North Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania
Keeping it local and lasting
A small Pennsylvania community commits to preserving its open spaces while supporting its home-grown businesses
North Whitehall Township is a 28.5-square-mile community of farms and small villages, nestled in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley. Its northern border is the Lehigh River; Allentown, the county seat, is located about 10 miles to the southeast. The area was originally the home of the Minsi Delaware Indians, but in the early 1700s, German immigrants began clearing the land, raising crops, and establishing settlements. Whitehall Township was formed in 1753; in 1810, it was divided into Whitehall, South Whitehall, and North Whitehall. North Whitehall Township has a current population of about 16,000. Its villages include: Ballietsville, Ironton, Laury’s Station, Neffs, Ormrod, Rising Sun, Schnecksville, and Orefield.
A town’s amenities
Open spaces and recreational opportunities are key amenities in North Whitehall. The township has seven parks and is home to the 1,108-acre Trexler Nature Preserve, which contains 18 miles of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding; deer, bison, and elk habitats; a well-stocked fishing creek; and the 29-acre Lehigh Valley Zoo. In addition, the Ironton Rail Trail, built from tracks of the defunct Ironton Railroad, offers 9.2-miles of safe, year-round connections to surrounding towns, and the township is also a partner in the Jordan Creek Greenway, a regional conservation initiative that connects several communities via a 14-mile, multi-use trail. North Whitehall also has several privately-owned golf courses, shooting clubs and ranges, and youth athletic organizations.
“We are very fortunate to have the Trexler Nature Preserve,” says Township Manager, Randy Cope. “That’s been a great thing for North Whitehall residents. And our parkland is very valuable. It’s something that our residents frequently use. Our trail systems are also very impactful to the surrounding community, not just our residents, offering them an opportunity to live a healthier lifestyle by recreating on our trails and in our parks.”
A plan for preservation
North Whitehall Township has a rich agricultural history, but over the past several years, more and more farmers have sold their farmland to developers and builders. In 2005, 56% of township land was vacant, or in use for agriculture or recreation; in 2020, that proportion had dropped to 36.5%. So, today, a major focus of the town’s administration, according to Cope, is increasing its farmland and open space preservation efforts. “We’ve been going through a lot of planning here at the township level,” he says. “And we’ve recently completed our Parks and Recreation and Open Space Comprehensive Plan (PROSP).”
The purpose of the PROSP is to improve the township’s quality of life by preserving the natural and cultural features of the community while simultaneously enhancing its parks, open space areas, and recreational programs. It was designed with a considerable amount of community input and feedback via public meetings and surveys, and it is, indeed, comprehensive. It outlines specific goals and action plans regarding: the maintenance and upkeep of the township’s parks; purchasing farms and vacant lands to preserve them from development; conserving and protecting wooded, wildlife, and environmentally sensitive areas and corridors; optimizing trails and pedestrian access in order to provide safe and expanded community connections; maintaining and growing local sports programs and recreational activities; and planning the structure of a township recreation department; among other items.
Growing the economy purposefully
Meanwhile, North Whitehall is also trying to promote a carefully-considered agenda of economic growth, with the understanding that its geography offers limited opportunities for large-scale industry — especially while it is so focused on preserving its open spaces and keeping them from being over-developed. “We’re very cautious when it comes to very large industrial businesses,” notes Director of Planning and Zoning, Jeffry Mouer. “There’s not a lot of big open spaces for big industry. So, we have to concentrate on the open space that we do have. We want to preserve as much as we can and utilize the open space to provide the right kind of development that conforms to the area. Putting the right kind of buildings in the right places is very important for the people and for the local economy.”
Today, the largest company in the township, employing over 500 people, is United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI), a natural and organic food company that operates out of a 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse that was constructed in Schnecksville in 2020. There’s also Jaindl Farms, a family-owned turkey farm and land development company that has been in business since 1936. “They produce over 800,000 turkeys a year,” Cope reports. “The majority of the land here that they own is primarily agricultural to support their turkey program with the necessary feed that the birds require. They’ve also saved and relocated a staple beverage company, A-Treat Soda; they brought it to their operations here in North Whitehall Township. They also purchased Twin Lakes Golf Course and completely renovated it. So, they own a lot of land in the township and they’ve been a great partner.”
Other local businesses include Horwith Trucks Inc., a truck dealer; OCS Logistics, a cold storage facility; Lehigh Carbon Community College, which offers over 90 programs ranging from associate degrees to workforce certificates to ESL and GED courses; Lehigh County Technical Institute, which provides technical education for grades 9-12; SAGE Truck Driving School; and Swagelok Products, manufacturers of tube fittings and components.
