‘We’re all very concerned’: Upper Bucks quarry proposal meets resistance

A construction materials firm wants a conditional zoning use for 196 acres of forest and wetlands in rural Springfield Twp. Residents say they’ll fight it.

Upper Tohickon Creek in Bucks County

Upper Tohickon Creek in Bucks County — the Upper Tohickon Creek watershed includes Springfield, Richland, Haycock, and East Rockhill. (Courtesy of Upper Tohickon Creek Watershed Association)

Local officials have begun considering whether to approve development of a two-pit quarry on 196 acres of Upper Bucks County forest and wetlands. Residents say it could disrupt their lives, endanger the environment, and upend Springfield Township as they know it.

In March, H&K Group submitted a conditional use application to develop the non-coal surface mining quarry between Route 309 and the rural neighborhoods of Springfield Street, Salem Road and Mine Street, just adjacent to the Upper Bucks Rail Trail. The Board of Supervisors’ first official hearing on that application opened dialogue about the quarry’s potential impact.

Local environmental organizations cite research on the ecological impact of quarry mining, arguing that the 40-year project would destabilize the entire region. The township Planning Commission was extremely critical in its analysis of H&K’s application, calling it “deficient” in its planning and research and suggested a slew of recommendations for environmental and residential protection.

And Springfield residents have expressed worry that quarry dust would pollute their air and groundwater, drive down property values, and threaten the health of the Upper Tohickon Creek and surrounding wetlands, including nearby Quakertown Swamp, which is listed as a “wetland of distinction” by the Society of Wetland Scientists and a first priority site in the Bucks County Natural Areas Inventory.

For three hours Tuesday night, residents crowded the meeting room past its COVID-limited capacity of 48. Eighty to 100 individuals stood in the parking lot to watch the video stream as the hearing progressed. Some wore T-shirts and waved signs to demonstrate their opposition to the proposed project. More than 25 additional residents attended the meeting via Zoom.

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Springfield residents gathered for three hours during the Bucks County township’s board meeting, and its first hearing regarding a proposed quarry. (Hannah Chinn/WHYY)

The majority of the hearing was spent approving or denying residents’ right to “party status” — that is, establishing whether a household or organization would be directly affected by the project, usually determined by proximity to the proposed site. Residents with party status will be allowed to call or cross-examine witnesses and appeal decisions at future hearings.

Sixteen households or individuals were granted party status, since they are within 500 feet of the proposed site. Five were denied: the Springfield Township Environmental Advisory Council, the Clean Air Council, the Springfield Township Parks and Land Preservation Board, and two residents the supervisors determined lived more than 1,000 feet away from the site.

“The people outside were certainly more vocal,” said resident Kyle Fliszar, who lives along Salem Road and was granted party status. “From inside, we could hear the cheering and booing as each party status was approved or denied.”

About 80-100 residents watched virtually in the Springtown Fire Company parking lot, unable to enter the meeting due to capacity limitations (Jack Byerly/Clean Air Council)

What’s being decided

According to the conditional use application submitted in March, the property is owned by Liberty Home Development Corp. in nearby Coopersburg, just over the Lehigh County line. H&K Group (formerly known as Haines & Kibblehouse), which provides construction materials and contracting services in eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, said it will use the site to establish an operation called Center Valley Materials. Mining would occur in two areas of the property over 40 years.

“Everybody around here is going to be affected by the noise, the dirt, the traffic,” resident Cora Landis told the supervisors Tuesday. “I know it’s zoned industrial back there, but aren’t we concerned about wetlands? Aren’t we supposed to be saving our wetlands and being concerned about our water supply?”

The proposed quarry site on Salem Road in Bucks County. (Google Maps)

Landis lives on Salem Road, which runs along the north and west of the proposed quarry. She was denied party status since her property is not within 500 feet of the site and remains upset about the quarry’s potential effects.

“I’m very concerned  — we’re all very concerned,” she said. “Springfield Township has always been a very environmentally protective area to live in, and we’ve always been proud of that. So it’s very disappointing to know that this is actually being considered.”

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But townships in Pennsylvania are required to allow for all zoning uses, so the question isn’t whether H&K’s quarry can earn residents’ approval — it’s whether the project is allowed under Springfield’s law.

“This is a permitted use, and what that means is that it is zoned for the G-7 quarry use,” Springfield Township Manager Jason Wager said in an interview Wednesday. The residents’ concern is “certainly legitimate,” he said, but “as far as … the township has to view this, we have to focus on the pure zoning aspect of it. We understand the environmental side, because there are wetlands and other things to take into consideration, but we can only really view it from the zoning perspective.”

On-the-ground concerns

Stacey Beatty lives 2,000 feet away from the proposed site. But that doesn’t mean its impact won’t affect her, she said.

“We are close enough to hear the booms, we use the roads it will be on, we breathe the nearby air,” she wrote to WHYY News. In a Zoom comment, she said: “Now our home, our well, and possibly our health is being jeopardized, and it will most definitely hurt our house value down the road.”

H&K characterized those as “speculative” concerns during the hearing, pointing to the organization’s promise to resolve residents’ water and well-related issues if they were a proven result of the quarry. The application also mentions implementing buffers, plantings and berms to shield neighbors and passing motorists from noise and glare.

But residents don’t think that’s enough. Fliszar and his neighbors have formed an informal coalition called Residents for the Preservation of Springfield Township —  they’ve set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for signs, advertising in local media, and legal counsel.

Fliszar called it a “coin purse against [H&K’s] war chest.”

“The tone and tenure of Springfield Township, of people who have lived here for a long time, generally is a very rural, agricultural area — lots of space, lots of farms, and a quarry doesn’t fit with that motif, so to speak,” he said. Residents’ reactions run “the whole gamut of emotion: It’s outrage, it’s concern, in some cases it’s disgust or anger.”

Robertson “Rocky” Morales referred to the nearby East Rockhill quarry, where residents expressed concerns about quarry dust and ecological fallout, and where mining was eventually called off due to asbestos concerns. He’s hoping any mining in Springfield will stop as well, because even while he might not see the environmental impact 40 years down the road, his grandkids will.

Even residents who live farther away could be affected, he added, and they should have a say too.

“We live here, we pay taxes on this township,” he said. “Let us speak up.”

Paul Belke, another resident who attended Tuesday night’s hearing via Zoom, didn’t mince words.

“We all have wells, we all have private septic systems, and they could all fail,” he said. In Springfield Township, where each house has a 3-acre minimum, he can’t see his neighbors from his back porch. He loves that.

“I moved here for a reason … the township is the way it is, and the quarry will jeopardize that.”

Belke said he and his neighbors are prepared to fight even if that means taking H&K to court.

“It’s a long haul,” he said.

The next hearing on the quarry application is scheduled for Oct. 13 at 7:30 p.m.

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