Lehigh Valley

Developers soon may plant fewer trees in Bethlehem

City Council will take initial action June 16 to reduce required replacement trees

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Developers in Bethlehem soon may be allowed to plant fewer trees.

A proposed amendment to the city's zoning law would require anyone doing land development or a subdivision to replace each tree removed with just one new tree, rather than two as currently required.

If what is called the tree conservation zoning amendment is passed, only new developments in the rural residential and office/research zoning districts of the city still will be required to plant two trees for every tree taken down.
The law already allows developers to give the city cash to plant trees elsewhere rather than replacing trees taken down.

No one from the public stood to raise a concern or objection during a public hearing on the proposed tree ordinance change at the start of Tuesday night's Bethlehem City Council meeting.

Darlene Heller, the city's planning and zoning director, stressed the city wants to maintain its tree canopy "and protect our natural wooded areas."

Heller said most development is occurring downtown and on former Bethlehem Steel property in south Bethlehem, areas where city officials really want significant development to take place.

"There's really no practical way that a developer can replace trees two-for-one on those parcels," maintained Heller. "It's just impractical.

"Since we want to maintain the tree canopy, we felt that one-for-one replacement was reasonable."

She said planting two trees for every tree removed for development still will be required in areas of the city zoned office/research, "which is really the South Mountain area — naturally wooded areas with steep slopes," and rural residential, which are large lots, mostly on the north side of town.

"That's the other zoning district where we have most of our natural areas," explained Heller.

She said even one-to-one tree replacement will be difficult for some developers, which is why the law includes a provision that allows them to make cash contributions to the city instead of planting trees.

She said that money goes into an account and will be used to plant more trees in city parks or along Bethlehem streets.

"We think that is a fair and reasonable alternative," said Heller, adding it still ensures the city's tree canopy, including in urban core areas.

City Council expects to take initial action on changing the zoning law regarding replacement trees at its June 16 meeting.

Cathy Reuscher was the only member of council who had a question about the tree law.

When developers give money to the city rather than planting trees, Reuscher asked if a priority will be given to planting trees in parks near that development, "so we're not having trees planted in west Bethlehem when the development is in south Bethlehem."

For most developments, responded Heller: "We want those trees planted on the development site. There have been a few developments where that's not been practical."

Heller added the first priority will be adding street trees along Fourth Street in south Bethlehem. "Other than that, we haven't talked about what the next priorities will be. But we're always trying to keep the tree canopy full in the urban core areas."

The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission reviewed the proposed tree conservation ordinance change and warned it "increases the likelihood of a net loss of trees on-site at any development, since the regulation does not and never has required replacement of unhealthy trees or those below a certain size."

The LVPC review also warned "construction and earth disturbance can damage otherwise healthy trees."

A letter from LVPC encouraged city officials to review LVPC's model regulations on woodlands "for details on tree protection methods that help to conserve natural resources when development activity might otherwise pose a threat."

Responding to LVPC's comments, Heller told City Council: "I don't think the amendment we're proposing to you really is conflicting with their comments.

"Their comments want us to retain naturally wooded areas, which we want to do too. That's why we're not advising the provisions for RR [rural residential] or CM [office/research] zoning districts."

According to the zoning ordinance, trees removed for development must be replaced if they are healthy and have a trunk diameter of at least eight inches, measured 4.5 feet above ground level.

Trees that replaces them must have trunk diameters of at least 2.5 inches, measured six inches above the ground.

Changing the tree requirement in the zoning ordinance was just one of three proposals raised during Tuesday night's public hearing.

Another dealt with limiting the amount of impervious surfaces allowed in some residential zones.

The third was about changes to recreation fees paid by developers, as part of the city's subdivision and land development ordinance.

Proposed change to impervious coverage

The impervious coverage zoning amendment would allow a maximum impervious coverage of 50 percent in rural residential zones.

Those are the lowest density residential zones in the city, with lot sizes of at least 15,000 square feet.

In March, the administration proposed allowing 75 percent impervious coverage in rural residential zones, but that was tabled because several members of council made it clear they preferred limiting it to 50 percent.

Seventy-five percent will be the maximum in single family residential zones, which is the second lowest density zone in the city. Residential properties in that district must cover at least 8,000 square feet.

The city currently has no limits on impervious coverage in its residential zoning districts, explained Heller.

The impervious coverage zoning amendment was recommended for approval by a 5-0 vote of the city's planning commission on May 14.

Stormwater runs off impervious surfaces rather than being soaked into the ground. Such surfaces include homes, sheds, paved driveways and sidewalks.

Resident Al Bernotas, the only member of the public to speak on any issue during the public hearing,
had pushed council to make the zoning changes to impervious coverage.

He said he's very happy council thought enough of his concerns to actually change the zoning ordinance.

Bernotas told council that the city's planning and zoning office didn't have a problem with impervious coverage, which is why it isn't addressed in the current zoning ordinance. "But things happen and sometimes problems develop," he said.

Recreation fees

The third issue raised during the hearing involves a change to recreation fees collected from developers.

Heller said changes to the state's Municipalities Planning Code give the city more flexibility is how it can spend those recreation fees and how quickly they must be spent.

She said previously the fees could only be used to provide park and recreational facilities accessible to a development, "which is pretty restrictive."

She said the change allows the city to use the fees to acquire, operate or maintain such facilities, in addition to building new facilities, "and it also allows a greater geographic range in which those funds can be spent."

She also said there now is no time limit on when the funds must be spent, adding: "Previously, there was a three-year time limit."

All three proposed ordinances will be on the agenda of City Council's June 16 agenda for first reading, meaning votes on final passage probably will happen at the July 7 meeting.

Saucon Park update

At the request of council member Bryan Callahan, Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio gave a brief update on Saucon Park since his department increased its presence and enforcement a few weeks ago in the popular park near Interstate 78.

Things have been getting much better in the park, reported the chief.

He said the park's pavilions are full on weekends, but there has been no damage.

"People are obeying the rules and the residents in the area are very happy to see the cops in cars, on bikes and on foot down there," said DiLuzio.

Women's soccer viewing parties

The city approved ArtsQuest holding viewing parties for Women's World Cup Soccer between June 8 and July 5 at SteelStacks in south Bethlehem.

Council initially was going to delay voting on that request until its June 16 meeting.

But Mayor Robert Donchez noted the first soccer match viewing party is scheduled for 6-11 p.m. June 8 and another is scheduled for 5 p.m.-midnight June 12.

The mayor asked council to vote on the permit Tuesday night. Council suspended its rules to immediately approve the permit agreement.
A third match viewing party is scheduled for 4:30-11 p.m. June 16.

Additional viewing parties for "knock-out rounds" will be held, apparently depending on the progress made by the American team.

The location of the viewing parties will be First Street from Polk Street to the eastern terminus and Founders Way from Second to First streets.

Skateplaza shade canopy

With no discussion, council voted to approve hiring David Hornung Architectural Planning, Inc., of Allentown for architectural services for a shade canopy that will be constructed over a "10-stair" obstacle in Skateplaza, the city's skateboard park near Sands casino.

The company will be paid up to $1,520 for its work.

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