Residents react to downtown redevelopment plans

By on May 31, 2017

As expected, the Record Express’ exclusive on plans to repackage the former Wilbur Chocolate plant created quite a stir among local residents last week.

The report on the newspaper’s Facebook page drew incredible interest with a reach of more than 35,500, 153 story shares and 72 comments.

In all, more than 78 percent of 177 people who weighed in “liked,” “loved” or were “wowed” by Lancaster-based Oak Tree Development Group’s announced plan to purchase the property from Cargill Inc., to add five new buildings, upscale loft-style apartments, a 70-room boutique hotel, sit-down bistro and small retail shops.

“Glad to see something finally going into the old factory,” said Ethan Smith, referring to the 20 months of uncertainty over the fate of the North Broad Street 11-plus acre property that is a major part of Lititz’s energetic downtown.

Elected officials and economic experts have hailed the plan which Oak Tree President Mike O’Brien said will “positively impact a small town like this.”

Many of the 22 percent on Facebook who either “hated” or were “sad” over the report commonly objected to Oak Tree’s plan to build a pair of condominium-style structures offering 55-plus living.

For instance, 50 people supported Rachel Millard Horst’s comment that it appears 55-plus communities are “going up all over the place here.”

“What about the families that are just starting out that want a little more space?” she asked. “Why aren’t we focusing on that?”

Rebecca West echoed that sentiment stating it would “be nice to have affordable retirement options, for those of us without pensions.”

However, David Lucas rightfully pointed out that a successful developer likely would not include the 55+ housing as part of a larger project if there was not a demand for it.

“Given the aging demographic trends of today and tomorrow, I’m not so sure it is accurate to say we have too many retirement living options already in Lititz,” Lucas noted. “The number of Americans aged 65 or older is projected to rise from 40 million in 2010 to nearly 72.8 million in 2030, and to 83.7 million in 2050.”

Others suggested the cost of living increases could adversely change the demographics in Lititz.

Brad Luck, a life-long Lititz resident, suggested the town is “on its way to becoming an elitist-only community. How much longer till I’m pushed out for not being up to snuff?”

But perhaps the most impassioned objections about the proposed development came from those opposed to the losing two baseball fields currently used by Warwick Little League on the property and the possible loss the annual fireworks at Lititz Springs Park.

Kathy Schnell Esterby endorsed the renovation of the former Wilbur plant, echoed the sentiment about an overabundance of 55-plus housing, and lamented the loss of the baseball fields and likely shift in how the July 4th fireworks display will change at Lititz Springs Park.

“I like what they are doing with the existing building, but those baseball fields are important to the youth of the community,” she noted. “I know they say they will help relocate, but developers keep building on open space. Where will they relocate the fields? The article also glossed over the 4th of July fireworks. Don’t they set them off from up there?”

Tuesday’s Lititz Borough Council meeting drew several people asking for clarification on the impact of the proposed mixed-use project — especially concerns by Warwick Little League parents and the July 4 fireworks at Lititz Springs Park.

Parents and others hoping to save the fields have started a group called Save Wilbur Fields.

Meanwhile, Spencer Todd, president of Warwick Little League, reiterated that he and other community leaders are actively seeking alternative fields for next season’s Little League games.

People at the meeting noted that Lititz’s Fourth of July fireworks are set up in the same Wilbur fields adjacent to Lititz Springs Park and asked where the fireworks could be safely relocated.

Jeff Rinehimer, president of the Lititz Springs Park Board, was told preliminary plans will first go through the Lititz Borough Planning Commission and the public will be informed as to the process.

Oak Tree expects to submit plans to the borough in 60 days. The firm hopes to get them approved by year-end, start construction in early 2018, and complete the venture by March 2019.

Elijah Yearick, Lititz Director of Planning & Community Development, said Oak Tree would likely first submit for zoning relief and conditional use for the partial demolition of the Wilbur plant at the same time — and go through the process concurrently.

Oak Tree is currently developing plans while Lititz is concluding an update of a map amendment for the downtown area zoning, “something that we’ve been working on for several months,” Yearick added.

“So my guess is we’ll be seeing formal applications once the map amendment process is completed,” he said.

The zoning map changes will be discussed at the June 6 planning commission meeting. The Wilbur site is zoned industrial, as are all of the properties along the railroad tracks with a few exceptions, including Lititz Springs Park and the Parkview Hotel, Yearick said.

The rezoning is actually tied to the 2008 downtown plan, which was discussed in previous comprehensive plans, including one currently being updated.

“The main issue with the zoning is that while it allows many appropriate uses, there are many which we don’t feel are appropriate for the downtown,” Yearick said.

Some of those deemed inappropriate in downtown Lititz would be repair garages, gas stations, and warehousing.

The borough began working on zoning amendments ahead of the expected building proposals made for the Wilbur property, and possibly the former Susquehanna site, “so that we wouldn’t find ourselves facing one of these uses proposed for,” Yearick said.

“Fortunately Oak Tree’s plans are closely aligned with the vision set forth in the downtown plan,” he said. “We’ve discussed this with them and are taking their suggestions into consideration as we move forward.

Patrick Burns is social media editor and senior staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at pburns.eph@lnpnews.com or at 721-4455.

2 Comments

  1. Jim Reed

    June 2, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    It sure is a sad time for me who grew up in Lititz to hear that again “Outside Business” can destroy history and traditions in small town America. One of America’s greatest small towns at that!
    To see the baseball fields go is terrible, and now the fireworks site. Wow, I hope Lititz can fight back to save these two values that have built the area and the youth. There needs to be a place for the youths play and also the fireworks site brings us all back home.
    If it can’t be saved that you to Oak Tree.

  2. Gina Yoder

    June 4, 2017 at 8:19 am

    It is grossly misleading to lump the “wow” reactions with the “likes” and “loves.” I, for one, marked “wow” to indicate “Wow, this is appalling and awful news.”

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