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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Green Pond Senior Development: Conservation or Eco Disaster?

This is Green Pond, which has existed for at least 250 years. 
Anyone who drives along back country roads knows that some are prone to wash outs. That's certainly true of Green Pond Road, which floods every time it rains. From time to time, angry residents storm Bethlehem Township meetings, demanding that something be done. The wet conditions make accidents frequent, too. But this marshy area is on Tradition of America's (TOA) drawing board. Partner David Biddison presented sketch plans to a skeptical Planning Commission on Monday night. Over 100 people crammed into the meeting room, standing along the sides and even sitting on the floor. They were joined by all current and even several former Commissioners. Twenty-two people, nearly all of them Township residents, spoke against the plan. Not one person supported it. Some hated the traffic. Others were upset by the stormwater management. But most were there for the birds. This gated community is planned next to both Green Pond as well as the Green Pond Marsh, which is treated by local environmentalists and bird lovers as a sanctuary.

John Glagola can tell you all about the floods and accidents along Green Pond Road. He lives there. One side of his home faces Green Pond. Another faces a wetland. At least once a month, someone slams into the guard rail along the windy road. Once someone drove her SUV right into Green Pond.

Glagola is more than a next door neighbor. A Harvard grad, he's also an architect and planner with a prestigious real estate investment firm based in Manhattan. In his opinion, the plans submitted by TOA will only exacerbate very real traffic and flooding concerns. But his chief concern are his neighbors. They're squawking, too. They're birds.
This is Green Pond Marsh. Most people look at the pond, but this is what has attracted the birds
History of Green Pond, An Important Bird Area

A collective of bird watchers and environmentalists calling themselves "Save Green Pond" has mobilized to protect these marshlands from the developer's bulldozer. "There is virtually no place of its kind in the Lehigh Valley," proclaims the website. Over 160 different bird species have been documented at this environmentally sensitive area, including eight kinds of birds that are classified as "threatened" or "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act.

Charles Trapani photographed this sandpiper in the
mudflats on Saturday. 
Northampton County recently had to halt bridge repairs in Plainfield Township after learning the area might be a bog turtle habitat. This area actually is a habitat for rare birds like the Osprey and Great Egret.

The Green Pond marsh has existed a long time, long before the arrival of European settlers from England and Germany. Sitting at his kitchen table, Glagola pulled out an old plat from Lettie Asbury, daughter of William Penn. It shows her 1735 conveyances to William Allen. The pond, which was much larger then, is clearly delineated. "This is not something we just dreamed up yesterday," noted Glagola, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between birds and wetlands. He presented that plat to Planning Commissioners Monday night.

Victoria Bastidas, an environmentalist who is the spearhead of a movement to preserve Camel's Hump Farm in Bethlehem, agrees. "We are only a mile away as the crow flies and we have wetlands and a stream, but there is something about that site that attracts far more types of birds," she observes.

On any day of the week, a short trip to the marsh reveals an abundance of aviary delights that go unnoticed by many. Great blue herons are there all the time, along with sandpipers who fly in from Antarctica, as well as the glossy ibis. In winter, snow geese descend and use it as one of their landing stops. It is one of the largest staging areas of lesser black-backed gulls in North America, with counts of 200 plus birds.

The Audubon Society has recently designated the Green Pond Marsh as an "important bird area", one of just 10,000 such sites world wide. The area is considered "vital to birds and other biodiversity."

Birdwatchers regularly visit green Pond Marsh
Development Pressure

Green Pond Country Club, the owner of the 68-acre site in question, has met with the Wildlands Conservancy, but has resisted efforts to conserve this wetland. Traditions of America is actually the third developer to submit plans for this property. Toll Brothers and J.P. Petrucci have walked away from designs that would have resulted in more homes than those proposed by Traditions. They were defeated by traffic and stormwater mitigation concerns.

Glagola recognizes that, though the area is a low-lying basin, it will eventually be developed. He believes it's a $60 million project. "But let's be serious and recognize there are other issues here than human greed," he states, predicting that Traditions engineers will deny there are wetlands next to Green Pond. He calls the current plans an "eco disaster."

Ornithologist Rick Wiltraut
Traditions of America (TOA)'s Plan To Conserve 18 Acres

Traditions of America (TOA), formed in 1997, is one of several successful development companies started by J.B. Reilly and Timothy McCarthy. Though they are no longer involved in day-to-day operations, Biddison conceded that both are still involved in the company. Interestingly, J.B. Reilly is the developer behind many of the projects in Allentown's controversial Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

TOA specializes in building "active senior" or 55 plus communities, and has developed two popular projects in Hanover Township alone. Units are selling despite a slow real estate market.

