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Why one Northampton County town is taking action to protect the Appalachian Trail from pipelines and cellphone towers

In an effort to protect their 1½-mile section of the Appalachian Trail, Plainfield Township officials have approved zoning that will prevent projects like natural gas pipelines, wind turbines, solar panels and cellphone towers from being located near the scenic footpath.

The ordinance, approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday, also addresses mineral extraction, billboards and mobile homes.

“I think we always need to be vigilant and concerned about how the trail is going to be impacted. You look back 10 years ago and no one would have anticipated explosive growth of warehouses, for example,” said Brooks Mountcastle, an environmental planner with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

The conservancy provided a $16,900 grant covering the cost of a consultant from the Bethlehem-based Urban Research and Development Corp. to draft an ordinance with the help of the township.

Other municipalities, including Moore Township, Upper Mount Bethel Township and Bushkill Township, also have recently adopted ordinances to protect portions of the trail, but they aren’t as comprehensive as Plainfield’s ordinance, Mountcastle said.

The ordinance includes guidelines for controlling light pollution, the withdraw of groundwater, digital signs, noise, commercial outdoor recreation, residential developments, solar panels, natural gas pipelines and wind turbines.

The ordinance will be applied to an area along the Kittatinny Ridge above Eighth Street and Constitution Avenue, said township Manager Thomas Petrucci.

Plainfield’s ordinance wasn’t the result of a specific development project, Petrucci said. The township’s Environmental Advisory Council advised creating an ordinance as suggested by Act 24 of the PA Appalachian Trail Act.

Enacted in 2008, the act was prompted by a court case related to the proposal for a country club for car enthusiasts near a section of trail in Monroe County.

The act says municipalities with portions of trail should take action to preserve the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the trail, but some municipalities have yet to get on board, Mountcastle said.

“The language [in Act 24] lacks some teeth in that it puts the burden on the township to protect what they view as necessary,” Mountcastle said. In addition to language that’s open to some interpretation, it also takes a lot of time and money to develop such ordinances.

But ordinances to protect the trail are becoming more important, Mountcastle said.

“Economies and landscapes are always growing … I think we will continue to see creeping of development closer to the foot of the Kittatinny Ridge as development increases,” he said.

Lehigh County was ranked eighth and Northampton County was ranked 11th for the fastest-growing counties by population in Pennsylvania, according to statistics from 2016, Mountcastle said.

The conservancy has concerns about warehouse development which may be visible from the trail, though Mountcastle said there are no immediate threats to Lehigh Valley sections at this time.

There are 58 municipalities in Pennsylvania that are traversed by the Appalachian Trail, with 15 miles spread out over six municipalities in Northampton County and 17 miles in three municipalities in Lehigh County, according to the conservancy.

According to the conservancy, in Northampton County, Moore Township enacted a 1,000-foot buffer from the centerline of the Appalachian Trail and structures are prohibited 100 feet from National Park Service land.

Upper Mount Bethel Township enacted a 500-foot building setback from the trail corridor.

Bushkill Township enacted a 150-foot building setback from the centerline of the trail and a 50-foot setback for cellphone towers. Antennas require a visual impact analysis and coordination with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

In Lehigh County, Heidelberg Township, Lynn Township and Washington Township rely on previsions in the Blue Mountain Zoning District to offer some protection, Mountcastle said.