Inside Your Town

Updating Bethlehem park rules is a work in progress

Enforcement remains a question

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Regulations for city parks are only as good as the enforcement that backs them up, a Bethlehem resident reminded a City Council committee that is updating those regulations on Tuesday night.

The regulations that already exist are not being enforced in the city's Saucon Park, resident Gerry Gore told five of the seven members of City Council members in Town Hall.

Gore, who lives near that park, complained about trash, noise, fires "all over the place" and the use of alcohol in the park – including drinking by softball teams.

"It's a horrific mess at times," he said, adding enforcement is almost non-existent.

Cars along the roadways are not only double-parked but triple-parked, said Gore. "Ninety percent of the license plates are from New York State or New Jersey."

Saucon Park is near the Route 412/Interstate 78 interchange in south Bethlehem.

Gore claimed some people arrive at the park around sunrise and stay until evening.

He said people tube, swim and even bathe in Saucon Creek, which runs through the park. "It's all prohibited but, unfortunately, it's not enforced."

He noted the park should belong to the city's taxpayers, but said, "Many of our neighbors have told us they are in fear of even going down into the park."

Gore made his comments to City Council's parks and public property committee, which discussed updating the city's park rules for more than 90 minutes Tuesday.

That update would allow alcohol consumption only in designated pavilions at Saucon Park, as well as two others in the city.

But Gore was skeptical that people will limit drinking to the pavilions.

Confirming some of Gore's comments, City Council member Michael Recchiuti said Saucon Park often is a mess by Mondays.

Recchiuti said both he and Council president J. William Reynolds attended a child's birthday party in the park a few weeks ago and "we commented about the blatant rules violations we saw going on."

"It was all New York cars and New Jersey cars," said Recchiuti. "I was surprised."

He also was surprised to see many people swimming in Saucon Creek in the park, saying "there were about 50 people in the water."

Recchiuti said he was a lifeguard at Saucon Park's pool in the 1990s "and I can tell you it wasn't that way then. There was a different atmosphere in the park. It was crowded, but I don't think it was as much of a mess and as much of a nuisance as it's turned into now.

"The city is limited with what they can do with enforcement, but that's one concern we really have to look at – for that park in particular."

"I'm going to start calling the police," said Gore after the meeting.

He mentioned there also are problems with people at the parks trespassing onto private property.

"The first step to better enforcement is a better ordinance to have as an enforcement tool," said Ralph Carp, the city's parks & public property director.

"This is the path to better enforcement. The police won't enforce what they don't see on paper."

The city had a couple of park guards in the past, but Carp indicated they did not have any authority except to call police if people did not listen to them. "They were just watchdogs -- eyes and ears." He said those positions were taken out of the city budget many years ago so more police officers could be hired.

Recchiuti said he's not sure who enforces the city's park ordinance, adding: "I'm guessing police do when there's a disturbance in a park, but I don't think they have a lot of people out there actively looking for violations."

Reviewing proposed rule changes

Committee members Cathy Reuscher, Bryan Callahan and Recchiuti were joined in reviewing proposed park regulation changes by council members Greg Evans and Karen Dolan.

Dolan had the most questions and suggestions during the meeting. She pushed for the update of park rules last spring, when she chaired the parks committee.

On Tuesday, Dolan recommended banning smoking in city parks, saying: "That's something we definitely want to add."

Callahan suggested being careful about which areas are designated as non-smoking, saying people enjoy a cigar and a beer or two while playing golf on the city's golf course, which is part of the park system.

If the city doesn't permit dogs in its parks and cigar-smoking on its golf course, "we're going to have this chamber filled with more people than we had for the garbage issue," predicted Callahan.

"The golf course is a very unique park, if it still should be considered a park," said Dolan. "I would question whether that's the appropriate word for it."

In addition to smoking, park activities not addressed in the current ordinance include using tubes and kayaks in creeks, skateboards, metal detectors, motorized wheelchairs and even Segways.

Carp said he if he gets a complaint about people with metal detectors digging holes in parks, there's nothing he can do, because the current ordinance is silent on whether metal detectors are permitted or prohibited in parks.

