s son and president of the Charles Chrin Cos.

The Route 33 interchange was paid for through a tax increment finance program, seen on Nov. 30, 2023. Saed Hindash | Courtesy of lehighvalleylive.com
The Route 33 interchange was paid for through a tax increment finance program, seen on Nov. 30, 2023. Saed Hindash | Courtesy of lehighvalleylive.com

DeReamus, the Tatamy resident, remembers those early plans.

“Originally Chrin said there would be little stores that people could go up there and shop, get a pizza or whatever,” DeReamus said. “There was going to be housing.”

Construction of a Woodspring Suites hotel now is underway. There’s also a Wendy’s fast food restaurant and a Sheetz gas station and convenience store.

But those developments are overshadowed by warehouses.

Former Palmer Township Supervisor David Colver said the township envisioned retail development spurring the commercial development, but it worked out the other way around.

No one expected the e-commerce boom 20 years ago, and nobody knew how COVID-19 would accelerate demand for buying goods online.

Colver equated the pandemic to pouring “rocket fuel” on warehouse developers’ plans.

With people working from home, the demand for office space evaporated, Colver said. The demand for retailers and restaurants was nowhere near as strong as the demand for warehouses.

Still, while the “new urbanism” plan changed, that doesn’t mean the new development is a failure, Colver said.

That land wasn’t going to remain cornfields forever, he said. A developer could have built hundreds of homes, and the community would have had to expand or build schools to educate all those new children.

“The Easton Area School District was very vocal: They did not want homes,” Colver said.

Instead, township officials agreed to rezone the land from agricultural use to pave the way for commercial development. The land was far enough away from neighboring homes, making it the ideal place to grow businesses like warehouses, Colver said. He said the tax plan, rezoning and commerce center were a solid strategy for growth.

“I stand by it 100%. It was well thought out,” he said.

Voters didn’t see it that way. After 24 years on the Board of Supervisors, Colver lost reelection in 2021. He blamed the loss partly on a campaign by his opponents to rein in warehouse development.

In the last two decades, 6 million square feet of warehouses have cropped up in Palmer Township on land long used to grow corn. That’s enough square feet to fit 37 PPL Centers.

David Colver poses Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023, near a construction site in Chrin Commerce Centre in Palmer Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
David Colver poses Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023, near a construction site in Chrin Commerce Centre in Palmer Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

Too late to rethink warehouse development?

The new chair of the Board of Supervisors, Michael Brett, declined to comment for this story. The board has been sued and also faces threats of litigation from developers concerning  warehouse development.

In a joint statement approved by the township attorney, Palmer Township supervisors said the township incentivized development when it should have been controlling it.

“Private industry and those who pushed hardest for the TIF should answer whether a more economically diverse development, attractive to Palmer residents and resilient to market trends, was ever a realistic outcome,” the supervisors said.

Commercial Realtors, however, said new Palmer Township supervisors like Brett can try to curb warehouse development, but they’ll never stop it.

Land is a lot cheaper in the Lehigh Valley than in New Jersey, according to Loren Keim, a professor of real estate and program manager for Lehigh University’s Murray H. Goodman Center for Real Estate Studies.

Goods stored in the Lehigh Valley are easily shipped to and from the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas.

The Chrin Commerce Centre is right off Route 33, a major highway feeding into Interstates 78 and 80. Demand for online goods is sky high, Keim said, making it tough for communities such as Palmer to go against that economic flow.

“It’s hard to try and figure it out,” Keim said. “Warehouses are going to get built one way or another somewhere.”

Retail doesn’t work at the Chrin Commerce Centre site, according to Lehigh Valley commercial real estate broker Steve Cihylik.

“They might have wished to have all kinds of retail,” Cihylik said, “but … there is not enough demographic density.”

Traffic alone isn’t enough reason to put the brakes on warehouse development, according to Matt Sprung, a commercial real estate broker and land use planner who also serves on the Forks Township Planning Commission.

Land planners need to do a better job of managing that traffic, he said.

“It’s a reason to plan better to accommodate that growth, because Forks needs commercial development. Palmer needs commercial development,” Sprung said.

