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Forward Township follows in others’ footsteps as leaders consider zoning ordinance

Tom Hartwig and Steve Longwell deliberate at the township supervisors meeting
Forward Township manager Tom Hartwig, left, and Steve Longwell, planning commission chairman, deliberate at the township supervisors’ meeting Oct. 10. William Pitts/Butler Eagle

Across much of Butler County, a key word in recent months has been “zoning” — for townships that have it, townships that don’t have it, and townships planning on changing it.

Over the past few weeks, Forward Township has floated the idea of implementing a zoning ordinance, something it does not currently have. The township announced plans at an Oct. 10 meeting to assemble a 15-member committee to determine whether implementing a zoning ordinance would be feasible.

Township supervisors are hoping to complete their zoning process by mid-2024.

Inspiration from elsewhere

The new committee can potentially draw inspiration from a number of other municipalities that have also seen population growth bubbling up from the south.

In Cranberry Township, which features 16 zoning districts, changes to zoning have always followed intentional planning, according to township manager Dan Santoro.

“Cranberry’s been growing since the ’80s. We probably have three, four decades’ worth of growth in Cranberry Township, so it hasn't happened overnight,” Santoro said.

Today, Cranberry is the largest municipality in Butler County and hosts offices for companies such as Westinghouse, MSA and PPG. The 22.83-square-mile municipality boasts a population of 33,087, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

A mostly agricultural area in the early part of the 20th century, the township experienced rapid growth starting in the 1980s. Santoro credits much of it to the opening of Interstate 279 in 1989 which helped cut travel time from Pittsburgh nearly in half. The parkway connects to Interstate 79, which enters Butler County at the Cranberry Township line and continues north exiting the county in Worth Township.

“The goal of the board of supervisors was to create a place that first focused on being a family-friendly place with world-class amenities that attracted families who wanted to live here and raise their family. That was back in the ’90s,” Santoro said. “People want to live here. Ultimately, they want to open their businesses here.”

Cranberry’s zoning ordinance has gone through some revisions over the years, with a comprehensive plan updated in 1995 and 2009. Today, the zoning map contains 16 zoning districts, plus three overlay districts.

Among zoning districts in Cranberry Township are three residential zones, a zone for “residential mixed use,” three commercial districts, a zone specifically for Cranberry’s business park, a “special use” district and a “special growth” district, among others.

Much of the zoning map is covered in yellow, for planned residential developments.

“One of the things you look at is future land use. What should the land use be to accomplish the goals that are established as a part of that planning?” Santoro said. “It's all based on that future planning of what the community establishes their vision to be.”

The zoning map for Cranberry Township as of November 2023
The zoning map for Cranberry Township as of November 2023. Submitted Image

Just as I-279 did for Cranberry Township in the 1990s, leaders in Adams Township are now anticipating and planning for what the widening of Route 228 could do for their municipalities.

The widening project, orchestrated by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, began in January 2021 and is expected to finish in November 2026. PennDOT is seeking to improve the section of Route 228 from the intersection with Route 19 at the west to Route 8 at the east.

Adams Township manager Gary Peaco said he expects the Route 228 project will lead to a boost in commercial and residential development for Adams Township, where he says development has largely slowed since 2018.

“With the expansion of Route 228, we expect we will get more commercial development as the road widens to four lanes,” Peaco said. “We will continue to see growth in the township because there's still quite a bit of available land.”

In Adams Township, there are 11 zoning districts. These include five residential districts, a commercial district, a business district and an industrial district. The township’s zoning ordinance was implemented in 2000, and the map was last amended in 2018.

“Once you have zoning, it really helps,” Peaco said. “If you don't have zoning and you're a potential area for growth … something could pop up where you don't want it to be, so you lose that control.”

Lori Morgan presents the draft zoning ordinance for Middlesex Township
Lori Morgan of Herbert, Rowland & Grubic presents the draft zoning ordinance for Middlesex Township at their board of supervisors meeting in July.

Meanwhile, Middlesex Township leaders have considered making some alterations related to zoning. Herbert, Rowland & Grubic, the township’s engineering firm, has proposed some tweaks, which would allow for the expansion of types of businesses which have grown over the past two decades.

These include more allowances for short-term residential rentals such as Airbnbs, as well as solar and wind production.

The township is holding off until after the updated comprehensive plan is finalized to consider any changes to its zoning map.

“We’re working on an updated comprehensive plan,” said Jeffrey Winkle, Middlesex Township’s manager. “Once that’s finalized, then we'll take a detailed look at our zoning map and to see if it’s in line with the comprehensive plan and the values of the community.”

A comprehensive plan is a broad outline for the goals of a municipality, and Pennsylvania law recommends — but does not strictly require — that municipalities update their comprehensive plan every 10 years.

Middlesex Township, for instance, is updating their plan for the first time since 2004.

Years in the making

Forward Township adopted a revised comprehensive plan — which includes the addition of zoning — in October 2022.

According to census data, the population of Forward Township has jumped from 2,531 to 3,164 residents between 2010 and 2020.

“Forward Township, like most of southwestern Butler County, is in the midst of some pretty big growth,” supervisor Mark Wilson said at a September 2021 meeting. “I see, in the next five to 10 years, there will be a substantial amount of growth.”

At that meeting, Wilson and the other supervisors announced plans to host a meeting for residents to share what they saw as the township’s future.

He then recognized the need for a comprehensive plan as the first step.

At that time, he noted the importance of input from residents. While some may not want growth, he said, the township has to plan for growth, as that is what trends indicate will happen.

“The best way to deal with change is to prepare for it,” he said at the September meeting.

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