In a detailed presentation, Biddison told planners and the public that the active senior gated community will consist of 265 single family detached dwellings linked by a 2-mile walking path and include amenities like a clubhouse and pool.

The chief attraction, aside from the nearby Green Pond Country Club, is the Green Pond Marsh.

Biddleson insisted that only 27,000 sq ft directly across Farmersville Road from the pond has actually been delineated as a "wetland". But after consulting with the national Audubon Society, Hawk Mountain and Ducks Unlimited, TOA is proposing to conserve 18 acres along the northern side of the development. In addition to the current wetlands, TOA is proposing and additional 73,000 sq ft of conservation area, consisting of lined ponds of varying depths. In addition, mudflats will be redesigned. There will also be a large infiltration basin, planted with native grasses. He's proposing a walking path around the conservation area, along with a place to park and raised viewing platforms.

All stormwaters generated at the site will stay there. In addition to the large infiltration basin in the 18-acre conservation area, there will be a pond at the southern end of the development.

Packed house forced to use floor
TOA's Plan to Stop Ponding along Roadways, and Traffic

In an attempt to curb the frequent washouts along Green Pond and Farmersville Road, PennDOT in 2011 decided to raise the road levels on Farmersville Road. This slows the flow of water from Green Pond into the marsh, but has also resulted in much more water along the road. Thus, in addition to depriving wildlife of water, driving conditions are now even worse than they wore before. The solution, according to Glagola and the Save Green Pond site, is an underground drainage pipe from the pond to the marsh. That's precisely what TOA has proposed.

Biddleson also addressed traffic, noting that the traffic generated by an active senior development will be about 1/3 that of a normal development at the site.

John Glagola, jacket and tie, has defended mudflats three times
A Warning

"We're not hiding from the issue," Biddleson asserted."We're trying to do the right thing." But he also had a warning, noting that Green Pond Country Club could get a permit and dig a large hole in the conservation area. "The property owner, if backed into a corner, has options and is likely to exercise those options."

Commissioner Concerns

Planning Commissioners were skeptical. Kenn Edinger questioned how a golf course community could have no link to the golf course. After hearing Biddleson repeated speak about the TOA gated community, he asked, "What about our community?" He also raised concerns about overflow parking, stormwater and "major' traffic concerns.

Don Wright asked whether snow treated with salt and other chemicals could make their way into the conservation area. Biddleson retorted that farmers use chemical fertilizer and this is the "lesser of two evils."

James Dailey stated the roads are too narrow, especially for emergency vehicles. Biddleson claimed his widths were acceptable, but township Engineer Brian Dillman told him he needs township approval for those roads, which are 24' instead of 32' wide.

The birds will continue squawking, but won't be at tonight's planning meeting. Bird watchers and environmentalists plan to do the squawking for them.

Great Blue heron in mudflats on Saturday
The Vox Populi For Residents Only?

Before opening up the floor to the public, Chairman Lee Snover announced that only residents would be allowed to speak. That brought an objection from a member of the media, who pointed out that the Sunshine Act applies to nonresidents as well. Snover quickly reversed herself, and allowed non-residents to speak, but only after all residents had their say.

As it happens, 20 of the 22 speakers, all opposed, were Township residents.

Glagola disputed TOA's contention that only 27,000 sq ft is wetlands. In August 2013, he had an engineer study the lands, and his conclusion is that the wetlands actually extend beyond the 18 acres set aside for conservation. "I don't know what science they're using," he scoffed. "the science is we want to build more homes." He called the TOA plan an "eco disaster waiting to happen."

Paul Jordan noted that between 300,000-400,000 geese visit the marsh and pond every year. "I understand developments have to go in, but why here?" he asked.

Barbara Malt, a VP for the LV Audubon, noted that the majority of birds visiting this site are migratory. Scott Burnet, another member of the LV Audubon, rejected the notion that these birds would feed on native grasses, noting they eat invertebrates. He also indicated that no one really understands why so many birds are attracted to those mudlfats, but he knows they can't be recreated by human development.

"You disturb that area, you destroy it." he warned.

