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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Monday, June 29, 2015

Our Open Space Program Needs More Scrutiny - Part One

Glovas mansion
In Bethlehem and Easton, you might get a free lunch or a cot for the night if you're down on your luck. But if you have property and live in the country, officials will fall over themselves to give you money.

Northampton County's Open Space program is designed for farmland preservation, environmentally sensitive land and municipal parks. Like kissing babies, it's politically popular. In many instances, it is also the right thing to do. But there have been questionable decisions like the preservation of cliff lands and swamps that could never be developed in the Slater Belt as well as last year's bail out of a failed golf course developer in Lower Saucon Township.

The one place I thought might have things right is Williams Township, which has preserved a number of parcels over the years using its own money as well as county and state funds. But then I sat down with Vince Foglia, one of those rare independents who managed to get elected to public office. He is a Williams Township Supervisor. According to Vince and farmer Halden Ballek, it's really an open space scam in which a few people have positioned themselves to get handouts they don't deserve from the rest of us.

This is the start of a series of articles about abuses in what really has become an industry.

Williams Township has a Land Preservation Board that consists of members who have pretty much decided to preserve their own properties..Arlene Koch, Jeff McGuire, Doug Seipt, Linda Heindel and Alan Kirby have all been members. All have had property preserved. I'm sure that each abstained from voting on his or her project, but it's really a game of musical chairs. One hand is very clearly washing the other.

McGuire Estate
What's the big deal?, you might ask. After all, every property gets appraised on both the local and state level. Well, guess what? Every appraisal that's been done, from the inception of the program to the present, has been defective.

Let me explain. Whether it's farmland or environmentally sensitive land, the owner invariably carves out a parcel or two for himself. It might be his home, or it could be land he intends to develop down the road. The state requires the appraiser to "take into account any increase in the value of the subdivided acreage because of the placement of the easement on the remaining farmland." In the case of the Glovas mansion, for example, the appraiser was required to go back to the mansion and surrounding land that Glovas has carved out of the proposed conservation easement and determine how much that parcel would increase in value as a result of the easement preserving the land around him. This is something the appraiser failed to do, most likely because it would decrease the value of the appraisal. In fact, I've never seen it done.

Some interesting points from the Glovas appraisal:

* It's in Flood Zone X. This is a minimal at-risk area, but is pretty strange for a project presented to NorCo Council as "steep slopes." .
* Zoning is Low Density Residential, which requires a 2-acre minimum for building lots on his 68 acres.
* The potential for development is nonexistent. This is because most of the property is considered too full of granite and gneiss boulders. If you go down just 60 inches, you hit a lithic bedrock. Anyone who wanted to develpop here would need lots of dynamite.

Despite these problems, Foglia tells me the Glovas application is actually one of the better ones.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you how residents in this county continue to subsidize these wealthy landowners through a tax millage freeze that Foglia and Ballek both think is illegal. County officials disagree.


Anonymous said...

Bernie - there may be abuses like what you argue here in Williams, but the reader may infer this is typical in all communities. It most certainly is not.

Perhaps abuses like these in Williams are a part of the reason Williams Twp voted down its EIT to fund open space. The objections of Foglia to the millage freeze are well documented in the local press. If you are going to give a few people in one community where Open Space appears to have gone off the rails a platform and a voice, please be aware that you are throwing red meat to the minority of politicians that want to dismantle the program. #1 is John Brown. Maybe a broader view is in order of the entire program, instead of horror stories from a single community.

The entire Northampton Open Space program is in a precarious position, thanks to JB. Alleged abuses like the ones in Williams, if made to sound typical, could give JB one more justification/reason to not fund Open Space this year like he did last. Communities that partner with the county will have a very short fuse this year, after the crap Brown pulled last. The entire program, which was voted into existence by an overwhelming majority of county voters, has been extremely successful when measured against other counties, could come to an end for the wrong reasons - an Executive that forgets he came from the Slate Belt and who has sticky fingers, and a few bad actors.

Bernie O'Hare said...

This is not about John Brown or his own misplaced views on open space. This is about the entire program, and Williams Tp is just my starting point. I have little criticism of municipal park grants, but environmentally sensitive land purchases have either received no scrutiny or have been subjected to cheerleaders. It is time to concentrate resources on storm waters and water quality. I will have more to say soon.

Anonymous said...

The development boom of the last 25 years is over. The threat of open space being depleted at record shattering pace is over. Their is no need to use taxpayer hard earned money to protect something that is no longer threatened is simply a waste of money and needs to be stopped. IMHO.

