The property in question was devised to the Township by the late Janet Housnick. Her grandfather, Archibald Johnston, was Bethlehem's first Mayor and a Bethlehem Steel Company president who built the mansion on grounds he called Camel's Hump. In addition to the property, Housenick also provided $2 million for the park and mansion.
Housenick Committee members and their supporters, who packed the standing-room only meeting, had made clear that they wanted to remain a part of the park's future, which includes a 420-unit apartment complex proposed right next to the park, on land that is zoned rural residential and is located in a conservation district as well. That was one of their formal recommendations.
But Commissioners Michael Hudak, Arthur Murphy and Paul Weiss thought otherwise.
"I see no reason to keep the Housenick Committee intact," stated Murphy, who said that "staff" and the Township's Recreation Committee would take it from here. "We've developed many parks in the Township, without the help of an outside Committee," added Hudak. The week before that, at the final meeting of the Housenick Committee, Hudak had unsuccessfully tried to stop them from discussing the 420-unit apartment complex, calling it a "Township issue."
Jerry Batcha, who will be stepping down from the Board at the end of this year, argued in favor of keeping the Housenick Committee active, especially in view of the "unique nature" of the park. He noted that Housenick Committee member Tim Brady is also a member of the Trust overseeing distribution of funds, and resides in a home at the park. People like Brady, stated Batcha, would "keep their eye on the ball."
As Commissioners discussed the dissolution of the Committee, members like Vicky Bastidas and Thaddeus Encelewski raised their hands, hoping for a chance to speak, but were ignored by Murphy, who serves as the Commissioners' president. When Encelewski pointed to Bastidas, Murphy cut him short. "I'm sorry. This is where we're talking," stated Murphy.
Commissioner Paul Weiss, however, chided the audience, stating he "takes offense" at the notion that a high density housing project next to the park will be approved. "We're getting hung out to dry and there's nothing before us," he complained.
Weiss, along Michael Hudak and Arthur Murphy voted to dissolve the Housenick Committee. Just two weeks earlier, these same three Commissioners were favorably impressed when developer Michael Perrucci pitched a 420-unit apartment complex next to the park. At that time, Murphy had stated that the Moravian Church, which still owns the property, has a "God given right to do whatever they want with it."
Batcha and Thomas Nolan voted against dissolving the Housenick Committee, with Nolan stating "A very clear No."
After voting to put them out of business, Commissioners unanimously agreed to send letters of appreciation to Housenick Committee members. They also approved a plan that calls for $1.7 million in improvements to the park, with another $1 million for mansion restoration as a public use. The plan envisions 2.29 miles of walking trails, a pavilion, trail head and public restrooms.
Michael Adams, an Allentown resident who lived for ten years in the Township and states he "still cares," was visibly upset at Murphy's refusal to allow the public to speak on an agenda item. He noted that Allentown uses an "egg timer" and only allows three minutes, but lets everyone to speak on agenda items. "To deny the public the right to address an agenda item is Soviet-style democracy," he declared.
But President Arthur Murphy has an unlikely ally. His Republican opponent in this Fall's election, Martin Zawarski, agrees with the decision to disband the Housenick Committee. "The Township has a fine recreation committee that looks over a lot of parcels that the Township has under its control," he stated. "I don't think there is a need for further input from a third-party source."