Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Counties surrounding Lehigh Valley slow in creating greenway plans

The state had hoped all 67 counties would have adopted plans to identify and preserve greenways -- corridors of meadows, forests and other undeveloped land used for recreation and conservation -- by the end of 2007.

But several counties, including Carbon, Berks and Bucks, have yet to file Comprehensive Greenways Plans. The plans are expected to be in place by the end of 2008, according to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Lehigh, Northampton, Monroe, Schuylkill and Montgomery counties all have completed their plans.

Carbon County Commissioner Chairman William O'Gurek said his county is doing its greenway plan in conjunction with its comprehensive plan, which maps development, economics, traffic and land use.

''One of the concerns of all three commissioners is that open space and farmland is fast being gobbled up by developers,'' he said. ''We're very much aware of that. The county needs to have smart growth, and we think the best way to do that is to have a comprehensive greenways plan in place to guide government in making decisions in the future.''

Bucks County Commissioner Chairman Charles H. Martin said Bucks has had greenway plans of varying types over the years, including one that would connect county parks by acquiring rights of way to the land between them.

Bucks residents want safe places for recreation, and developing a Comprehensive Greenways Plan will provide that, he said. Residents want the greenways for recreation and for the scenery, he said.

The state is giving 50 percent matching grants, averaging between $50,000 and $150,000, to counties to complete the plans, which it refers to as ''greenprints for growth.''

O'Gurek said Carbon has applied for $72,950.

The program aims to establish a network of greenways that will link ''natural, historic, and scenic landscapes, as well as our cultural and recreational sites,'' according to DCNR.

''The whole theme of greenways plans is connections,'' Williamson said. ''Matching up trails, linking communities with rail-to-trail systems and connecting resources.''

Northampton County Municipalities struggle to work together

A plan that could improve emergency services and help bring state money to a dozen Northampton County municipalities has hit a snag because they don't agree on how to organize themselves.

For a year, the municipalities have discussed forming one of the Lehigh Valley's biggest confederations -- a group that would cover roughly a third of Northampton County and represent nearly a quarter of its population.

But some of the potential members still don't agree on how the group should be set up or whether all the municipalities must first become part of the existing Nazareth Area Council of Governments.

That plan has already turned off supervisors in Lehigh Township, who are interested in forming a regional group but recently rejected joining the Nazareth Area COG, Township Manager Alice Rehrig said.

The Nazareth Area COG plan may also be a tough sell in Northampton, though Borough Manager Gene Zarayko stressed that borough officials ''have an interest in moving forward.''

In December 2006, Northampton Area School District officials proposed forming a new council of governments to help the district's seven municipalities (Lehigh Township, Allen Township, Northampton, Bath, Chapman, East Allen Township and Moore Township) communicate.

Bath, Chapman and the townships of East Allen and Moore -- are part of the COG with Nazareth and Tatamy boroughs, and Lower Nazareth, Upper Nazareth and Bushkill townships, all of which are in Nazareth Area School District.

Joining all these municipalities in a regional supergroup would give local officials a louder voice when dealing with state officials, said Bill Brackbill, the Nazareth Area COG's secretary and business administrator. That could lead to bigger state grants or even to the state Department of Transportation focusing harder on local traffic projects.

Forming a group could also mean better coordination during regional emergencies. The Nazareth Area COG's members have drafted agreements that will make it easier to share fire and police resources, and they're working on a regional emergency management plan, Brackbill said.

Given the Nazareth Area COG's resources and experience, it makes sense to add Northampton and its neighbors to the existing group instead of starting from scratch, Brackbill said.

''The present members of the Nazareth COG are welcoming in these members with open arms,'' he said.

Allen Township and Northampton have both pledged to pay their dues and join the group, though Zarayko said Northampton officials had believed it was going to be only ''a branch or an arm of the Nazareth COG'' instead of the Nazareth-based group itself.

Northampton officials turned down an earlier offer to join that confederation, partially because Northampton seems to have more in common with an adjoining borough like Catasauqua than it does with Nazareth, Zarayko said.

Getting Lehigh Township and Northampton to join the existing COG might be easier if it weren't named after a borough 10 miles away. Brackbill said a name change is ''something that can be considered.''

Despite the rejection from Lehigh Township supervisors, Brackbill has continued to invite that township's representatives to meetings, and he's eager to move forward with all willing municipalities.

''Some people might think the progress is slow,'' he said, but he pointed out that the Nazareth Area COG also took years to build. ''It's a process that eventually will work out.''