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Sunday, June 08, 2014

Northampton County To Help Buy A Golf Course

Do you think it's a good idea to spend $300,000 in Northampton County's open space fund to help complete the purchase of a failed golf course? Northampton County does. A sharply divided County Council voted, at their June 5 meeting to contribute $300,000 toward the $1.775 million purchase of developer Alex Patullo's now defunct Woodland Hills Golf Course, located in Lower Saucon Township. The remaining money will come from the township and state. That's $11,486 an acre. Instead of golf, visitors will use the land for hiking or bird-watching.

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. 


Anonymous said...

It's not a Golf Course.

Anonymous said...

The Locust Valley story is interesting. The owner is claiming he is being courted by developers, but isn't the whole reason why he even owns it is that the previous owner tried to develop it and could not do so because he could not get the sewer allocation? I recall that battle going on for several years in the mid 2000s. What changed now? I doubt the current owner even paid $2 million for it, having saved it from sheriff sale. Sounds like he's trying to recoup his purchase price on the public's dime and have a "free" golf course to operate.

I like the golf course and he has made many, many, improvements, but I don't think public money should go towards "preserving" it.

Anonymous said...

I generally am in support of Open Space, unlike Hayden who appears to be against it. There are formulas that are used to see which parcels best qualify for funds.

In the case of the golf course, it sounds like it is being purchased outright, unlike the others which are conservation easements. It isn't preserving a golf course.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"It's not a Golf Course"

It may be defunct, but it is a golf course. In fact,it is the golf course that probably created the flooding problem, and now the owner is being rewarded. Lamont McClure, Ken Kraft, Scott Parsons and Bob Werner all voted for a handout to a local businessman. All four are up for election next year. One of them told me the voters will forget by then. I don't think so.

Bernie O'Hare said...

"It isn't preserving a golf course."

Council is bailing out a golf course developer who couldn't even pay his tax bill and will keep other property for an - 'ahem - religious retreat. It is not going to be running a golf course, and I made that clear in my story. But it is a bail out. I don't think this is what the voters meant by open space. I believe Republican strategists will make hay with this next year, as they should. It was incredibly stupid. It was a pandering move to the open space lobby, while forgetting about the taxpayer. The taxpayer will not vome to meetings, but some of them will vote. Especially seniors on fixed incomes. I am sure they won't be happy to see their money being wasted on a golf course developer who couldn't run his own business.

The golf course is being purchased outright.

I saw no hue and cry from Lower Saucon residents, saying, "Please buy that golf course."

One of the Council members told me you'll all forget about this next year. i would not recommend making up your mind on one issue, but this is an irresponsible, spendthrift vote.

Peter J.Cochran said...

Ok,alright then,Northampton County tax payers should receive 'rights' to play golf there,show up with a property tax form in your name and marked PAID and walk on to play at less than market price. As the higher- end folks that pay a lot they should get a motor cart also.Mr.Developer should have to return funds if the just waiting for housing market to return as he will most likely build in the future.Fore! The WALL STREET JOURNAL 07 June 2014 reports 14,564 golf courses in the US- Russia has just 30,Iceland 65.Old Peter!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Peter it is a DEFUNCT golf course. It is not being purchased as a golf course, but as an open space preserve.

Anonymous said...

Even more ridiculous is the purchase of those 18 acres that gives a couple's home a boost in its selling value ("You'll never have anything built around this property to obstruct your view."), a reduction of their assessed value (subtract 18 acres), and a windfall of cash ($87,000.

There isn't a developer that would have touched sloped property due to the expense of meeting regulations before, during, and after the build.

Are these homeowners related to somebody important?

Peter J.Cochran said...

I understand Bernie,but stuff is in place . In Maine outside of Camden, 'SAMOSET' golf coarse was once defunct and it is now thriving . Quality homes built around the outside of it was part of the reason this property became a new investment and a magnet for new money to show up on it. This Northampton County property would allow high-end prospects like Saucon Valley types,professional people to move in ,and avoid Bucks County taxes, on the other side of the ridge. Golf could come back if they do this properly I would think.In any case good development is uncongested, and open. On the other side of issue , high density parking runs with low income housing.

Bernie O'Hare said...

12:28, I know nothing negative about the Morrows. I so know the County has wanted that property. Bill Mineo, who was the Parks Director before Gortie Heller, Mineo had identified part of this property years ago for a county acquisition. He believes rare medicinal herbs grow there. Munro is an active member of the Open Space Advisory Board and lives in Williams.

Mineo is a man of high integrity, and I believe the rest of this board approved this purchase with the noblest of intentions. Nevertheless, the points you raise must be explored in every purchase bc the potential for mischief is always there.

Anonymous said...

It's not a golf course, you header is disingenuous at best.

Anonymous said...

4;40 You are in the bio solid spin zone.

Bernie O'Hare said...

It is a golf course. It is defunct, but it is still a golf course and Patullo still maintains a few holes. It is important that readers know this, and know who on Council voted to use the tax money of seniors on fixed incomes to bail out a tax delinquent millionaire.

Peter J.Cochran said...

Bernie , and so you beat me up? Defunct ,what? Which is it? I say the money holds the developer over until the is ready to make a real move. How does this benefit the tax payers? No suggestion here by me that it is appropriate ,just somebody JUSTIFY why we are spending the money , I will not forget this next election ,and may post a notice to this affect. The Council people that voted for this,well it's on them next time.

Anonymous said...

Why is council funding municipal parks at a time when it doesn't have the money to do so?

It would seem to me if the municipalities want more municipal parks, they can raise taxes on their own residents to do so.

Anonymous said...

Give it a break Peter. It will not be a golf course. You need to let go.

Whethervain said...

Slight refinement; it's not a golf course, according to this map, it's a Country Club!

Before that, it was the Saucon Sand Mining Company (hence the former name of this course - Sandy Lakes run by Henry Bartholomew).

And then, before that, it was farmland (that many Pichel tomatoes were grown on).

Here's a layout of what he had planned to develop at one time.

Bernie O'Hare said...

So what do you think? Bail him out?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Do you know if his plan was ever approved? Sandra Yerger said it had been "on the books" sine 2099,but never said whether it was approved. If it was approved and no lots sold, the development expires. Can't remember how long you have to make a sale.

Thanks for the map.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Thanks for the map. Wonder whether it was ever actually approved.

Anonymous said...

Depending on when it was approved (if it ever was), he has a minimum of at least 5 years after final plan approval to complete the development of the subdivision. Can be up to 14 years if he had it approved before 2011 and is given extensions by the appropriate authorities. I believe the state enacted the longer term for pre-2011 plans because of the large number of approved subdivisions that were never built once the housing bubble crashed. At least this is my understanding of the terms, I've been out of the biz for some years now.

Anonymous said...

Its not just the money the county contributed to this place; what people are forgetting about is the lost revenue of tax dollars that the school district; county, and lower saucon twp are now going to NOT receive. This WILL eventually amount to increase taxes to the people in those districts, so be prepared people and DO NOT complain when your taxes go up.

Matt M. said...


There are a few things missing from the story. There is a significant State funding and Township funding component already approved to the golf-course property. There is also a religious retreat planned for the existing buildings on that property, according to the Township's planner.

That being said, could an addendum have been written stating that the funding is minus the taxes owed to the county?

Also, that "religious retreat" better be taxed. Methinks he's "donating" the property to the organization in the name of a write-off as well.