A standing room-only crowd filled Lower Saucon Town Hall’s meeting room Wednesday night to oppose a zoning amendment that would allow the Bethlehem Landfill on Applebutter Road to double in size by expanding across nearly 275 wooded acres. However, after a hearing that lasted several hours, township council voted 3-2 to approve the controversial rezoning from Rural Agricultural (RA) to Light Industrial (LI) and other changes.
Voting in favor of the change were council president Jason Banonis, council member Tom Carocci and council member Mark Inglis. Voting in opposition to it were council member Priscilla deLeon and council vice president Sandra Yerger.
In addition to changing the zoning map, the vote authorized a significant change to the township zoning ordinance; a change many opponents of a landfill expansion decried.
Instead of requiring special exception approval for their future land development plans, landfills and waste disposal facilities’ plans will now require only conditional use approval, meaning they are now exempt from the township zoning ordinance’s site plan approval process requirements. Special exception uses must be approved by the township’s zoning hearing board, however conditional uses require no such oversight, and previously the only other category under that column was cell phone towers.
Banonis said he was glad council had the “fortitude” to make these decisions, as prior councils had “punted” them to the zoning hearing board, which he previously chaired.
“What is being proposed here makes sense from a sound land use and zoning perspective,” he said.
Council solicitor Linc Treadwell argued that the proposed changes to the ordinance were “not about the landfill expansion,” but deLeon said they were.
“We wouldn’t be changing the zoning…if they didn’t come in October,” she said, referring to a presentation about the expansion made by landfill representatives. “I’m not stupid.”
DeLeon then read a litany of questions she said are unanswered regarding the potential future impact of the landfill’s proposed expansion near Bull Run and the Lehigh River; everything from what the value of the open space that has been purchased by Bethlehem Landfill is, to how wildlife in the area could be impacted by its expansion, to whether there has been any assessment of what kinds of wildlife currently inhabit the land.
She also asked whether there were crash statistics for the roads leading to and from the landfill; about the frequency of fire company responses to the facility; and about the density of homes in the area, which includes Steel City’s nearly 250 homes.
Steel City resident deLeon and others said they fear what an expansion of the landfill could mean for groundwater in the area; especially since most homes rely on well water.
“Not all the leachate makes it to the sewage treatment plant,” said resident Laura Ray in a letter opposing the expansion that township manager Mark Hudson read into the record.
Hudson said that prior to Wednesday’s meeting, the township had received 10 letters in support of the rezoning and six letters in opposition to it, one of which was Ray’s.
DeLeon asked that the letters’ authors be identified at the meeting, however they were not. On her Facebook page Priscilla deLeon, Councilwoman, Lower Saucon Township, she later shared several of the letters written in support of the expansion by township residents, including letters by prominent township business owners such as David Spirk and Andrew Warner. Spirk owns Steel Club, a country club that is one of the township’s largest employers, and Warner, with his wife, owns Black River Farms Vineyard & Winery on Black River Road. Neither business is located in the vicinity of the landfill.
Among those who spoke against the proposed expansion at the meeting were township resident and former state councilwoman Karen Beyer and Northampton County Council member Tara Zrinski, who said she was there “as the environmental consciousness of Northampton County, so-called by (County Executive) Lamont McClure.”
Beyer told other opponents in the room that the fight against the landfill would not be over, regardless of how council voted, and that there are multiple avenues of appeal.
Many of the residents who spoke against any landfill expansion were from Steel City and other areas within a mile or two of the current facility, however all parts of the township were represented by the opposition, including its more suburban western neighborhoods.
“We’re going to be known as the garbage dump capital of PA,” Diane Hallowell told council. “Please do the right thing so when my granddaughter grows up she can be proud to live in this area.”
In voicing opposition to a landfill expansion, a number of residents also criticized the current council for other matters, including a very public, intermunicipal spat over library services that resident Frank Palumbo said has “poisoned” the township’s once-close relationship with Hellertown borough. Borough officials recently voted to sever longstanding joint compost center and pool agreements that benefited township residents and to appoint special legal counsel for all matters pertaining to the township.
The current council is acting in an “authoritarian” manner and “not working in its citizens’ best interests,” Palumbo said, while also claiming that some members are actively engaging in “gaslighting (and) scare tactics.”
Resident Janine Bonham said she fears how property values and her family’s quality of life may be affected by a future landfill expansion, particularly since they have already experienced negative repercussions from living in close proximity to the facility. Bonham said an odor she attributed to the nearby landfill is sometimes so noxious that she has brought her children inside out of concern for their health.
