NEWS ANALYSIS-Green Pond Marsh attorneys want board member Breslin disqualified
On Feb. 22, Bethlehem Township Commissioners conducted the first of what will likely be several public hearings concerning a controversial retirement community next to environmentally sensitive wetlands known as Green Pond Marsh.
Most of this hearing was consumed by preliminary matters. This included a motion by Save Green Pond attorneys Tom and Charles Elliott to disqualify Commissioner Pat Breslin from taking any part in the case. They called three witnesses to support their argument. Over 50 people were at the three-hour hearing. Breslin himself was absent. Earlier that week, he had drawn the ire of residents and commissioners alike for a recent radio interview replete with what Commissioner Mike Hudak suggested were “alternative facts.”
Located along Farmersville Road and across the street from Green Pond, Green Pond Marsh is home or a stopping point for 182 different bird species. It first caught the attention of businessman and environmentalist Jeff Acopian many years ago. He was driving in the area and noticed what he thought were numerous ribbons of white plastic. As he got closer, he realized they were actually snow geese. They took off and surrounded his car briefly in a sea of white.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said a man whose interest in the environment has taken him as far away as Kenya. He and Jack Glagola, a planner and architect who lives next to the marsh, co-founded Save Green Pond after becoming aware of plans to develop the site. Their group boasts about 200 members, including 38 township residents. The entire area around Green Pond Marsh has been Audubon-designated as an “Important Bird Area.”
The marsh is owned by Green Pond Country Club. Most of their stockholders have no local ties and want a return on their investment. If unable to develop a golf course community, they have threatened to sell everything, including the golf course, for residential development. But if Traditions of America (TOA) can develop an age-restricted golf course community next to the marsh, the remaining land can never be developed, even if the golf course itself is eventually abandoned.
Reacting to concerns raised at numerous meetings, TOA has reduced the density of the development while increasing the amount of open space as well as buffering the wetlands area. The number of homes went down from the original 261 to 229. Open space has been increased from 22 to 29 acres, with 18 of those acres as true open space, independent of any storm water management. Buffering of at least 50 feet will surround the wetlands. The closest any home will be to the wetlands is 309 feet.
In November, the planning commission recommended “tentative” approval of the plan, although the commissioners have the final say. In accordance with the Municipalities Planning Code, they must first conduct a public hearing and make specific findings leading to the general conclusion that tentative approval is “in the public interest.” Even then, no plan may be recorded and no building permits may be issued until final approval is granted.
TOA was ready to start its case. They had numerous bound copies of exhibits for each commissioner, along with reams of rolled up maps. They also brought in well-regarded zoning attorney Marc Kaplin from Blue Bell, although his abrasive style seemed out of place in a township setting. He objected to nearly everything, including the identification of eight “affected parties” able to cross-examine and call witnesses. An increasingly exasperated township solicitor Jim Broughal finally told Kaplin, “Unless you live in Alaska or Florida, you’re probably an affected party.” Jack Glagola and Jeff Acopian, co-founders of Save Green Pond, as well as Save Green Pond itself, were among those given “affected party” status.
After that, Save Green Pond attorneys Tom and Charles Elliott called three witnesses in support of their motion to disqualify Commissioner Pat Breslin. Kaplin strenuously objected, claiming he had no advance notice. But Broughal responded that it was only moments before that Save Green Pond had been identified as an “affected party.”
Two of these witnesses included Anthony Orefice, property manager at Penn Farms Condominiums, and Penn Farms Board President Bill Walczak. They had notified Planning Director Nathan Jones that they opposed the use of their detention basin to handle some of the stormwaters from TOA. Not long after that, Orefice got a call from Breslin, who identified himself as the president of the board of commissioners. Breslin told Orefice that the TOA plan was a “done deal,” even though it did not even have a planning commission recommendation at that stage. He also offered to accept a dedication of the detention basin, and said the township was “financially strapped.”
A third witness, Randi Jordan, was even more troubling. She testified that just a week ago, when she went to work at a local jewelry outlet, Breslin was there with a brochure for a publication called The Township Observer. The brochure identified Breslin as the publisher. He was selling ads. The brochure represented that the publication has a circulation of 8,000.
While at store, Breslin belittled citizens, Jordan said, including a little girl, who came to previous hearings with watercolor paintings of each of the 182 bird species at Green Pond Marsh. He called the drawings “fake birds.” Breslin told Jordan that the township had to approve the plans or face a lawsuit, and complained that it was “ridiculous” that TOA opponents “had actually hired attorneys” to represent them. When Jordan expressed concern about increased traffic, Breslin told her that residents there “tend not to drive.”
The brochure that Breslin gave Jordan includes this notation: “In the News, Green Pond Country Club to Expand, p. 5.”
In addition to Jordan’s testimony, the Township Observer website did include a promotional photo for Green Pond Country Club and Banquet Facility. The words “Green Pond Country Club and Banquet Facility” were removed from the website the day after the hearing.
According to Internet domain records, The Township Observer website was created by Breslin on Nov. 1, 2016, using a compaid.com email address. The website indicates it is owned by Township Observer, LLC. According to the Pa. Corporation Bureau, Township Observer LLC was created on Oct. 7, 2016, and lists an address of 1534 North Ninth Street, Stroudsburg PA 18360. That also happens to be the address of Major Hyundai, a well-regarded auto dealer. No one there during a visit late last week has heard of Breslin or the Township Observer.
Though Breslin was absent, he has been asked whether he solicited ads from Green Pond or TOA, and has been asked to explain why no one at the Stroudsburg address is aware of him or the Township Observer. It is unknown whether he has received or solicited a financial consideration from Green Pond Country Club for what appears to be promotion of that business on his website. Under the state Ethics Act, elected officials must recuse themselves from matters in which they have a pecuniary interest.
Broughal indicated he would make no ruling on the disqualification motion without first affording the absent Breslin an opportunity to respond to these concerns.