The Chrin Commerce Center in Palmer Township has 6 million square feet of warehouses, seen on Nov. 30, 2023. Saed Hindash | Courtesy of lehighvalleylive.com
The Chrin Commerce Center in Palmer Township has 6 million square feet of warehouses, seen on Nov. 30, 2023. Saed Hindash | Courtesy of lehighvalleylive.com

Some Lehigh Valley communities, including Lower Nazareth and Lower Macungie townships, have been working to restrict further warehouse development. Lower Nazareth has adopted an ordinance to ban future construction of warehouses in its light industrial zoning district. Companies seeking warehouse space in Lower Nazareth in the future will have to look in areas zoned general industrial, which has limited space.

In addition, state Rep. Michael Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, recently authored a bill that would give municipalities more ability to have a regional lens on decisions related to such major development.

Impact felt inside, outside township borders

The Chrin Commerce Centre is bordered by an industrial park to the south, an asphalt plant to the west and a quarry to the north. But neighbors to the east are close enough to feel a direct impact, particularly in Tatamy.

Tatamy Borough Manager Mark Saginaro said he gets complaints all the time from residents upset with warehouse-related traffic, noise and hassles.

“We consistently get, ‘I know you can’t do anything about it but here are my frustrations,’ ” he said.

A warehouse developer financed the improvement of a couple of key intersections on Main Street in Tatamy, but not much else. Two warehouses are in Tatamy — C.F. Martin & Co. and Mondelez — with a third in the planning stage. But most of the traffic comes from warehouses in Palmer, which means Tatamy doesn’t see the tax-revenue windfall yet deals with all the hardships, Saginario said.

C.F. Martin & Co.'s warehouse is seen Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, in Palmer Township. Martin is the only Lehigh Valley company with a presence in the massive Chrin Commerce Centre development in Tatamy and Palmer Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)
Frank Untermyer, director of supply chain management for C.F. Martin & Co., stands Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023, in the company’s warehouse in Palmer Township. Martin is the only Lehigh Valley company with a presence in the massive Chrin Commerce Centre development in Tatamy and Palmer Township. (April Gamiz/첥Ƶ)

The borough had to hire a part-time police officer to monitor increased traffic on Main Street. Traffic has more than doubled on that road since 1999.

Saginario said Tatamy should get a share of the warehouse tax revenue, the same way neighboring communities get a share of the revenue from the Wind Creek Bethlehem casino.

“I’m a strong proponent that the municipalities planning code needs to be changed so developers not only have to pay the hosting municipalities but the other municipalities they affect,” Saginario said.

Greg Zebrwowski, former chair of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, sees a similar traffic impact on Route 412 from industrial development in south Bethlehem.

“The problem with warehouse planning is they have not taken into account the insufficient infrastructure that surrounds these developments and the impact it is having on local communities,” said Zebrowski, a former Northampton County Council member.

You don’t need to be a direct neighbor to the Palmer Township warehouses to feel their traffic impact.

For about a decade, Lower Mount Bethel Township officials have requested the state conduct road studies and restrict weight, speed limits and sizes of trucks on its roads, particularly narrow Front Street, which runs in the village of Martins Creek and is about 5 miles from the Route 33/Tatamy interchange.

Township Supervisor Samantha Burns said the effort hasn’t led to a reduced size and speed of some trucks on the road.

Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spokesperson Ron Young said a five-year review of crashes found most accidents along Front Street were not due to speeding. He said a lower speed limit isn’t warranted, but the agency has installed signs telling truckers to take Route 611 while heading south out of Lower Mount Bethel, rather than use Front Street.

Burns said Front Street, Uhler Road and Main Street are crumbling under the weight of the increased number of tractor-trailers.

“They don’t stay on the highways,” Burns said. “That is what they should do, stay on the highways.”

Nazareth Mayor Lance E. Colondo isn’t a big fan of warehouses, either.

“We take a lot of complaints from residents about increased truck traffic and road damage,” Colondo said. “Since we’re in the borough, we aren’t the ones dealing with developers coming to us and wanting to put in warehouses, but we have to deal with traffic and issues that come with the warehouses.”

Nazareth Borough Council President Dan Chiavaroli said he directed the borough planning commission to work with regional planners to investigate the traffic problem.

