The fate of Robin Hood dam in Allentown’s Lehigh Parkway remained murky following an informal public hearing by City Council’s parks and recreation committee Wednesday evening.
The decision on whether the dam should be removed ultimately is up to Mayor Ed Pawlowski, said committee chairwoman Cynthia Mota at the end of the hour-long meeting.
“It’s not our call,” agreed committee member Ray O’Connell.
“We have nothing to vote on tonight,” confirmed committee member Peter Schweyer. “It is ultimately the administration’s responsibility to make this decision.”
Pawlowski, who was not at the meeting, later said he has not changed his position that the dam across Little Lehigh Creek should be removed.
But the mayor added he wants to review facts presented at the meeting and will make an announcement by the end of this week.
The city has been working with Wildlands Conservancy since 2009 to secure funding and permits to remove the Robin Hood dam, as well as others in the Little Lehigh watershed, and the mayor repeatedly has expressed his support.
In 2010, for example, Pawlowski wrote: “The eventual removal of the dams in question would without doubt be the most significant step toward the restoration of the Little Lehigh Watershed ever undertaken. The City of Allentown is proud to partner with Wildlands Conservancy in this endeavor.”
And in April 2012, the mayor wrote: “I strongly support Wildlands Conservancy’s effort to restore the Little Lehigh Creek watershed through dam removal.”
Plans to remove the Robin Hood dam this summer were put on hold after city resident Michael Molovinsky raised concerns at a City Council meeting in May.
On Wednesday, Molovinsky, the most vocal opponent to removing the dam, told the parks committee he hopes the mayor “will decide on the side of the people and keep that dam for the beauty and the ambience it provides the Lehigh Parkway.”
The city’s administration decided not to proceed with removing the dam until Mota’s committee held what she called a public hearing to get more facts about both sides of the issue.
Several top administrators were at the meeting, including managing director Francis Dougherty, parks and recreation director John Mikowychok and public works director Richard Young.
Said Dougherty: “The administration does declare once again that we are indifferent at this moment and we are here to learn as well.”
Mikowychok, the parks director, said the issue comes down to “sentiment vs. science.”
He said dams are being removed everywhere, but particularly in Pennsylvania, which had water-powered mills “about every quarter mile on the major streams of this Commonwealth” before the Industrial Revolution.
Mikowychok suggested photographs on interpretative signs could tell people about the Robin Hood dam if most of it is removed.
All seven members of City Council attended the meeting in City Hall, although only Mota, O‘Connell and Schweyer sat at the dais.
At the end of the meeting, Schweyer said the Robin Hood dam is a beautiful spot in the Parkway, “but a free-flowing creek is every bit as beautiful.” He predicted the aesthetics will not be diminished if the creek is flowing “faster, cleaner and clearer.”
Mota and O’Connell declined to share their own opinions on removing the dam.
The administration also delayed removing another dam farther upstream in the Parkway, near the trout nursery, until the council committee meeting. But no one is challenging the removal of that dam, which is just off Fish Hatchery Road.
Three local professors encouraged the city to remove the dams: Frank Kuserk, who is a biology professor at Moravian College, where he is director of the Environmental Studies Program; Richard Nissenbaum, professor of biology and environmental studies at Muhlenberg College and a member of the city’s Environmental Advisory Council, and Joseph Colosi, professor of biology at DeSales University, where he teaches environmental science.
Conservancy vs. Molovinsky
“I’m really hoping you guys will agree to continue to do this type of work, that you’ll grant permission for us to do the remaining dam removals on the Little Lehigh,” Abigail Pattishall, vice president of conservation at Wildlands Conservancy, told the council committee.
Pattishall said removing dams will greatly improve water quality and the biological health of the stream.
She also said the dams present public safety hazards and liability issues for their owners. She said the Robin Hood dam is dangerous, with slippery rocks, jagged concrete and fast-moving water.