Bernie O'Hare said...

That's not entirely tue. There still is a need of $ for farmland preservation and municipal parks. I can see spending money on a worthwhile project for environmentally sensitive land under threat of immediate development, like Green Pond Marsh. But I believe it is time to rethink spending onthat aspect of open space and instead use the money for regional stormwater mitigation brought about at least in some part by over development.

Anonymous said...

You gota read what Madonna has done with open space and land protection legislation in the Hamptons. Go to the New York Post or Daily News to see how legislation can be manipulated for greed.

Anonymous said...

The only space that should be preserved with taxpayers' money is that which is returned to its original open space condition: woods. Farming is incredibly environmentally unsound. And save the Farm Aid bullshit. We prop up prices and pour milk into the ground and pay Jaindl over a million dollars per year in farm welfare. Open Space is a feeding trough for the wealthy who play the racket the government created for them. Open Space is a poorly managed scam.

Anonymous said...

I am SO GLAD that this is finally coming to light! As a resident of Williams Township, I am sickened by the way this program is being run! When I voted yes for Open Space, I thought it was to protect the farmland. I was wrong. They have completely abused this system to line their pockets. What really burns my butt is that it's not just my local (township and county) taxes, but also what I pay to the state. The DCNR kicks in money as well. Supposedly it is because the preserved property can be used for recreation, but I don't think anyone is even aware that there's public access to these properties. YOU WOULD THINK that the land preservation board would be promoting the public use of the land preserved with DCNR funds, but you would be wrong! Why? Because they don't want anyone trampling on their precious land. F'ing HYPOCRITES! They have no problem standing in front of DCNR and promising the land will be used for public enjoyment, yet they have done NOTHING....NOTHING to promote its use.

PLEASE, Bernie...blow the lid off of this SCAM!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Okay bernie. How did you manage to get together with Vince Foglia and Hal Ballek? These two guys have personal "AXES" to grind with people who they think screwed them (people highly respected in our community) or are simply jealous of others who have benefited from programs that they have been turned down for. Be careful what you print and make sure you can prove what these two dissenters are feeding you.

Bernie O'Hare said...

I have not personally met Mr. Ballek. I have met Foglia, who contacted me after reading my Glovas story. I find it amusing that you, who won't identify yourself, warn me to be careful in trusting their word. Foglia does not own enough land to seek preservation, so your claim about him applying and being denied is necessarily false. I am aware that Ballek has claimed his property taxes should be frozen, but suspect he was making s point. I believe Figlia and Ballek led the charge to repeal the EIT open space tax and have been a thorn in the side of the Chrin land fill. I believe those stances were popular in Williams, so I dispute the claim that they are dissenters. When I met Foglia, he gave me documentation to back up nearly everything he said. He also told me what he was unable to confirm.

Anonymous said...

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Ron Beitler said...

Great post Bernie. Thanks for covering this.

I followed the Williams township referendum from afar. Which I think failed by just a handful of votes. It's my understanding that the opposition campaign wasn't necessarily anti preservation but a fairly sophisticated argument. Alot of people weren't against the notion to preserve but rather against the way the program was utilized and administered relating to issues you raise here.

I think Williams has some more money left in the program right? So this wasn't a vote to end the preservation efforts but rather pausing collection of new revenue. Meantime the program can be refocused and streamlined. Am I understanding correctly? If they fix the parameters and tighten them up I wouldn't be surprised to see another referendum that passes.

These programs need to be lean and mean farmland preservation machines. Have to be careful with mission creep.

The focus needs to be protecting farmland which is a form of industrial infrastructure and taking developable property off the market zoned for low value uses like warehouses and tract housing. Both of which are net financial losers for local municipalities from a cost of services standpoint.

Bernie O'Hare said...

From what I understand, Ron, your assessment is accurate. There is still money left for open space projects that are worthy. In the meantime, the program needs to retool. They are not anti- open space, nor am I.

Chris Amato said...

Thank you Ron for being the consummate voice of reason.

Joyce Marin said...

Hi Bernie,

Certainly one wants to limit abuses to any system, so thank for identifying what may not pass the smell test in local municipal farmland preservation world. However, local municipalities can put in a system of checks and balances or provide additional oversight, but don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Both counties have professionally run farmland preservation programs that prioritize land to be preserved on criteria that would probably make sense to you. The thing is that the county funding is woefully inadequate. Lehigh County is at $250,000 this year. Northampton County is at $750,000 this year.

