Bethlehem Township: Traditions, Green Pond site arguments heard
Developer Traditions of America (TOA) wants to build an active senior community at Green Pond Country Club. What makes this development controversial is its location. It’s adjacent to environmentally sensitive wetlands, in the middle of an Audubon-designated “Important Bird Area” called Green Pond Marsh.
Because nearly every Bethlehem Township commissioner has publicly expressed an opinion either for or against the proposal, the board decided to appoint David Brooman, a Norristown-based attorney, as an independent hearing officer to decide whether to grant or deny tentative plan approval. He has conducted several hearings with technical testimony offered by both Traditions of America and “Save Green Pond.”
But the April 11 hearing was different. It was a last opportunity for the people to speak. They did. He heard from 29 of the 80 people who packed into the municipal building on an unusually warm April night.
Of the 29 people who spoke, 13 were opposed to the development. The remainder were either supportive or neutral.
If this development is denied, Green Pond Country Club has threatened that it will have no choice but to close. So many of the arguments in support of the development were actually arguments in support of the golf course:
- Green Pond Country Club is a venue for numerous local charities. Joseph Douress started the Heroes Tournament at Green Pond in 1992 in memory of his 12-year old daughter, who succumbed to leukemia. Through that tournament, he has raised $200,000 for children with cancer. The funds he raises enables them to spend a weeklong camp in the Poconos. Douress’s sentiments were echoed by Bill Sugra, whose son was killed at the World Trade Center on 9-11. He hosts a tournament at Green Pond that has raised $600,000 for 70 nonprofits in the Lehigh Valley. Bill Hankee, whose daughter Krysta died at age 22 after collapsing at a gym, also sponsors an annual golf tournament in her honor at Green Pond. He has raised $100,000 to purchase gas cards for medical travel and educational grants aimed at our youth.
- Green Pond Country Club is where inner-city children can learn about golf and enjoy the countryside. “Our kids are getting an opportunity that they otherwise simply couldn’t afford,” said Dean Young, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club in Easton. He said golfers often donate shoes and clothing for kids on the course, and that they sometimes glimpse a red fox. He said the golf course provides a “human connection.” Joseph Masulli said Green Pond golf pro John Kulhamer is “unbelievable with the children.”
- Green Pond Country Club hosts high school and college golf. “It would be a shame to let this course go,” said Stephen Malitzki, a former township employee and head golf coach at Northampton Community College. He said many local high schools and colleges use the course.
- Migratory birds will find another place. This argument was made by Tom Lusto, a golfer who used to teach biology at Moravian Academy. “I am certain that, over time, the biology will work itself out,” he said. Tom Stitt, a local attorney and golfer, also made that argument, noting there are far more snow geese by his Lower Nazareth office than will be found at Green Pond Marsh. But this argument was disputed by the Audubon’s Barbara Malt, who told Brooman that the shore birds who frequent the wetlands need that environment.
- TOA will generate a lot of revenue. Joseph Masulli, who moved to Bethlehem Township to escape higher taxes in New Jersey, said the tax revenue to the township alone will be $2 million. (TOA Principal David Biddison at previous meetings said the township would benefit in the form of a $343,500 recreation fee, $250,000 in annual property taxes and $500,000 in realty transfer taxes. The school district would also receive $1.9 million in taxes from a development with no children.) “Don’t throw out the good for the perfect,” said Anthony Liberatori
- An active senior community is needed. Don Appleton would like to move into TOA at Green Pond, saying the developer has a reputation for high quality homes. State Senator Lisa Boscola called the project a no-brainer, but said she could promise the residents that the wetlands will be protected and enhanced. “I want to be part of the solution,” she said.
- Green Pond Marsh is irreplaceable. That word was repeated by nearly every person who spoke against the development. Paul Jordan, who lives across the street at what he calls “ground zero,” said the mere sight of the marsh is spectacular, and noted a bald eagle was spotted there just the previous weekend. “There is nowhere else that these birds can go,” said the Audubon’s Barbara Malt, who said the nearest resource is at least 25 miles away. Ann Fessler, who teaches fifth grade at Moravian Academy, called it ia “pristine sanctuary.” She said she would instantly choose it over a golf course or wedding venue. “Once it’s compromised, it can never be remediated,” said Michael Adams, who grew up in the township. It is not just a local resource. It is a regional resource.” Irene Torres, a local artist, said. “My heart lives in Green Pond.” Kathy Glagola noted that only two percent of Pennsylvania consists of wetlands.
- There are native American artifacts at Green Pond Marsh. Karen Berry said Green Pond Marsh is the site of hundreds of Lenni Lenape artifacts, including a semi-lunar knife used by native women to clean fish. She said Barry Kresge, a member of the Society for Pennsylvania Archeology, has had the area listed as a Pennsylvania Historical Site with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. She acknowledged that development can still occur there.
- Greed is the motivating factor. John Gallagher, a retired architect, said, “Ultimately, it’s all about the money.” He said 229 homes are being sold at an average price of $459,000, making it a $105 million project. He said the current design only considers the need of one stakeholder, the owner.
- The marsh could be preserved. “You don’t have to develop the township this way,” said Vicki Bastidas, who is vice chair of NorCo’s open space committee. She said the land could be preserved as open space.
After everyone had spoken, Brooman said he would keep the record open while the hearing notes are being transcribed. He said he expects briefs from TOA and Save Green Pond by the end of June, and will issue his decision about two months later. Both sides agreed to give him an extension if he thinks he needs it. So a decision on this senior community will wait until Summer’s end.
At least three commissioners were present for the final hearing, along with Manager Melissa Shafer and Planning Director Nathan Jones.