The legal victory for a small township in the Poconos Mountains against a massive logistics development project underlines the importance of updated zoning ordinances that close loopholes and prevent environmental harm.
On Thursday, January 11, 2024, the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas upheld Coolbaugh Township’s Zoning Hearing Board decision that a proposed “warehouse” is actually a “distribution center/truck terminal” under the township’s zoning ordinance definition and is therefore not permitted as a special exception use on the property that sits near Tobyhanna Creek, a designated High-Quality stream.
In its decision, the court ruled that “the Applicant (appellant) presented absolutely no evidence to prove this large building was in fact a ‘warehouse’.’’
“For two years, PennFuture and the Coolbaugh community have fought to protect their homes, health, and the special protection headwaters of the Delaware River from big logistics development. The Coolbaugh Township Zoning Hearing Board provided a fair and thorough process to all sides, gave deep consideration to the issues, and made a sound and evidence-supported decision. These developers tried, but ultimately failed, to hide their true intent: to pour concrete for a massive distribution center that will run semi-truck traffic 24 hours a day. This win proves that early intervention and well-written zoning ordinances can make a difference in the local land use process.” — PennFuture attorney Emma Bast, who intervened in support of the Coolbaugh Township ZHB in the appeal.
In 2022, developer-applicant Evergreen Farms submitted plans for a purported ‘warehouse’ at 174 Memorial Boulevard in Coolbaugh Township. Tobyhanna Creek runs adjacent to and, at some points, traverses the property. The C-3 Zoning district allows “warehouses” by special exception, but does not allow for “distribution center/truck terminals” at all. Evergreen Farms was asking the Zoning Hearing Board for a special exception so they could build a 460,000-square-foot building, with 96 docks for continuous truck loading, 248 employee parking spaces, and parking for up to 98 semi-trailers. The proposed facility would be operating 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday, with 270 trucks entering and leaving the property, one every 5-6 minutes.
Coolbaugh Township’s Zoning Hearing Board determined the proposed building was a “distribution center/truck terminal” and denied the application. Evergreen Farms appealed this decision, and the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas heard oral arguments on December 18, 2023.
The Coolbaugh Township case inspired PennFuture’s Legal Team to draft the Model Municipal Ordinance & Guidebook last year. The zoning battle demonstrated a need for Pennsylvania’s municipalities to adopt clear and straightforward zoning ordinances, and definitions of different types of logistics facilities that fit with modern ecommerce operations. Construction plans are often submitted on spec and without naming an end user. Clear, updated definitions bring township zoning ordinances into the modern shipping and logistics era, and ensure that these massive structures are truly only being built where they are supposed to be. Coolbaugh Township has prevailed here and now, and other municipalities can prevent similar confusion and lengthy legal process by updating their ordinances before the next development is proposed.