The final speaker, ornithologist Rick Wiltraut, was even more ominous. He noted that barn owls have completely disappeared in Northampton County, and monarch butterflies are now a rarity. But in a time of declining wildlife, shorebirds from the Arctic still regularly visit the Green Pond Marsh. He flatly told TOA that "lined ponds aren't going to cut it. [The birds] need mud." He added that TOA can't recreate what already exists.

"The development has to stop somewhere. We owe it to our kids to protect areas like that."

Snover told the audience to check the Township website for upcoming planning agendas. A member of the audience remarked it was last updated in October. But the Township recently hired Nathan Jones as it new Planning Director,and promised to remedy that problem.

Blogger's Note: This post updates yesterday's story with the Planning Commission meeting. Believe it or not, there was a second hearing that might have eclipsed this one, involving Charlie Chrin and the old V-7 Driving Range.


Anonymous said...

This is what happens when a Township looses its seasoned senior staff leadership over time and votes in a Board of builders and people with strong developer ties. Two debacle presentations with no one coordinating the type and quantity of development from the Township side. I was at the meeting and was stunned by the lack of quality staff participation. Usually the staff has a response to the issues raised and at least provides the residents with confidence that someone has eyes on these things from a day to day workings and balance. Time for change in Bethlehem Township.

Anonymous said...

It's hard for me to believe that the J B RILEY who is doing so much great stuff in Allentown is the same J B RIELY trying to destroy the wonderful Green Pond.
How could this be?

Anonymous said...

The answer ain't the Greenness of Green Pond...

c said...

One day soon I hope we learn that we are just a part of a very complicated system. The reduction in the honey bee population, the collapse of many of Pennsylvania's bat colonies and the significant decrease in the number of monarch butterflies seen over the past few years all suggest that we can do better.

Anonymous said...

If I didn't know better I would think he's out to destroy his reputation .
Mr. Riley I mean.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I don't think much of Reilly. He'sin business to make money, not to save Allentown or build a wildlife sanctuary. He knows how to get what he wants.

Anonymous said...

10:05 AM mentions the decline in monarch butterflies. I thought it was just in my own "community" -- a so-called condominium development that has been hi-jacked by thugs who set up their own "landscaping" business, and proceeded to spray poison everywhere when they are not running every kind of machinery possible to imagine. I thought that was why we do not have butterflies in the little front garden we cling to, where thsy used to be profuse, while all the others have been intimidated by the bullies into displaying mounds of mulch surrounding nondescript shrubs out front.

Anonymous said...

Another issue is traffic which the ITE traffic manual is incorrect IMHO. Relatives and caretakers make 2-3 trips a day to these homes to take care of their parents along with grandma and grandpa becoming babysitters. Absoultely, there is no significant reduction in traffic flow with these 55+ communities- the only things tey are good for is helping the school tax base which if converted will become a bust rather than a boom for the local school district. Time to wake Behtehem Twsp and Palmer Twsp- the wool is being pulled over your eyes bigtime ---from a professional plannner Michael Siegel
Like · Reply · 2 min ByY the way guys, The first time I met JB Reilly was at his first development- the apts just north of the Indian Creek Golf Course. That tell you something. This conversion method of senior develoment will show up when the home market becomes saturated with 55+ developments. The homes become hard to sell with, especially after the parent dies. Most homes are paid for, so basically they sit idle waiting for a buyer. Sheriffs sales become rampant as the children cannot afford to pay the taxes on the property or there are no children that inherit the property. The property values then tumble and other senior property owners become worried so they are willing to look at the conversion of the property.
Like · Reply · 6 mins

Michael D Siegel Bernie- look at the past for your answers. The Traditions development out in Lower Macungie were a disaster. Several homes had their foundations dug out and replaced with good soil because the developer allowed these homes to be on poor soils. The foundations were cracking and shifting. Cost $200,000 +

The development is right next to the Little Lehigh- flooding? Finally, the Twsp had put in a traffic signal because these developments still generate traffic - a misconception. The amount of relatives that visit these 55+ older communities far exceeds the avg residential home.

The traffic generation manual is wrong and this needs to be brought to the attention of the developers. Finally Many of these communities in NJ are now converting to single residential homes because of the economy. Beware

New Jersey Gives Developers Way to Convert Active Adult Projects to Market Housing
Educating municipalities about demographic and economic shifts will be critical to the approval process.

Anonymous said...

Man o' man is JB gonna regret this!

Anonymous said...

"I don't think much of Reilly."

Because you hate Pawlowski. You are as predictable as nightfall.

Anonymous said...

JBR is going to get bad PR he has never dreamed about.