It's a regional issue. The region needs to think about what it wants to be after the 145,000 more residents the LVPC is projecting will move here are living here. The LVPC has a recommendation that the Lehigh Valley preserve the open space of roughly 25% of the footprint of the region. To make that happen, we need the type of ag easements you criticize here. As anyone can see, the farmland in our region is converting quickly to development. As a region, if we don't get serious about preserving the farmland, it will be gone. Who will we be then? The warehouse capital of the Northeast? New Jersey West? How will we feed ourselves?

It turns out that ag preservation zoning, while one of the tools in the farmland preservation toolbox, is not a permanent way to preserve the land for future generations. Permanent preservation, that is only available through agricultural or conservation easements. That's what the program you highlight funds. With easements, it's "farmland forever." Go ahead and clean up the behavior of a local board with questionable behavior, but we should be increasing the farmland we preserve, not preserving less of it.

Ron Beitler said...

I don't read this as Bernie criticizing the programs. Just pointing out potential for abuse. We need to stay vigilant. I also agree with Joyce we should be making the lifecycle cost/benefit arguments to restore funding. According to a number of people I talked to folks in Williams support and prioritize preservation. They just want to make sure the money is going where it is supposed to.

I don't know enough about the example cited here and the 2 acre min lots... But I do know in Lower Mac there are large tracts - hundreds of acres - that for over two decades were preserved. . . via ag zoning. That zoning failed catastrophically in 2010 when leaders didn't have political courage to defend growth boundaries. Today? The community is paying the price. Quality of life and financially as we assume the long term liabilities for low value development. Do not trust zoning as a preservation mechanism. It's political. And political isn't permanent only permanent is permanent.

Only easements are forever. It's also the only fair way to preserve by compensating a partner landowner fair market value. Communities must be willing to put skin in the game. Personally, I think it's money well spent since it reduces municipal liabilities to provide services and infrastructure to future development.

Ron Beitler said...

I do think the Lehigh County program which I'm very familiar with is VERY well run. Norco's from what I know as well. Here is a link to LC's requirements.


Bernie O'Hare said...

Joyce, I have no desire to attack the merits of open space preservation or the competency of the officials in NC who run the program. They are dedicated and highly professional. But it is definitely worth re-examination. While I am never troubled by the farmland projects or park projects, there have been what I call abuses in the environmentally sensitive land. Part of the problem, in my view, are the advisory boards. I was sickened to learn that most of those who had land preserved in Williams sat on the local land preservation board. One of the points I made with Bryan Cope is that even on the county level, the board is more active as s cheerleader than a guardian of the public purse. Most are ardent environmentalists. I think this taints their perspective. I would like to see more focus on a subject dear to your heart - water quality. Storm water is becoming a major problem that demands a regional approach.

Joyce Marin said...

Bernie, You are right...water quality is near and dear to my heart -- and we have issues with it in the region. I think that farmland preservation makes sense when contiguous corridors of fertile land is preserved first. Ideally, I would like to see both Lehigh and Northampton Counties use the same exact criteria for preservation (they are presently close but not the same). We could then encourage the local municipalities to use that unified criteria, and voila, we would have regional consistency! One vote I would like to cast in support of local municipal farmland preservation efforts is that when the local dollars are pooled with county money, then together, they can be leveraged with state money for maximum positive impact to the Lehigh Valley. Lastly, I would like to help you connect your stomach to the issue of farmland preservation. No farms, no food. With the drought in California, we should all be thinking of how we can be more self sufficient and more resilient as a region with respect to where our food comes from. If we like to eat, we should be supporting our local farmers and producers with our food dollars (get thee to a farmers market) and be behind farmland preservation to ensure that we have "farms forever."

Anonymous said...

We should also stop propping up prices for overproducing, stop pouring milk into the ground and stop stroking a million dollar check to Jaindl each year. Farm land is overabundant and causes many of the flooding woes that aren't linked to residential over development. Family farms are endangered by larger agribusiness competitors; not failure to provide them. Woodlands are the way these lands were before farmers raped them. We should retire the Farm Aid myth and stop believing in fairy tales about our food production. Farms are necessary. But should be limited due to their deleterious effect on our environment.

Bernie O'Hare said...

" Farm land is overabundant and causes many of the flooding woes that aren't linked to residential over development."

This statement is inaccurate. Farms actually increase the drainage. Also, as I reported over a year ago, the Lehigh Valley has lost 80% of the farms it had in 1930, Acreage has dropped 53% as well. You need to make more of an effort to inform yourself before posting statements that are completely untrue.

