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Deforestation, Traffic : Fast Growth: New Trouble in Steel Town

Times Staff Writer

Environmental change--from polluted streams to congested highways and overdeveloped land--is affecting the quality of life across the nation. Such change is gradual and often goes unnoticed while it happens.

To measure how various areas have been affected over the decades, The Times dispatched reporters to the places they grew up. This occasional series of articles examines how our hometown environments have been altered--for better or for worse.

Each year at Christmastime, a star 81 feet high shines from its perch high on South Mountain, the southern anchor of this steel town founded by German immigrants on Christmas Eve nearly 250 years ago.

For tourists, the star symbolizes the religious Bethlehem, the nation’s self-proclaimed Christmas City. But wooded South Mountain, rising from gritty neighborhoods near the rusty steel plant, has come to represent a less renowned Bethlehem--the one that survived a brush with economic ruin and now is grappling with the consequences of its recovery.

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New Freeway Access

This fall, as the area marks five years of economic good times since the steel industry’s near-collapse, a four-lane freeway that slices south of the city is to open. For the first time, South Mountain and its quiet foothills will be exposed to development.

Builders are clearing patches of the mountainside and nearby flatlands for houses and condominiums as they rush to cash in on an anticipated surge in commuters to neighboring New Jersey and New York City. One proposal calls for felling 500 trees to make way for luxury houses. Another ambitious plan envisions a suburban mini-city that would cover 1,700 acres and employ 25,000 people over the next 30 years.

The environmental fallout of rapid growth--well known in Southern California--is new and troubling to residents of Bethlehem and the surrounding Lehigh Valley. For decades, environmental problems here meant having to rewash laundry soiled on the clothesline by dust from blast furnaces, or avoiding the Lehigh River because of waste water from the mills.

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For many residents, pollution was never a serious concern. Indeed, it was customary to look the other way, since the primary source of dirty air and water was also the primary source of employment.

“When I was a kid, my mother took her clothes (from the clothesline) three times a day and washed them because of the dust--red dust . . .” said E. (Chico) Curzi, a 57-year-old union leader who followed his father, uncles and grandfather to work in the Bethlehem Steel mills. “But she didn’t complain, because her husband worked. It provided food on the table for her children.”

Today, bulldozers and cement trucks have displaced smokestacks and discharge pipes as the tools of environmental damage--and residents are taking notice. With the federal government on its heels, Bethlehem Steel has spent more than $100 million on pollution-control equipment over the last 30 years. Scrubbers, massive cooling towers and bag houses--the equivalent of huge vacuum cleaners--have made air pollution from the steel plant a “non-issue,” in the words of one local environmentalist.

Attention has turned to the building frenzy that extends far beyond South Mountain and the path of the new freeway, in the works for 20 years as an alternative to the antiquated and hazardous Lehigh Valley Thruway.

Lessons of Los Angeles

“I would hope that we would learn from L.A.'s mistakes,” said Alfred Siess Jr., a former Bethlehem Steel engineer once assigned to the company’s Torrance office, who fought to block the new I-78 highway. “Freeways proliferate development. They are a losing proposition for those of us who want to stay here because of (the area’s) rural character, clean air and clean water.”

In a recent letter to a local newspaper, Elizabeth Winters, who lives in a small town south of the mountain, wrote: “Who wants to see the bare or developed hillsides of California here? Hasn’t tearing up the landscape for I-78 been enough?”

Local experts attribute the boom in part to a realignment of the region’s economy away from smokestack industries such as Bethlehem Steel and Mack Trucks in nearby Allentown. The steel company, for example, employed 20,000 people at the start of this decade but now provides only about 5,300 jobs.

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New employment has emerged in light manufacturing, data processing, insurance and medical services as industrial parks and suburban offices have become the “clean factories” of the 1980s and 1990s. Taken as a single entity, Lehigh Valley Industrial Park Inc., a nonprofit group that operates four industrial parks, would be the region’s largest employer, with 210 businesses providing 9,000 jobs.

High Employment Rate

“In 1983, the pot just started to get warm, and the high burner has been on ever since,” said Grover H. Stainbrook Jr., the company’s executive vice president. “Five years ago, we had unemployment of 13%. We now have 3.9%.”

Stainbrook and others attribute much of the growth--both commercial and residential--to a steady migration of businesses and residents out of New Jersey, which lies across the Delaware River about 10 miles from downtown Bethlehem. Local real estate agents say the newcomers--some of whom drive 100 miles to work in New York City--are attracted by relatively affordable housing, lower taxes, good schools and a low crime rate.

