No clear consensus on what should be done; town officials continue to deliberate
Bethlehem Town Hall’s auditorium was stuffed to the gills last night, as the public was given an opportunity to sound off on the possibility of the town acquiring the defunct Normanside Golf Course’s land.
Over 30 people approached the microphone to address the Town Board, which stood mute on the issue. Officials have been holding a series of closed-door meetings to discuss putting in a bid to purchase the property. This morning, they broke briefly from one such session to vote to accept environmental review documents, a step that would be required to make a buy.
The board returned to their deliberations after the vote.
The public hearing on the issue was called in hopes of collecting a public consensus on how the town should (or should not) proceed, but speakers fell more or less equally on either side of the issue.
Many opposing a land buy said there are better uses for tax dollars in these tough times. Some said they were against it for ideological reasons.
In a community such as this, when people are struggling to pay their bills, I believe it would be inappropriate for the town to use tax dollars to purchase this land…I believe it is immoral to take the public’s tax dollars in order to subsidize golfers, Jeremy Near said to applause.
But some people said Normanside goes well beyond being just a golf course. The club has long allowed the public to use the land in the winter for snowshoeing, sledding and other activities, making it de facto parkland for part of the year.
`I have seen people come down that road from all over the place,` said Sam Strasser, who has long lived near the course, in an impassioned statement. `I cannot imagine New York City without Central Park, and I cannot imagine Bethlehem without that beautiful central green area.`
The main fear expressed by those advocating for a purchase is the land will be acquired by a developer. But others said the open market should be allowed to take its course. The land is zoned rural and there are physical barriers to putting a development there, not the least of which are access and steep slopes.
Valerie Newell, a member of the town’s Citizens Advisory Committee on Conservation, said the town’s comprehensive plan and rezoning was developed to guide practical building, and it should be allowed to work as designed.
`What is it we’re so afraid of?` she asked. `Where are we going to put the people who are going to work at Vista? How are we going to continue to grow?`
Perhaps the most-often heard statement from those opposing a public buy was that advocates for Normanside’s preservation should put their own money on the line. Pam Skripak of the group Friends to Preserve Normanside said the organization was prepared to offer a $150,000 interest-free loan to the town. She also handed the Town Board a petition with 750 signatures.
George Carpinello drew a thunderous applause when he asked the Town Board to simply give running the course a try.
`I’m suggesting that the Normanside Country Club can be operated profitably as a municipal course,` he said. `I say take the opportunity. If you don’t make a profit in five years, sell the property.`
The town must make a decision soon. Bids on the property are due to the Bank of America by Wednesday, Feb. 23. The course and its facilities are assessed at $3.2 million, but many feel it could be bought for much less.
Dan Byrnes, president of the defunct club, said the bank had no interest in foreclosing on the property itself and instead elected to auction it off. The private club had been hemorrhaging members for some time before closing with $4 million in debt.
Whether the town would be able to do better ` either itself or by outsourcing operations ` is the critical question at hand.