Sewer lines aren’t a popular topic of conversation in most circles, but this year they’ve become a hot debate in Upper Mount Bethel Township. Wastewater systems are necessary to protect the environment, water quality and public health. Normally, a utility like this wouldn’t be controversial, but some residents are worried that an updated sewer system might open the door to rampant development.
Septic systems and cesspools around the Route 611 corridor are degrading, contaminating wells and local streams and producing a not-very-pleasant odor every time it rains. Under ACT 537, Pennsylvania municipalities are required to develop and maintain a plan for sewage facilities with a review and update every five years. Upper Mount Bethel’s plan was last adopted in 1992. One side is firmly against adding public sewer to the township in an effort to allow the community to preserve its rural nature, the other wants sewers to protect public health.
The issue of leaking sewage is a crisis. The installation of a new system presents an opportunity—control development by concentrating the lines in one area. Such an approach would help Upper Mount Bethel residents retain the rural characteristics of their township while also increasing its tax base.
Northampton County has already taken steps to assist with this strategy of targeted development by putting a LERTA, or Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance, in place in Upper Mount Bethel. A LERTA allows local taxing authorities to provide exemptions on improvements made to deteriorated industrial, commercial and other business properties. The school district, the County and the township all had to agree to the LERTA, but the tax breaks won’t last forever—the Ordinance has to be renewed every five years.
There are currently two LERTAs in Upper Mount Bethel, both along the Route 611 corridor. The one most open for development is located from the intersection of routes 512 and 611 north towards Portland. The second is near the intersection of Evergreen and Allegheny Roads. Currently there is little development within the LERTAs, but the areas are zoned general commercial and limited industrial. The lack of a sewer system won’t keep development out, but it might bring in less desirable businesses. Expanding the sewer lines from the existing facility in Portland would attract more sought-after industries like manufacturing. Without it, the development will still move in, but would probably feature warehouses with low wage jobs and more truck traffic.
Proposals include plans to install sewer lines down the Route 611 corridor from Portland Borough south to the Air Liquide plant on North Delaware Drive. With much input from the public, the supervisors approved an update to the plan on July 13th. With the conclusion of the sixty day period for public comment, the plan has been delivered to the engineer who will review all questions, address them under Act 537, and get comments from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission (LVPC) and the Delaware River Commission. The Upper Mount Bethel Supervisors will then have to vote on whether they want to send the proposal to the DEP.
Change can be scary even when it is necessary, but a new sewer system will give the residents some control over where and what kind of development will take root in their community. The County of Northampton feels so strongly about protecting public health and attracting higher wage jobs, it has put aside $450,000 in future grants for this project. The failing cesspools and septic systems in Upper Mount Bethel are a crisis, the LERTAs and grant funding present an opportunity. I’m hopeful the citizens of Upper Mount Bethel embrace this opportunity and choose to install a public sewer system.
Lamont McClure is the County Executive of Northampton.