The Woodland Hills Preserve in Lower Saucon Township is now the Sandra Yerger Community Recreation Area and Nature Preserve, following a 3-1 township council vote to rename the park after Yerger, a current council member who abstained from voting on the tribute.
However, the decision to rename the 146-acre passive recreation area developed nearly a decade ago on the site of a former golf course isn’t receiving universal praise.
Councilwoman Priscilla deLeon opposed the renaming decision, as did several residents who shared their concerns with council at the start of Wednesday night’s meeting.
“It’s generally imprudent to name things after living people,” commented Andrea Wittchen, who also questioned Yerger’s qualifications to have a park named after her, as well as council’s motivation for the timing of the decision.
Yerger is currently running for re-election to council on a Republican slate that also includes Susan Blair and incumbent council vice president Mark Inglis. That slate is opposed by Democrats deLeon, Victoria Opthof-Cordaro and Laura Ray.
“In the three-and-a-half years I’ve been attending council meetings, I’ve never seen (Yerger) express any passion or support for a particular environmental improvement or initiative,” Wittchen claimed. “As chairwoman of the (Lower Saucon Township) EAC, she led no significant movement on open space acquisition and now we’re saddled with a superfluous committee that has also done nothing.”
“Why honor someone whose last campaign attracted the backing of the political action committee funded by the landfill?” asked Wittchen, a vocal landfill opponent who writes about township council and Bethlehem Landfill on her blog, Saucon Shenanigans. “This seems a blatantly political maneuver to try and distance her from the other two on the slate and repackage her as someone who cares about the land, to get at least one person elected to maintain the current council majority.”
Yerger, who has served on council for over 20 years, has along with deLeon voted against efforts to rezone 275 forested acres near the Lehigh River for a landfill expansion plan, most recently in June. Her votes have not affected the final outcome of those votes, as the three other members of the current Republican majority–council president Jason Banonis, Tom Carrocci and Inglis–voted to support the measures.
Resident Lynn Hill told council she agreed with Wittchen’s assessment.
“It seems like a blatant attempt at greenwashing a candidate to me,” she said, adding that “there are other people who are far more deserving of this.”
Hill said she also disagreed with “naming a park after someone who’s still alive.”
Resident JoEllen Thompson said she didn’t question the specific choice of Yerger for the honor, but rather the process that led to her selection.
“Is there a procedure that you follow?” she asked. “Is the public informed ahead of time or able to participate, or is this solely a council decision?”
Those questions largely went unanswered during the subsequent council discussion, which was held after township Parks & Recreation Board chair Dave Spirk endorsed Yerger for the honor and said most other township residents would, too.
“I would just like to remind Sandra that the vast majority of the people in the township are grateful for everything you’ve done, for us, for them, and the work that you have tirelessly done on behalf of us for so many years,” said Spirk, who as the owner of Steel Club is also one of the township’s biggest employers.
Banonis credited Spirk and the other six Parks & Recreation Board members for bringing the recommendation to rename the park after Yerger to council.
Spirk, in addition to his involvement with the township board in the past has voiced support for expanding the landfill and played an active role in township Republican politics, including in support of at least one of Yerger’s council re-election efforts, during which the company that then owned the landfill reportedly donated money to a political action committee (PAC) he headed.
According to an October 2015 Morning Call article, “Landfill seeking expansion spent $95,000 on Lower Saucon Township Council election,” in the spring of 2015 then-owner of the landfill “IESI contributed $40,000 to Responsible Solutions of Pennsylvania, a political action committee formed by Lower Saucon residents David Spirk and Craig Kologie in support of (Republican primary election candidates Tom) Maxfield, (Sandra) Yerger and Bill Ross, according to paperwork filed with the Northampton County Voter Registration Office.”
The newspaper reported that at the time “Yerger did not respond to a phone call for comment, so her position on the landfill was unclear.”
Yerger, who would go on to win re-election to Lower Saucon Township Council in both 2015 and 2019, told Saucon Source in May that she is “running for reelection to continue the blending of preservation of open space and protection of our natural resources, with responsible development,” which she said “will help the township remain fiscally responsible and debt-free.”
“After much deliberation, I voted against rezoning the landfill property,” she stated. “I will review the conclusions of the landfill conditional use hearings and balance what is best for the community with the desires of individual property owners.”
A conditional use hearing that began in February is currently on hold, after a county judge voided council’s 3-2 December 2022 decision that would have allowed the landfill to expand; a decision Bethlehem Landfill is currently appealing.
Speaking to another concern raised by residents, Banonis cited the Edward N. Cahn Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Allentown, named for 90-year-old retired U.S. District Court Judge Edward N. Cahn, and St. Luke’s Anderson Campus, a hospital in Bethlehem Township named after current St. Luke’s University Health Network President & CEO Richard A. Anderson, as examples of places named in honor of living people.
“President Joe Biden has the Biden Expressway in Scranton named after him,” he said, in reference to the President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Expressway, named for the current president, who was born in the Electric City in 1942. “By no means is this something new.”
Banonis said it is fitting to recognize someone’s accomplishments “while they’re with us” and went on to cite a number of Yerger’s, which have included being the first resident to place her family’s property in the township’s open space preservation program.
“I know she’s very modest about this, and I think that this is a tremendous honor for a tremdendous person,” he said.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Yerger responded.
She said she “didn’t expect this, for obvious reasons,” adding, “I don’t know whether to thank the recreation board or not, but I do respect their wishes.”
Following council’s vote, Banonis instructed township manager Mark Hudson to move forward with changing the signage at the park to reflect the name change.
In other business at Wednesday’s meeting, Banonis announced that a discussion about variance requests for a proposed 39-unit garden apartment complex on Old Philadelphia Pike–across from the township municipal complex–was being postponed until September.
Council’s next meeting will be held Wednesday, Aug. 30 at 9 a.m. at Se-Wy-Co Fire Hall and may include discussion and/or a vote about a proposal to rezone 275 acres onto which Bethlehem Landfill wants to expand from rural agricultural to light industrial zoning. Meeting agendas are posted on the township website, typically three business days prior to the next council meeting.
At a special meeting Tuesday, Hellertown Borough Council voted unanimously to initiate legal action against Lower Saucon Township if council approves the rezoning, which it contends would violate a multimunicipal comprehensive plan and conservation easements that were enacted nearly 30 years ago. Nearly simultaneously, a nonprofit group opposed to the landfill’s proposed expansion–Citizens for Responsible Development–announced the filing of a lawsuit in the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas which contends that rezoning the property would violate the Donated and Dedicated Property Act.
A recording to Wednesday’s council meeting may be watched on the township’s YouTube channel. Meetings are also livestreamed on YouTube.