Friday, December 21, 2007

Greenway in Bethlehem hits a speedbump

From the Morning Call:

Bethlehem's quest to turn a 3.5-mile stretch of old railroad into a trail will have to wait until next year.

Days before the city was scheduled to close on the deal to buy the land on the South Side, Bethlehem officials said the sale has been delayed until next year because of unfinished survey work.

''We want to make sure we're getting everything we pay for,'' said Tony Hanna, city director of community and economic development, on Tuesday.

The agreement of sale, which was reached in July, has undergone some changes this year. City officials have done some last-minute negotiating with the owners, Norfolk Southern, and cut the deal from 44 acres to 28. Two adjacent property owners are buying the balance.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband declined to comment on why the deal was postponed except to say that it was ''caused by the city.'' The new closing date, he said, would be determined by whether changes in the agreement were acceptable.

Mayor John Callahan said that the core agreement still calls for the city to buy 28 acres for $1.8 million. The delay, he said, should not affect the city's schedule to develop the rails-to-trails project.

City officials said earlier this month that Norfolk Southern wanted to sell the land before the end of the year so the railroad can close its books on it.

Some council members questioned why they were being asked to authorize the spending before they had a chance to review the sale agreement.

Councilman Joseph Leeson Jr., who did not want to stall the deal, had said he would vote for the funding ordinance on first reading, but expected a copy of the agreement before council cast its final vote Tuesday.

With no contract in hand and Norfolk Southern's agreeing to extend the deal until January, the administration requested to pull the second reading of the ordinance from Tuesday's agenda.

The park, which has been seven years in the making, meanders through the South Side business district from Union Station to Saucon Park. City officials have heralded it as a trail to link the community with businesses, residences, parks and institutions such as Lehigh University, drawing people and priming the pump for more economic development.

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