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Quarry conflict could prompt East Rockhill tax increase


East Rockhill’s mounting expenses related to the ongoing Rockhill Quarry legal and zoning battle could result in a nearly 30 percent increase in municipal property taxes in the Upper Bucks municipality in 2019.

While a preliminary budget discussed earlier this autumn showed local real estate property taxes holding steady next year, a detailed analysis has since shown that the township could have to hike the local millage rate by 3 mills from the current 10.235 mills to 13.235 mills, a 29.3 percent year-over-year jump.

“As of the end of September 2018, $107,000 has been expended related to consultant expenses – legal and engineering – for the Rockhill Quarry only,” said Township Manager Marianne Morano.

“Should litigation continue for all of 2019, a real estate millage increase may be a consideration to cover Rockhill Quarry litigation expenses only.”

Should the 3-mill increase recently discussed by township officials be instituted in 2019, a home assessed at the township average of $40,000 would pay $120 more next year in municipal real estate taxes, Morano said.

A mill is equal to $1 of every $1,000 of a property’s assessed value. To calculate what the municipal tax on an East Rockhill property would be at the potential higher rate, multiply the assessed value of the property by 13.235 and then divide by 1,000.

For instance: An East Rockhill property assessed at $40,000 would owe $529.40 in annual municipal property taxes, should the 3-mill rate increase be approved by the board of supervisors. School and county taxes comprise a significantly larger portion of a resident’s property tax bill. The millage rate doesn’t apply to income tax, which is assessed as a percentage of income.

“The 2019 preliminary budget discussion remains ongoing and will be reviewed at the board of supervisors Nov. 27, 7 p.m. meeting,” Morano said.

Rockhill Quarry has been at the center of controversy since December last year when operations resumed there after being largely dormant since the early 1980s. Site owner Hanson Aggregates Pennsylvania holds that at least 500 tons of stone were removed annually from the site, but residents dispute the claim.

Richard E. Pierson Materials Corp. is working the site in support of its $224 million contract to provide asphalt for about seven miles of the Northeast Extension.

The quarry has been the subject of East Rockhill Zoning Hearing board meetings for months. The hearings have focused on Pierson and Hanson Aggregates Pennsylvania’s appeal of a township zoning officer decision that found that special exception approval from the zoning hearing board is needed to operate the quarry. Pierson also wants the green light to operate an asphalt plant at the site.

A sixth hearing on the matter was held Monday at Pennridge High School. The meeting included Township Solicitor Patrick Armstrong cross-examining Daniel Humes, a civil engineer representing the quarry. One highlight from the hours of questioning included Armstrong’s establishing that part of the internal road network at the quarry runs through a portion of the 267-acre property that is zoned resource protection.

Armstrong’s line of questioning at one point drove at the idea that inadequate analysis has been performed to establish that the quarry would conform with local natural resource protection rules.

In addition to the ongoing zoning dispute, East Rockhill has been seeking an injunction in federal district court that would effectively prevent Pierson and Hanson from building or operating an asphalt plant at the site until gaining approval and permits to do so from the township.

The injunction request also asks a judge to rule that the quarry be prevented from making any more land development improvements until it receives approval from East Rockhill. The quarry has filed counterclaims. No settlement has been reached, Morano said Tuesday (Oct. 30).

East Rockhill residents, especially those who live near the quarry, are concerned about its potential to cause air pollution, water pollution, intrusive noise, dangerous truck traffic, diminished property values and more. Naturally occurring asbestos from rock formations is also a worry.

The Department of Environmental Protection oversees extraction operations at the quarry, and to date, testing has come up negative for asbestos, the township said in an Oct. 25 posting on its website. “No blasting or extraction can occur until asbestos testing has taken place and results provided to DEP,” the township’s notice said.

Conservation-related special events would be permitted, too; so would retail stores serving as accessories to vineyards and wineries, as well as uses allowed by conditional approval in the underlying zoning district.

Local officials have repeatedly stressed that the businesses listed in the ordinance would not be allowed on the easement-protected conserved acreage on properties, but in those properties’ building envelopes.

Building envelopes refer to acreage on an otherwise conserved property in which some development/improvements are allowed to occur. Usually, the envelopes are small relative to the size of the conserved land on a property.

Wrightstown is not looking to allow improvements on the much larger portions of properties that fall inside the conservation easement, officials have said.

Officials have also emphasized that the select operations detailed in the proposed ordinance would be allowed only if the person/group wishing to establish such a use obtained conditional use approval from the township.

In zoning terms, conditional use permits come into play as exceptions that allow property owners to use their land in ways not otherwise permitted in a zoning district. As such, neighboring residents would be notified and there would be a public hearing before one of the businesses could receive approval.

Furthermore, the ordinance says that an applicant wishing to operate one of the businesses detailed in the ordinance in the building envelope of a conserved property would have to share their plans – and get feedback from – the grantee, co-grantee and/or holder or beneficiary of the conservation easement.

If those think the envisioned use isn’t permitted or not permitted at the intensity proposed, then the use will not be allowed, the ordinance states.

“Wrightstown Township’s interest in adopting a conservation easement overlay ordinance is twofold,” Wrightstown Supervisor Jane Magne has said. “We want to attract owners of large tracts to preserve them in a conservation easement. We also want to assure that there are economically viable uses for preserved land so the properties are sustainable and do not become derelict or the easements are not challenged by landowners as no longer viable.”

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