Sunday, June 08, 2014
Northampton County To Help Buy A Golf Course
This purchase comes from an open space fund proposed by former Northampton County Executive John Stoffa in 2006. County Council then endorsed a half mill tax hike for a "pay as you go" plan that would preserve farmland, environmentally sensitive property and municipal parks.
Woodland Hills Golf Course
"To me, it's a no-brainer," exclaimed Open Space Chair Scott Parsons concerning the golf course purchase. "This is exactly what our open space is about." For the four members of Council who agreed with him, this purchase will ensure high water quality and reduce serious stormwater flooding along Lower Saucon and Easton Roads. But to four other Council members, the public's money is being wasted on a soft landing for a developer whose business plans went awry.
Earlier that week, Open Space Administrator Bryan Cope warned Northampton County Council's Open Space Committee that, unless it purchased and preserved the defunct golf course, Patullo could build a 50-lot subdivision at the site. He claimed plans have already been submitted.
Farmland Preservation Administrator Maria Bentzoni conceded that the property has been on the market for three years. But she said when a developer approaches her to offload some of his inventory, "I'd rather see it preserved."
A similar proposal is being considered in Lehigh County. Upper Saucon Township has been asked to purchase the development rights of the Locust Valley Golf Course for $2.2 million, or $18,000 an acre. But in Upper Saucon, the question will be submitted to the voters, who previously defeated a 1/4 mill tax hike for open space.
In Northampton County, developer Patullo has been delinquent on the tax bill at the golf course, which was scheduled for upset sale last year. The land is zoned RA, or rural agricultural. But Lower Saucon Planning Commissioner Sandra Yerger told Council that three-acre residential lots are permitted. Patullo had planned to convert the clubhouse into a tavern, but the Commonwealth Court denied a use variance in 2011. According to Yerger, he's now decided on establishing a religious retreat.
Yerger told Council that an already serious stormwater flooding problem, which was created in part by the golf course, will be exacerbated by the additional impervious coverage that comes with a residential development. But Seth Vaughn suggested that any new development could easily be required to come up with a stormwater mitigation plan as a condition of approval.
"We're not trying to bail out a golf course here; we're trying to prevent flooding," reasoned Lamont McClure.
But to Matt Benol, it is a flooding problem created by the developer. "When townships approve all these developments to go in, and then when everything starts to flood out, now it becomes a taxpayer issue or a property owner issue," he complained. "The current owner created this flooding issue."
Hayden Phillips made clear, earlier in the week, that he is philosophically opposed to spending money on open space at a time when the County is running a structural deficit. "We're not in a position to spend taxpayer money that's not covered by revenue," he reasoned. "We don't have the money."
Parsons and Ken Kraft both pointed out that this project is supported by local residents, who will be paying the lion's share of the cost. They both added there will be no maintenance costs to the county. The Township will allow the golf course to revert to its natural state and use the existing golf cartways as trails.
Yerger added that some of the land may be dedicated to stormwater mitigation.
By a 5-4 vote, The purchase was approved. It was supported by all the Democrats on Council (Kraft, Parsons, McClure and Werner) as well as Council President Peg Ferraro. It was opposed by Republicans Phillips, Vaughn, Benol and Glenn Geissinger.
Steep Slopes Purchases
Council also voted, 6-3, to purchase two conservation easements in what is called the Hexenkopf Slopes Significant Natural Areas, located in Williams Township. Seth Vaughn, who opposed the golf course purchase, supported these acquisitions.
Conservation easements are an agreement to never develop the land, made in exchange for a cash payment.
The first of these is the $86,868 purchase of a conservation easement for 18 acres owned by Kenneth and Barbara Morrow. That's $4,826 per acre in public money, with a County investment of $30,403.80. The Morrows will keep the remaining 2 acres and be surrounded by land that can never be developed. That land, in turn, is surrounded by land that has already been preserved.
The second matter is the $265,000 purchase of a conservation easement for 57 wooded acres owned by James Koch. That's $4,656 per acre in public money, with a County investment of $92.887.20. This tract includes rocky outcroppings, but also includes agricultural lands and meadows.
Bob Schmidt, Chair of the Williams Township Land Preservation Board, said both properties are "excellent candidates for preservation."
Bur not to Glenn Geissinger. Earlier that week, he pointed out that the Morrow property is already surrounded on three sides by preserved land, It is also steep slopes, with the occasional vernal pool, known to most of us as swampland.
"My concern is the fact that development of this land would be very difficult," Geissinger remarked.
Municipal Park Improvements
Far less controversial were municipal park improvements for Easton, Bethlehem Township, Moore Township and Bushkill Township.
Easton's Hugh Moore Park. - The County will pay half of the $450,000 cost for improvements that will include an improved entrance, 8' wide walking path, new playground, outdoor classroom, tree plantings and wayfinding signage. The other half is coming from the Hugh Moore Park Charitable Trust. This passed unanimously.
Easton's Nevin Park Fountain. - The County will pay $35,000 of the $146,400 cost for a new fountain to replace the original cast iron fountain that was erected in Easton's Centre Square in 1865 as a livestock watering site. This fountain was dismantled and move to Nevin Park in 1899 to make way for Easton's Civil War monument. During WWII, it was melted down to support the war effort. This fountain is the dream of Easton's College Hill Neighborhood Ass'n, which is contributing 25% of the cost. Benol voted No without explanation.
Bethlehem Tp Municipal Park Fitness Trail. - The County will pay half the $48,000 cost to replace 20 fitness stations at the 1.3 mile paved walking and running trail. Those fitness stations were first installed in 1992. Seth Vaughn called it a "great project". Ken Kraft was the sole No vote.
Moore Tp Community Park Improvements. - The County will pay half the $114,000 cost for the following: two dugouts to protect players during baseball games at McCandless Field ($28,897.50); a 2047' long, 4' wide walkway that parallels a roadway in the park ($40,136.25); completion of the perimeter trail by connecting parking lots with existing trail ($27,460.50); and double seal coating of the roadway ($18,000). Benol stated he has visited these fields regularly as a coach. This passed unanimously.
Bushkill Tp Ballas Tract Improvements at Kromer and Jacobsburg Roads. - The County will spend $137,336.00, or 35% of the cost to extend multi-use trails to Kromer Road. Open Space Administrator Bryan Cope has called Bushkill Tp a leader in the area of open space preservation. Scott Parsons noted this project is within walking distance of the IU 20 school. This money will also help fund a timber truss pavilion, gravel parking lot and add erosion and stormwater control enhancements. This measure passed unanimously.
Blogger's Note: I was not physically present at this meeting, but watched the video and prepared this report from that, as well as my previous report from the open space committee.