Resident Nicolette Stavrovsky questioned whether the risk to nearby residents from potentially radioactive waste would increase with an expansion of the landfill, and resident Michael Bueti–a former Staten Island, N.Y. resident–referenced the city’s infamous Fresh Kills landfill in describing what he said he’s afraid could be “catastrophic” health impacts if the Bethlehem Landfill expands.
Traffic and the current impact of nearly 3,000 trucks per day traveling to and from the landfill was another concern highlighted by a number of residents.
“The truck traffic is horrendous,” said resident Brian Mauro.
Dr. Dru Germanoski, a professor of geology at Lafayette College and vice chair of the township’s Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) said he opposes a landfill expansion not only because of the potential environmental consequences it poses but also because of how they could unfairly affect some people living in the area more than others.
“There’s an environmental injustice issue here,” he said, noting that effects of a landfill expansion will be disproportionately borne by Steel City and other nearby residents who have already spent decades dealing with the consequences of living near the facility.
The only public comment from a landfill representative at the meeting was a brief statement read by Regional Engineer David Pannucci of Waste Connections Inc., the Texas-based company that owns and operates the Bethlehem Landfill facility.
“Comprehensive state and federal regulations that govern municipal waste landfills have been carefully crafted and are revised as new technology develops to minimize the impact on surrounding communities,” he said. “We are not permitted to and do not accept hazardous waste. We have a radiation management plan, also approved by the Department of Environmental Protection, which governs how we must monitor radioactive material and the specific steps we must take if such material is detected, including isolation of the material…municipal notification and removal and/or disposal depending on the isotope that is detected.”
“Oversight over our operations is both extensive and rigorous,” he added. “If the map and text amendments are adopted, a specific and detailed expansion plan will be engineered, which will then be subject to many, many layers of rigorous review and approval by both the township and the Department of Environmental Protection. Adopting the proposed zoning ordinance amendments is just the first step to that process.”
A number of residents chided council for its rules that only provide three minutes to make a statement; for not holding the meeting in a more spacious venue; and for holding the hearing four days before Christmas, which is a hectic time of year for many families.
Some also questioned the actions of a Waste Connections-linked political action committee (PAC) during last year’s township council election.
“This landfill gave money to a PAC that helped some people get elected and I’m wondering if this is payback time,” said resident Larry Opthof. “It’s not passing the smell test.”
In October 2021, WLVR published a story detailing a connection between the PAC and the campaigns of Banonis, Carocci and former council member Jennifer Zavacky, who resigned her seat earlier this year. Mark Inglis was later appointed to fill the vacancy.
The article “Landfill Owner Dumps $75,000 Into Lower Saucon Township Council Race” by Tyler Pratt was cited by at least one meeting attendee Wednesday.
Wednesday’s meeting agenda and supporting documents are available on the township’s website, and a video recording of the meeting in two parts is available on the Facebook page for Saucon Shenanigans, a Lower Saucon Township government blog published by resident Andrea Wittchen. In advance of Wednesday’s hearing, Wittchen–an opponent of the proposed landfill expansion and rezoning–published a lengthy entry, “Destroying Quality of Life in Lower Saucon Township,” in which she discussed background for the changes that were approved by council as well as questioned the timing of the decisions.
Along with several speakers at the hearing, Wittchen called the argument that without the landfill the township will be forced to raise property taxes a “red herring.”
“(Lower Saucon Township is) running a surplus EVERY SINGLE YEAR!” she wrote. “And not by a small amount. By almost as much as we take in from the landfill.”
According to charts included in Wittchen’s Dec. 20 post, in 2021 the township ended its fiscal year with a budget surplus of roughly $2.2 million and took in roughly $2.1 million in landfill hosting fees. This year, the township is projected to receive approximately $2.6 million in hosting fees–nearly a quarter of its total revenue–and end the year with a surplus of approximately $2.1 million.
“If the landfill income disappeared tomorrow, we would still have enough revenue to run the township,” Wittchen opined. “With a concerted economic development effort, we’d be doing even better and those sources of revenue might have more longevity–and certainly less odor–than the landfill.”
At the meeting, resident Matt McClarin–who was outspoken against a proposed Bethlehem Landfill expansion nearly a decade ago–criticized township officials for failing to build on the efforts of an economic redevelopment committee that was then formed to help diversify the township’s revenue streams and reduce landfill reliance.
He also asked why millions of dollars in earned income tax revenue that is earmarked for open space preservation in the township is sitting untouched in an account.
“I hope everybody in this room becomes an objector,” said McClarin, who called the zoning amendment “spot zoning” and advocated for a lawsuit based upon that claim.
The next Lower Saucon Township Council meeting will be its annual reorganization meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 3 at 6:30 p.m. at Lower Saucon Town Hall.
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