Tim Fisher lives in a 55-and-older community in Palmer Township, just south of the Chrin Commerce Centre. The neighbors keep fighting plans for warehouses near their community off Van Buren Road south of Newlins Mill Road.

They have kept the warehouses out, but not the trucks, Fisher said.

“We just wanted to have our way of life” and not be hurt by such things as “noxious fumes,” said Fisher, who moved into the development around 2010.

Within Palmer Township, warehouses have increased the demand for road maintenance, capital projects, emergency apparatuses and police protection, according to the joint statement from the township supervisors.

The replacement of the Hollo Road bridge over a small stream cost $1 million, “funds which, even if the township were receiving its full allocation of taxes after the TIF, would consume any surplus before accounting for any of the other increased costs to the township,” the supervisors said.

“The problem with warehouse planning is they have not taken into account the insufficient infrastructure that surrounds these developments and the impact it is having on local communities. — Greg Zebrowski, former chair of the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.

Warehouse benefits

Warehouse supporters say they create local jobs for residents.

C.F. Martin & Co., for instance, is a mainstay of the Nazareth area. It opened a warehouse in Tatamy near the Route 33 interchange that employs 22 people. The company is known internationally for its handcrafted Martin guitars.

Yet how many people work in or near the Chrin Commerce Centre isn’t clear.

One report from 2013 speculated the warehouses would create 5,000 jobs.

When asked to provide an estimate of how many people work in the warehouses based on earned income tax data, however, Palmer Township officials were unable to do so. Palmer said Berkheimer Associates collects the township’s taxes and is the custodian of that data, yet Berkheimer said that data is confidential. So did the state.

“Unfortunately, taxpayer laws prohibit us from disclosing information on any taxpayer’s account, whether it’s an individual or a business,” said Kendra Martin, a spokesperson with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

The UPS hub warehouse at 1620 Van Buren Road, seen on Oct. 28, 2023. (Saed Hindash | Courtesy of lehighvalleylive.com)
The UPS hub warehouse at 1620 Van Buren Road, seen on Oct. 28, 2023. (Saed Hindash | Courtesy of lehighvalleylive.com)

Greg Chrin touted the jobs created by the development.

Wages for occupations in the transportation and material moving sectors average $21.70 per hour, according to data from the Lehigh Valley Workforce Board. The average hourly wage for all jobs in the Lehigh Valley is $25.76, according to data from Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.

“The mixed feelings are these are not necessarily high-paying jobs, and warehouses don’t have the same employees as a factory,” said Keim, the Lehigh University professor. “But they are hiring more people.”

Yet the thousands of semi-skilled jobs don’t justify Palmer Township’s proliferation of warehouses, according to the township supervisors’ statement. The development should have been planned better and neighbors’ needs should have been taken more seriously, the statement says.

“Board leadership provided misguided direction and lack of transparency into the details of the TIF; it did not ensure the diverse and managed growth necessary for a resilient, sustainable development,” it said.

“The TIF succeeded in supercharging privately owned land values on the back of taxpayer funded infrastructure improvements. However, it did little to improve the day-to-day lives of Palmer Township residents.”

Colver said he’s pleased to have helped oversee the development of the Chrin Commerce Centre, regardless of what his neighbors or the voters might think.

Working with the Chrin family rather than against it helped get the Charles Chrin Community Center built, along with a turf athletic field and the Miracle League ballfield for special needs children.

Other townships marvel at the resources available for Palmer Township, Colver said.

DeReamus grudgingly acknowledges Palmer’s rationale for promoting commercial development over homes. While Palmer gets the real estate tax revenue, Tatamy gets the traffic, she said.

More and more farmland is being excavated to make way for more and more warehouses, she said.

She shook her head recently on her way to Planet Fitness when she passed an excavation crew hard at work. On a Sunday.

When it comes to building warehouses, there is no day of rest, she said.

“My gosh. They’re just inundating us with them,” she said.

Morning 첥Ƶ reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at asalamone@mcall.com.

Lehighvalleylive.com reporter Rudy Miller may be reached at rmiller@lehighvalleylive.com.

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