Lehigh Valley

NIZ: Is arena lawsuit headed to court?

NIZ: Is lawsuit over planned arena headed to court?

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Now that the NIZ negotiations are nixed, is Allentown's controversial hockey arena doomed to land in court?

Supporters are still hoping for a last-minute settlement, but arena opponents said they'll only drop their lawsuit if state lawmakers get involved. Two political experts believe that's unlikely, meaning the issue would be decided by a panel of judges.

There's a line in the dirt around Allentown's lawsuit-plagued hockey arena project, now delayed more than a month. The two townships leading the legal challenge against it said the time for talk is over.

"Either change the law, or have the courts adjudicate it," said Hanover Twp., Northampton Co., Supervisor Glenn Walbert Tuesday night.

Hanover and Bethlehem townships are both leaving the bargaining table unless state lawmakers step in and rework the taxing zone that's paying for the hockey arena. That zone partly uses suburban tax dollars to build a city arena. More than a dozen other communities have joined their lawsuit.

"That's a recipe to end up in the courts," said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, who believes the city and suburbs are playing a very high-stakes game of chicken, with a $220 million project in the balance. "If it does end up going to the courts, I think all sides are going to be losers in this."

Pa. Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh Co., wrote the bill that created the arena taxing zone. In spite of the townships' stance, Browne said he still won't consider taking the law back to Harrisburg. Political experts believe, without Browne on board, other lawmakers aren't likely to touch it either.

"Now there will be some pressure to do that, but the ability to actually go around him if he does not want to introduce that legislation is a long shot," said Borick.

Political veteran Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College said highway funding, school choice, and privatizing state liquor stores are more pressing issues for the legislature this summer.

"I'm doubtful that the legislature is going to revisit that issue given the time frame that it has to pass the budget," said Madonna, who believes lawmakers would only be willing to take up the issue if they're worried about a similar tax fiasco happening in their backyards.

"That does raise a huge set of questions about whether that should become a common practice," said Madonna.

If this thing heads to court, Borick said he thinks arena opponents are taking the bigger risk.

"There's risk for the municipalities to try to push this to the point where the courts might rule against them, leaving them on the hook for some of [these] finances," he said.

Both sides claim they don't want the case to end up in court. Browne said he's hopeful opponents will come back to the bargaining table once they see exactly how much tax money is stake. The city of Allentown expects to release those numbers within the next few weeks.

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