MANOR TOWNSHIP, Pa. - A powerful Pennsylvania legislator and his family stand to gain nearly $20 million in a controversial deal for a landfill that could threaten the Susquehanna River, which supplies more fresh water to the Chesapeake Bay than all its other tributaries combined and is a back-up source of drinking water for Baltimore.
The legislator, state Rep. John Barley, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is selling 300 acres for a landfill expansion that would lie within 100 feet of the river.
Environmentalists question the wisdom of placing a landfill that close to the Susquehanna, from which Baltimore drew 3.9 billion gallons during the drought of 1999.
"There's never been a landfill that won't leak at some point, no matter what kind of liner you use. It's just a matter of time," says Jeff Schmidt, a Sierra Club lobbyist at the Capitol in Harrisburg. "The closer you are to a waterway, the faster the contamination gets to it."
Thomas Linzey, a lawyer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Chambersburg, Pa., says that while there is no safe place to put a landfill, "It certainly is more than 100 feet from a stream or a river."
Angry township residents see cronyism run amok in the maneuvering to obtain the zoning to allow the landfill expansion.
Barley's campaign chairman, township Supervisor Edward C. Goodhart III, quietly shepherded the change through the local bureaucracy in February and March of last year. Barley's son, Robert, part-owner of the property, voted to approve the change from his spot on the township planning commission, despite the apparent conflict of interest.
Robert Barley says township lawyers told him there was no conflict because he was voting on rezoning for the entire township.
Nearby residents whose smaller properties also were rezoned say they knew nothing about it until eight months later when an article appeared in the Lancaster New Era listing their names along with Barley's as property owners who were negotiating sales with the waste authority.
"We got a phone call on Election Day from Mr. [James D.] Warner [executive director of the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority] that there had been a leak and there was a story in the paper saying we were negotiating to sell our property," says Cabel Kladky, whose restored 1830s farmhouse is within the rezoned area. "He wanted to assure us there was nothing to worry about."
Evelyn Stehman, who agreed in August to pose with her husband and John Barley for one of the legislator's campaign fliers, says she didn't get a call until a day later. "It was so convenient. It was after we all voted. We thought he was our friend."
John Barley's spokeswoman referred inquiries to Robert Barley, who said he couldn't answer questions about his father's role in the deal.
John Barley, known as the godfather of the Lancaster County Republican Party, is one of the most powerful and feared politicians in Pennsylvania. Because his committee reviews nearly every piece of legislation that goes through the state's General Assembly, he decides which bills live and which ones die.
Two landfill regulation bills approved by the House Environmental Matters Committee last year were killed in his committee.
The Lancaster County controversy has led to two civil suits, a zoning appeal and a string of stormy supervisors' meetings so crowded they were moved to a nearby middle school.
Lancaster County has operated landfills in the Creswell area of Manor Township, about 12 miles north of the Maryland line, since 1968. In 1980, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found volatile organic compounds in drinking water at a school in Creswell and in several residential wells near the landfill.
The waste authority denied that the landfill was responsible for the problem but has provided filters for local wells since then.
In 1984, the authority - then the Lancaster Area Refuse Authority - bought 153 acres from another nearby farm to expand the landfill, and after a bruising two-year fight won the necessary zoning changes. But in its 1986 ruling, Manor Township's Zoning Hearing Board stipulated that the waste authority could not expand its landfill again, or operate "any other refuse disposal facility in Manor Township."
Thirteen years later, the waste authority hired ARM Group Inc., a Hershey, Pa., consulting firm, to study potential new landfill sites in Manor Township.
"The authority believes that its performance since 1986 fully justifies reconsideration of the restriction," Warner wrote last month in response to questions from the supervisors.
Indeed, the authority hasn't been cited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for Clean Water Act violations since 1993.
But the authority didn't ask the Zoning Hearing Board to reconsider. It hired ARM to operate in secret.
The study was conducted "under strict confidentiality" without contacting "regulatory officials, property owners, public interest groups and other interested parties," the consultants wrote in their November 2000 report.
Warner, stung by the furor, says the move on the Barley property was part of "long-term planning."
"It's our responsibility to provide for the long-term waste disposal needs of the county, and we need land to do that."
The existing landfill, just north of the Barley property, is expected to be filled in 2016. By acquiring options on the Barley property before Dec. 23, 2000, the waste authority could avoid new state Department of Environmental Protection regulations increasing the required setbacks from the nearest inhabited house from 300 feet to 900 feet and forbidding landfill operators to apply for new permits more than five years before the existing landfill is completed.
While ARM was in the midst of its study, the supervisors were working on a comprehensive rezoning.
Warner says he asked Goodhart "if he would consider a change in zoning."
Goodhart proposed the change to the township planning commission, which approved it at a meeting on Feb. 14 last year. A citizens group, People Against Landfill Expansion, which has filed suit to overturn the zoning, argues that the commission discussed the change in secret meetings before the vote and that no one knew it was coming up.
Jim Miller, planning commission secretary, insists there "were no secret meetings."
"We were having some workshops," he says.
Robert Barley says the zoning change was discussed "in a workshop," but not in the public hearing.
Corinna Wilson, general counsel to the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, says the workshops were an attempt to "do an end run around [the state] Sunshine Act."
"They violated the Sunshine Act at every turn, in my opinion," she says.
Commission members and township supervisors point to legal advertisements of their rezoning meetings to argue that the zoning changes weren't done in secret.
"But in fairness to these people," Goodhart says, "who reads those things?"
The waste authority began negotiations for the Barley land in June last year and purchased options in November for $15.7 million. The package included a $4 million down payment, an escalator that raises the price by 4.5 percent for every year the deal hasn't settled and monthly interest payments. Shortly after news of the Barley purchase broke, the other residents received offers the waste authority called "generous," along with a warning that they "should not consider it as a starting basis for further negotiations."
The $45,700-an-acre offer for the Barley land and to nearby landowners is generous, Cabel Kladky agreed. "But not generous enough for me to sell out my neighbors who live just outside the landfill area."
The small-property owners near the Barley farm might have paid closer attention to the zoning process, "but we thought we were protected by the 1986 decision," she says.
The supervisors, faced with another overflow crowd in the township's small meeting room, agreed this past Monday to ask the planning commission for a new ordinance that restores the original zoning. But opponents weren't satisfied. They want the supervisors to sign a consent decree that automatically returns the land to its original status.
Ed Kladky, Cabel's husband, called the proposal "inadequate and unacceptable" because it forces "citizens to prove why their properties should go back" to the original zoning.
"You are giving our citizens nothing on which they can rely or enable them to repose trust in the procedure you prescribe," he said to a roaring standing ovation from some 100 people jammed into a room built to hold half that many.
The supervisors say their lawyers have told them they cannot legally change the zoning without a new ordinance.
"If we could vote tonight to rescind the [zoning change], that's what I'd do," Goodhart said. "I hear what you're saying, and I hear four attorneys saying we can't do that."
A woman sitting cross-legged on the floor demanded that Goodhart and the others apologize.
"Can't you say you're sorry?" she called out. "That's what we want to hear."