Anonymous said...

Williams Township resident here again. Ron, your initial assessment of the situation is spot on! I, and most others who voted to repeal the tax, are NOT anti-preservation. It is the way the program is currently be administered that is the problem. Joyce, you make some interesting observations and suggestions. It is refreshing to see people who "get" it.

I don't even know what to say to the person who claims farm land is overabundant and the cause of flooding. I agree with Joyce, who recognizes that farmland preservation should be a priority. The Glovas estate, uh, NO.

Anonymous said...

Because the subject and my name came up, some facts: There is about $2 million currently in the preservation fund in Williams Township. As you know, these funds are restricted to programs you mention, including open space and farmland preservation. I voted for this funding in 2004, because I assumed laws and regulations would control abuses. Williams Township's three ongoing projects are the Koch, Morrow, and Glovas open space preservations. I voted for all three projects because we have a ranking system, a Preservation Board, and no other projects. The Township's total commitment to these projects is about $100,000. The DCNR review lasts about two years.
Millage increase or dedicated EIT are methods to fund programs per Act 153 of 1996 and Act 4 of 2006. In Williams, the 1/4% additional EIT approved in 2004 has contributed to projects of both types to date and created the surplus.
Farmland preservation is a County program and if asked, municipalities contribute from these same funds. I favor farmland preservation, but only per the rules, no “extras” to get properties into the mix beyond the law. Those adding have a vested interested in keeping this going, it’s is about their jobs. It's an industry of paid folks supported by these “like kissing the babies” programs that few understand.
The recent referendum vote was about continuing the funding of an overfunded balance, not to ”end preservation” as misrepresented. Referenda to continue, stop or reinstate such funding are enabled by Act 115 of 2013. This is allowed every five years. $2 million will last 5 years.
Thanks for your reporting
Vince Foglia

Anonymous said...

Yes, I've worked with ex-Supervisor Ballek and other ex-Supervisors who initiated the program here. They expressed concerns about how this has morphed, including the preservation of landlocked properties, rocky and steep slopes, properties with significant utility easements taxpayers pay unnecessarily to prevent development on, no hunting for taxpayer money, and other problems. As you say, balance taxpayer interests with those of the property owners.
When Mr. Ballek's written and verbal concerns were met with flat out rejection by many in Williams Township and the County in 2011, he did not give up. I took office in 2012, and he approached the Board again. The subject is complicated, he gained my trust, I learned from him, and I started to dig. We met with the County several times. Others fed us information. To date, all of Haldan Ballek's points are valid and I found more problems myself. Last July, the County actually corrected an issue previous Supervisors and the County said Mr. Ballek was dead wrong about. I gave you the letter. 4 years of fighting for right and he was right. Lawyers, administrators, and his critics were wrong. Neither Haldan nor I have entered any property into any preservation program. My land is only 1.28 acres. I have no vested interest in getting this mess fixed, other than representing the taxpayers of Williams Township and to uphold my Oath of Office which happens to include defending the US and PA Constitutions. It provides for equitable taxation.
I now have my doubts about the open space program simply because abuses you and others have revealed and the fact that proponents seem to need to mislead and reject any criticism outright. Delay, denial, and obvious stonewalling does not serve one’s credibility. Neither does insults, name calling, instead of revealing truth. Example: I know you will be writing about millage freeze. When I met with County Officials about County Ordinance 254 and the clear PA Constitutional restrictions in that law which they have not been adhered to, incredibly, I was told "don't read the words as written, think about the spirit of what they wanted to do." That's right, "SPIRIT" over words in law. A lawyer present repeatedly asked that I not attribute that comment to him. Nice, but neither he nor county Executive Brown did nothing to fix that understanding of the manager involved. Easy words to understand that nobody can understand for over a year. Stall me- YES. Such twisted logic and “don’t look at me” attitude got me looking even more. Don't blame me for the abuses I found and those others have brought to our attention. More big stones need to be overturned than on some of those bad deal preservation properties.
This may be more than a Northampton County issue.
Thanks for your reporting.
Vince Foglia

Ron Beitler said...

Sounds like Williams township has some good thoughtful ppl in office now who are really thinking through their preservation program and want to get it right. And also thoughtful voters. Sounds like the crux is people just want to make sure the money is going to where it's supposed to. I will continue to follow with interest how this plays out. Williams is having the right conversations.

Anonymous said...

Farm land is overabundant and causes many of the flooding woes that aren't linked to residential over development.

This statement is fu[king nonsense. Thanks for playing the game of Life, and losing.