New Garden board encouraged to support redistricting reform
Seconds after speaker David Unger wrapped up his presentation that invited the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors to say 'No' to gerrymandering in Chester County on July 17, the sound heard in the normally reserved board meeting was as refreshing as it was unexpected.
Several people in the audience stood up and applauded.
Representing Citizens Commission for Legislature & Congressional Redistricting, Unger excoriated the current Pennsylvania law, which puts state legislators in charge of redistricting and redrawing voting districts, as a means of maximizing their influence, minimizing their accountability and keeping their jobs.
“We should be able to choose our legislators and every vote should count, but unfortunately in Pennsylvania, none of these statements is correct,” he said. “The reality is that legislators can now choose their voters and the reality is that many votes don't make a difference.”
The issue of gerrymandering, Unger said, violates state constitutional law, which states that all districts must be geographically compact and contiguous, and that districts cannot unnecessarily divide existing geopolitical entities. Further, redistricting must be done in compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act, which blocks district lines that deny minority voters an equal opportunity to “participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”
To illustrate his point, Unger showed the progression of the massive shape change the 7th Congressional District – which includes Chester County – has undergone in the past 60 years. During that time, the district has gone from a fairly contiguous area to one that resembles Rorschach inkblot test, one that includes portions of Delaware, Berks, Lancaster, Montgomery and Chester counties.
Unger asked that New Garden join the list of 60 Pennsylvania cities, towns, boroughs, and counties have already adopted an official resolution in support of fair redistricting practices, which include 14 municipalities in Chester County. The more resolutions that get adopted, the more momentum redistricting reform efforts will have to overturn current laws and support Senate Bill 22 and House Bill 722 (introduced by Pa. Representative Eric Roe), which both propose to create an independent citizens commission that would determine both legislative and congressional redistricting in the state.
“We support a resolution for redistricting reform, because we want all citizens in Pennsylvania to be fairly represented,” Unger said. “We want races for federal and state law offices to be competitive and to serve the people, and we want districting to be determined by the people, not by the politicians.”
An audience member then stood up, and offered her support of the initiative, which led to generous applause. After discussion, the board agreed that it will draft a resolution, and then address and likely vote on the resolution at its next meeting on Aug. 21.
In other township news, the board heard the conditional use application that would convert the Toughkenamon Town Center facility at 1120 and 1140 Newark Road into a destination spot for township residents.
Kristi Wyatt, a member of the township's comprehensive plan committee, said that the vision for the 19,000-square-foot location, owned by Chuck Nunan since 1998, is to serve as a new location for retail stores, office space, special events, restaurants and a new Harvest Ridge Winery tasting room. The first phase of the concept would construct the wine tasting room at the eastern end of the complex, and would be followed by the rehabbing of the remaining space into retail, office and common space. Nunan said the construction would also involve the re-lining of 75 parking spots on the back of the complex.
“It's part of the township's plan to revitalize Toughkenamon, and this could become one of the first steps to make it happen, and make it a place that people want to come to and spend some time there,” she said.
The board has 45 days to render a decision on the application, but is expected to rule at its next meeting on Aug. 21.
After hearing comments from Kennett Library Executive Director Megan Walters, the board approved the inclusion of a referendum on the township's Nov. 7 ballot, will ask township residents if they would be in favor of increasing their real estate tax by 0.1 mills, beginning in 2018, with the additional funding going to the library. Translated, that's an increase of $37 per household.
The wording on the referendum will read: "Do you favor increasing New Garden Township's real estate tax by 0.1 mills, the revenue from such increase to be used exclusively to fund the operation of the Kennett Library? The current real property tax is 1.62 mills."
It is the second time a referendum for the library will be included on the township's voting ballots. In 2014, the board voted in favor of adding the referendum, but it was defeated narrowly in that year's election. If it is approved by the voters, the referendum would dedicate about $80,000 toward the library, as well as the $15,900 the township annually contributes to the library.
The board approved the upcoming purchase of new equipment that will be placed in the children's playground at New Garden Township Park, at a cost not to exceed the estimate provided to the township in the amount of $128,794.
Given that the local mushroom industry contributes more than $2 billion annually to the local economy, and in conjunction with Kennett Township's efforts to establish the Kennett area as a world hub for indoor agriculture, Penn State professor Eric Stein gave a presentation that asked the township to link itself to the plans to establish a Center for Excellence for Controlled Environment Agriculture in Chester County. He was introduced by Michael Guttman, Kennett Township's grants program and environmental sustainability director, who has been a key spokesperson in establishing Kennett Square as a worldwide center for the indoor agriculture effort.
More and more, Stein said, the world's food growing resources are moving indoors, in order to better provide food for the world's increasing population, while also conserving water. The amount of fresh water being used for outdoor agriculture accounts for nearly 70 percent of fresh water availability around the globe.
“Water is going to become the next oil over the next generations,” he said. “We also need to recognize that there are more people in urban centers that there ever were before, so growing food with less water is becoming more critical.”
Because the mushroom industry operates on the principle of indoor controlled agriculture, placing the facility in the epicenter of the mushroom center of the world makes great sense, Stein said.
“Currently, there is no center for indoor controlled agriculture,” he told the supervisors. “The fact is that there is a need for a free-standing center in the industry. Our vision for the center in this region is to make it a hub for investment, production, logistics, research and development and training.
“We see this as an opportunity for business and industry development, for applied research and bringing resources and financing into this region.”
Kennett Township has already approved and paid for a feasibility study for the center, which is now underway.
The supervisors not only agreed that a center of this kind would be a business, economic and branding boon to the area, they said they would look for possible land parcels in the township that may become available when it's time for the center to be built – as well as lend existing infrastructure, such as vacant mushroom houses, to further indoor agriculture efforts in the community.
In other news, township Solicitor Vince Pompo announced that the conditional use hearing to determine the outcome of an application to install a 125 -foot-tall high wireless cellular communications tower at 1511 Yeatmans Station Road in Landenberg by Eco-Sites, LLC, was postponed, and will be continued on Aug. 28 at 7 p.m. in the township building.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.