Taking care of local business
Supporting its locally-owned, small businesses tends to be more of a priority in North Whitehall than opting for runaway commercial development. “We don’t have a lot of chain restaurants or those sorts of things,” says Cope. “So, we’ve established things in our local ordinances that support our locally-owned businesses. We love to see that here.”
That support from the township has been particularly apparent lately as several new businesses have emerged from the detritus of the COVID pandemic. Mouer calls them “agra-tainment,” or more precisely, “craft production facilities” – things like micro-breweries, tasting rooms, and distilleries. “It actually started during COVID,” he recounts. “They didn’t know how long the pandemic was going to last and they were looking for things to do at home or on farms, barns, and wedding venues — getting their infrastructure ready for when the pandemic was gone.”
“I was getting inundated. So, we ended up developing ordinances that would take care of that,” he continues. “Now we are entertaining some plans for a distillery that is going to be on a farm; they’re using their own crops to make bourbon, and we’re working with them. Most recently, we had an inquiry of an existing historical building that they’re looking into making a tasting room. That’s something that this town needs: a modern type of economic development. We’re open to it; the ordinances were adjusted to cater to it. And once you see one in here, you’re going to see more.”
“The Comprehensive Plan actually backed all of this up,” Cope remarks. “In the assessment survey that was sent out to residents, one of the main things they wanted to see more of in the township was opportunities for entertainment. The residents are looking for things to do closer to home. So, it’s a very unique opportunity the township has created to support these resident-owned businesses and to bring a new dynamic to the township that people are going to enjoy going to. This is an area that is growing.”
Bouncing back from COVID
While “agra-tainment” entrepreneurs were busy creating a new home-grown industry, COVID caused the cessation of many township events and enterprises. Recreation and Communications Coordinator, Courtney Corona, notes that it only recently reintroduced its popular summer camp program with 155 children between the ages of 6-12, as well as the annual Senior Day, which was put on hiatus for three years. “We ran Senior Day for 13 or 14 years prior to the pandemic,” she relates. “Once it hit, the township decided to stop for a few years in order to protect our older more vulnerable population. We also plan to bring back our Veterans Day event, which lets us honor our veterans. We are also hosting our second annual Christmas tree lighting this year, which brings together a bunch of different community organizations and vendors, and gets the community together for our Christmas event.”
“The main event is the Schnecksville Fair,” says Cope. “It’s a large scale fair for the area with fireworks, vendors, rides, farm shows, derby racing, etc. that brings in thousands of visitors into the township. The community and the Board of Supervisors have been very supportive of those recreational efforts, understanding that that is what builds community. It gets the residents out to talk with each other; they see some neighbors that they haven’t seen in a long time.”
Infrastructure challenges and successes
Keeping up with infrastructure needs is a necessary agenda item for any municipality. Challenges for North Whitehall include: providing sustainable roadways to keep up with Lehigh Valley’s ever-increasing traffic flow; working with local developers to provide more pedestrian access throughout the township; and updating its 537 Plan, which is the Pennsylvania Sewage Facilities Act’s mandate for local municipalities to address sewage disposal needs and upgrades.
“We’ve been taking a very serious approach to our infrastructure here in the township,” Cope declares. “We recently completed the rehabilitation of a new bridge on Park Valley Road. That’s something that’s been on the township’s books for quite a long time – maybe eight to ten years. We’re also focusing on stormwater improvements to help some residents who have experienced flooding or poor drainage in close proximity to their homes, as well as troubled intersections. We’ve been working closely with Penn DOT, our engineers, and our public works staff to help these residents and to make their properties less impacted by the stormwater runoff. We also put some grants in to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development. We’re hopeful to receive those awards and find out how much we can obtain for five different stormwater projects in one grant application, and another application is for a stream bank restoration project in one of our parks.”
The coming decade
Going forward, Cope says that over the next ten years, he would like to see North Whitehall experience balanced growth. “Yes, we will need to attract new economic development opportunities for our residents for services and entertainment in the right corridors throughout the township,” he maintains, “but also to balance that commercial growth with preserving farmland and open space, which also preserves the heritage and culture of our township, which is very strong. I think we have a very unique opportunity here to be able to accomplish those goals. And I’m excited to see that play out over the next decade or so.”
*Farm photo credit: Connie-Fogel
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AT A GLANCE
North Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania
WHAT: A town of approximately 16,000
WHERE: Northwest of Allentown in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley region
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