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Monroe County’s economic development lawsuit will decide the future of the Poconos

Coolbaugh Township Supervisors debated strengthening the township's stormwater ordinance on May 21. Pocono Mountain Industries and Orchard BJK Company, LLC sued the township for the ordinance on May 3.
Isabela Weiss | WVIA News | Report for America
Coolbaugh Township Supervisors debated strengthening the township's stormwater ordinance on May 21. Pocono Mountain Industries and Orchard BJK Company, LLC sued the township over the ordinance on May 3. Township supervisors from left to right: Alma Ruiz-Smith, Lynn Kelly, William Weimer, Clare Colgan and Cara Rogan.

A dispute over Coolbaugh Township’s authority could alter municipalities’ power to revise ordinances.

Monroe County’s economic development organization and a private landowner are suing Coolbaugh Township over municipal ordinance changes that expand wetland buffers for new development.

Township officials say the changes, approved in August 2023, create additional protections for wetlands and nearby waterways.

Pocono Mountains Industries (PMI) and Orchard BJK Co., in a suit filed May 3 in Monroe County Court, argue that the township’s Board of Supervisors acted arbitrarily to restrict development. They contend the move violated Pennsylvania’s Constitution by discriminating against developers, and caused a multi-million dollar loss to properties the parties seek to develop in the township.

The suit also raises potentially larger questions about municipalities’ ability to revise ordinances governing development. The battle comes as developers, local lawmakers and residents in the Poconos are at odds over warehouse expansions across the region.

PMI argues in the lawsuit that the township made their undeveloped land, around 500 acres, nearly unusable. The board increased the township’s inner wetland buffers by 100 feet and outer buffers by 50 feet. That limits the land developers can legally build on.

Charles Leonard, PMI’s executive director, said Orchard may not purchase PMI’s land if the township keeps its restrictive wetland regulations. That sale is vital to PMI and its parent company, Pocono Mountains Economic Development Corporation’s (PMEDC) success. Leonard is also PMEDC’s president.

He said PMI is expected to lose a minimum of $11 million if the court upholds the township’s decision. PMEDC’s Marketing Director Michelle Bisbing added that PMI’s undeveloped land in Coolbaugh was worth $30 million before the Aug decision and is now worth $19 million. Those numbers are based on appraisal information PMI is still assessing, so Leonard said the exact figures may change.

That revenue loss could financially devastate PMEDC, said Bisbing. She and colleagues discussed reforming their organization under a new name if PMI cannot stay afloat.PMI’s total net assets as of 2022, its most recent tax form, is negative $3,054,334.

Leonard admitted his company is struggling to break even on their investment. He told township supervisors, “as of December 31, 2022…the total outstanding debt that remains attached to the acquisition, subdivision, development of, these Industrial and Business Parks was $11,946,818,” in a letter dated Apr. 15. Township supervisor Cara Roganpublished the letter on social media.

The lawsuit alleges the township did not have the legal right to change developers or economic organizations’ authority over township lands. It criticizes Rogan for “leading the charge in Northern Monroe County to stop overdevelopment of commercial warehousing space,” quoting herLinkedIn profile.

Coolbaugh's board responds to the lawsuit

Rogan is not worried about the lawsuit. She stands by the board’s decision.

“I’m representing what the people want, not what a handful of people want,” said Rogan. “Whether or not everyone in the real estate world likes that is not my concern, because they don’t live here. I do. And so do constituents, and that’s my main concern.”

She’s part of local emergency services and has seen an alarming rise in floods.

“Local governments have to take more of a preemptive role. Especially considering the number one problem we’re having in Monroe County everytime we get heavy rains and things is it floods everywhere. That’s becoming a big public safety issue,” said Rogan.

Coolbaugh Supervisor Bill Weimer said the board has the right to prioritize the environment. The board debated adding more regulations to the ordinance at its May 21 meeting. The county requires all municipalities to review their stormwater ordinance every five to ten years. Weimer sees it as the perfect opportunity to further protect the township.

“We’ve had a couple [stormwater] systems fail and there’s been no accountability to any check-ups,” said Weimer. “So, the idea to that is, is that we have the ability then [for] anything new that comes in, they are built in to have inspections to ensure compliance with the law.”

Weimer emphasized the change would keep taxpayers from having to pay for repairs. Other changes include giving the township the ability to revoke developers’ permits if their completed warehouse deviates from their design plans, according to PMI’s Economic Development Specialist Rachel Hendricks.

Michelle Bisbing speaks to township supervisors on May 21. She is Pocono Mountains Economic Development Corporation’s Marketing Director.
Isabela Weiss | WVIA News | Report for America
Michelle Bisbing speaks to township supervisors on May 21. She is Pocono Mountains Economic Development Corporation’s Marketing Director.

Hendricks called the changes “onerous” at the May 21 meeting. She fears developers will be too afraid of breaking township rules to take on the risk of starting new projects.

“It makes for a very unstable investment opportunity, leaving those interested in investing in Coolbaugh, whether for residential or commercial purposes or industrial, wondering if they even will be able to put any cost or timeframe to their projects,” said Hendricks.

PMEDC’s Leonard said PMI will not see a return on their investment in Coolbaugh because of the township’s decision. He fears the company is in danger of becoming “insolvent.”

Residents side with township supervisors

Residents cheered on the board’s plan to further strengthen the township’s stormwater ordinance. Jim Miller thanked the board for protecting the community. He is a member of Coolbaugh Township Citizens for Responsible Growth, a local protest organization against overdevelopment.

“What I’ve heard in [PMI and Orchard’s] presentations is an emphasis on business, not so much the environment,” said Miller. “And I believe that what we’re talking about here…is an emphasis on the environment.”

Grassroots groups from other municipalities have gotten involved with Coolbaugh’s push against warehouses.

Lisa Buchholz, president of Pocono Regional Citizens Group, told PMI that overdevelopment is taking over the Poconos. She listed the number of pending and completed warehouses in nearby townships. Pocono Regional is a protest organization made up of residents from mostly Pocono and Jackson townships in Monroe County.

“Then you have Kidder Township which has five. Then you have Jackson [Township] which has two, and then Pocono [Township] which has one. And these are 700,000 square foot facilities and more. One, two, up there is going to be two million square feet,” said Buchholz. This is a lot of trucks that are going to be on our roads.”

However, the plaintiffs argue the township abused its power by making warehouses by limiting what a county’s economic organization could build in its municipalities.

“By expanding the buffer requirements – without any scientific or engineering evidence to support that expansion – the Board expanded their own authority to prevent the warehouse development that is by-right under the industrial zoning for the Orchard and PMI Properties,” according to the lawsuit

The court’s choice could determine which party holds more power in industrial and commercial developments: a county’s economic development organization or individual townships.

Coolbaugh’s supervisors tabled their vote on the new stormwater regulations to next month’s meeting on June 4 at 6 p.m. It will be held at the Coolbaugh Township Municipal Building.

Isabela Weiss is a storyteller turned reporter from Athens, GA. She is WVIA News's Rural Government Reporter and a Report for America corps member. Weiss lives in Wilkes-Barre with her fabulous cats, Boo and Lorelai.

You can email Isabella at isabelaweiss@wvia.org