|Exec John Stoffa speaks quietly and carries a big checkbook|
That ride might come to nothing. But it could also lead to the creation of what Stoffa has called a Central Park of the Lehigh Valley, a complete restoration of the Camel's Hump Farm once owned by Bethlehem's first Mayor, Archibald Johnston. The Township already owns the 55-acre passive recreation Housenick Park, which includes the three-story colonial style Johnston mansion. Right next to that, and along the Monocacy Creek, Northampton County owns the 36-acre Archibald Johnston Conservation Area. Nestled between these tracts is yet a third piece of land owned by the Central Moravian Church, located in a area zoned for conservation. This land, located off of Christian Springs Road, was all once owned by Johnston. It was donated by his granddaughter, Janet Housenick, to the Township, County and Moravians.
One fly in the ointment is that the Moravian tract is under agreement of sale to a local developer.
In 2011, Township Commissioners adopted a "master plan" for development of both the park and the mansion, paid for by a $2 million trust set up by Janet Housenick, before her death. Park improvements over the next ten years are estimated to cost $1.7 million. That leaves Commissioners with just $300,000 to restore the mansion to its former glory.
|Michael Hudak listens to Karen Berry|
Northampton County might be able to help with the long-range financing, according to Stoffa. An ardent environmentalist, Stoffa spearheaded a successful open space referendum in 2002. When he ran for County Executive seven years ago, he promised a half mill tax increase. "They elected me, anyway," he jokes. That tax increase was for a pay-as-you-go open space program to preserve farms, environmentally sensitive land and parks.
That program has been wildly successful. Last year, Northampton County led the state in farmland preservation. What once was a list of forty farms may vanish to none by the end of this or next year. This means the County will be able to invest more money along threatened watersheds like the Monocacy Creek, which have become increasingly prone to flooding.
Stoffa made clear that it is Bethlehem Township's park, but would like to help if possible.
Commissioners appointed two members - Tom Nolan and President Paul Weiss - as ambassadors for talks with the County and the Housenick trustees, who are led by Bethlehem Attorney Jay Leeson. Trustees would like a timetable for improvements so they can properly manage their investment.
In addition to this appointment, Commissioners unanimously adopted a resolution to seek between $300-400k from trustees for trail markings and other improvements inside the park. Dr Andrew Unger, a regular visitor, noted that he was actually hit by a branch that very day during a gust. "It's pretty dangerous down there after [Hurricane] Sandy," he remarked. Commissioner Michael Hudak, another frequent visitor, readily agreed.
In addition to seeking this money from the trust, matching funds will be sought from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. These improvements will take 18 months to complete, and won't be started until November.
Two weeks before, Commissioners expressed a desire to hear from Bethlehem Township residents concerning Housenick Park. Their wish was granted. Resident Barbara Garrison predicted that Housenick Park "will enhance the community." Former Commissioner Bill Berry advocated that the park has "great historical significance." His wife, Karen, called it a "gem." But she warned that it's a double-edged sword. "It's a gift and a liability." she said. "It's both things." They all urged Commissioners to use whatever resources are available to develop the park.
One unintended consequence of all the publicity concerning the Archibald Johnston mansion is that it has become the victim of vandalism. Commissioners have already planned preventive security measures, which include more frequent police visits.