Rather than continuing to prohibit dogs in city parks, a proposed change stipulates dogs must be leashed, said Jane Persa, the city's recreation administrator.

"I think that's a sensible compromise," said Reuscher.

That rule does not apply to the dog park in Monocacy Park.

There was discussion about prohibiting archery in the parks for safety reasons, as well as driving golf balls.

What happens next?

Proposed changes discussed by the committee will be reviewed by the city solicitor's office and parks department, then incorporated into a more refined proposal to update the 16-page parks ordinance.

That proposal will be reviewed again at a future meeting of the parks committee in the next several weeks, before going to the full City Council for final action.

Carp said several parks department administrators have reviewed the proposed changes.

"We live it every day so we can speak firsthand to some of issues we deal with in regard to the current verbiage in the ordinance," said the parks director.

Recchiuti said all the changes presented so far by the administration "were fairly innocuous."

Reuscher, who is the committee chair, said members of the committee had very few changes to the proposed revisions.

"I have none," said Recchiuti. But a few moments later, he asked about swimming in creeks in parks, which is and will be against the rules, and about tubing. He said he went tubing in Monocacy Creek when he was a kid, and suggested adding language to allow tubing.

The parks director said swimming in Saucon Creek is prohibited by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission because of the high quality of its water.

"But again, it becomes an enforcement issue," he said.

Carp later said both Monocacy and Saucon creeks, which flow through Bethlehem parks, have been designated as streams with high-quality water by the state. "They are prize jewels and I want to make sure we've environmentally demonstrating good stewardship."

Dolan had no issue with banning swimming in the creeks, but suggested people still should be allowed to wade in them. She also said kayaking should not be allowed in the two creeks, but should be permitted in the Lehigh River Canal.

Carp later indicated he's not sure how the fish and boat commission would weigh in on tubing in the streams.

Callahan suggested allowing Segways "on the Southside linear park," also known as the South Bethlehem Greenway, although he acknowledged, "I don't see Segways flying all over Bethlehem."

Alcohol restrictions

The committee meeting began with a lengthy discussion about alcohol in the parks.

The proposed revisions would allow use of alcoholic beverages only in designated pavilions in the city's Saucon, South Mountain and Monocacy parks.

Carp explained those are the only parks where pavilions can be rented because they are the only parks with public restrooms.

With that exception, the ordinance will continue to prohibit alcoholic beverages from being taken to or consumed in any city park, including the three just mentioned.

Beer, ale, malt liquor and wine would be allowed in those pavilions, but whiskey, scotch, gin or any beverages with an alcohol content of more than 12 percent would be prohibited.

Recchiuti said there's always alcohol at some softball tournaments held in the city – "illegally, obviously."

The proposed revisions also would allow alcohol to be served by non-profit organizations holding private, invitation-only events inside three leased buildings -- the Charles Brown Ice House on Sand Island, Illick's Mill in Monocacy Park and the ice skating rink.

Referring to Illick's Mill and the Ice House, City Solicitor William Leeson said: "This is not written, designed or intended as a significant expansion of what already goes on there."

Carp recommended adding the ice skating rink, saying the Fraternal Order of Police would like to serve beer there during a fund-raising mud run that expects to draw 4,000 participants, "but by ordinance it's not permitted."

The proposed ordinance change states alcohol must be served for free at those single-day events and that it must be consumed only inside the buildings.

Also, the buildings would not be leased to for-profit entities.

Such non-profit events in those three buildings would require the approval of the parks department, but not City Council.

Because the city's golf course also is considered a Bethlehem Park, Dolan questioned alcohol being sold there, adding: "I'm not against it."

She indicated the revised ordinance should address the golf course as another exception to the no-alcohol-in-the parks rule.

"That's what we're here for, to fix the law," said Dolan.

"It's a couple of lines, that's all we need," said the solicitor.

Callahan said beer is sold from a cart that is driven around the golf course.

Leeson suggested language also can be added to the ordinance that would require City Council approval for special events in parks that require permits from the state Liquor Control Board to sell alcohol.

But the solicitor said he does not know if Mayor Robert Donchez would favor that kind of expansion of alcohol use in city parks.

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