“They pop on the bus at 5 in the morning and come back home at 7 in the evening,” said Kenard O. Natter, a Bethlehem real estate agent who has sold houses to Wall Street stockbrokers, bank executives and corporate officials. “Our buses have gotten very sophisticated. They are nicer than most of the aircraft. You get on there and read your paper, and by (the) time you are finished . . . you are in New York City.”

One local government study estimated that 20% of property transactions in the eastern half of the Lehigh Valley involved buyers moving from New Jersey. A private survey conducted by Bethlehem economist Kamran Afshar concluded that 37% of new homeowners in the region were from outside the area.

“As soon as we drove here, we basically fell in love with it,” said John Francis, a helicopter pilot who moved to Bethlehem from Princeton, N.J., and for two years commuted more than 90 minutes to work in New York City before taking a local job.

“I had this preconceived idea of a 1930s steel town, but it wasn’t anything like that,” he said. “It was well taken care of, orderly and clean. And it was a much better deal for your money. Taxes are cheaper and automobile insurance is about half of what you pay in New Jersey.”

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Thanks to immigrants such as Francis and his family, population in the Lehigh Valley has grown almost 4% since 1980. It is a two-county region of about 500,000 people that includes the cities of Bethlehem, Allentown and Easton as well as several dozen townships and boroughs. Overall population in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has risen just 0.2%.

Taking Toll on Environment

The area’s new popularity, while providing jobs and economic vitality, has taken its toll on the environment:

--Deforestation on South Mountain has led to calls for limits on tree removal, and some residents are beginning to worry about environmental damage from new and proposed access roads on the south slope and nearby flatlands.

--Development has pushed some local roads to their limit and brought traffic problems to previously uncongested areas. Developers are being asked to pay for traffic studies, and some local governments are considering charging them for road improvements. In a recent public opinion survey, respondents listed worsening traffic congestion as the No. 1 drawback of economic recovery.

--Bethlehem has refused to extend water mains to new housing in its fastest-growing suburb because the city’s system is so overextended that it cannot deliver enough water during hours of peak demand. A college that hoped to build a dormitory was told it must provide its own water or wait until a new municipal water tank can be constructed.

--Dwindling landfill space and soaring trash-disposal costs led several years ago to establishment of a local waste authority, which sought to build a $180-million incinerator. The proposal, opposed by environmental groups because of pollution concerns, collapsed early this year, leaving each city to deal with its own trash crisis. Bethlehem has a landfill it recently expanded, but Allentown must haul its garbage hundreds of miles out of state.

--Four of the 13 public sewage systems in the Lehigh Valley have average daily flows that exceed design capacity, and three others are approaching their limits.

--Concerned about water shortages, the Delaware River Basin Commission has proposed that low-flush toilets be required in all new buildings and renovation projects, beginning in 1991.

“We are benefiting economically from the tremendous influx of people from New Jersey and New York, but it is also a challenge to provide the infrastructure for them,” Bethlehem Mayor Kenneth Smith said. “Probably the greatest challenge in government today is to continue to grow economically yet preserve the quality of life, the green space and the quality of our water and air.”

If the development trend continues, most of rural Lehigh Valley will be urban or suburban by 2011, a recent government study predicted. Between 1982 and 1986, about 6,800 acres of vacant or agricultural land was developed, two-thirds of it for housing. In 1987, 2,625 housing units were built and 4,103 lots were approved for subdivision, a record high.

The demand has pushed land prices so high that about half a dozen rural townships have established “security areas” to protect farms from the residential invasion. At the county level, farmers get a tax break if they agree not to develop their land. Statewide, voters recently approved a $100-million bond issue to purchase development rights from farmers.

“Everywhere you go, you’ll see a flag or a stake in the field,” said Roslyn Kahler, who farms about 400 acres with his two sons and also heads the Northampton County Conservation Service, which reviews subdivisions for erosion control. “In the past few years, farm values north of Bethlehem have gone from $2,000 an acre up to $10,000 and $15,000 an acre. . . . When the time is ripe, it is being sold.”

A public opinion survey conducted last year by the Joint Planning Commission, a regional agency for the Lehigh Valley, found widespread concern about disappearing farmland. Agricultural land being developed should be kept as farms, 72% of the respondents said. About half of those people said the most important reason for preserving the land was to retain open space.

In outlying parts of the Lehigh Valley, where the suburbs meet the country, farmers and their neighbors in new housing tracts have at times found coexistence difficult. Urban escapees seeking the peaceful life complain about manure odors, flies, dead animals and wild plants that aggravate their allergies.

Farmers, meanwhile, become enraged when teen-agers use their fields as race tracks for all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes.

Newcomers’ Complaints

“These Jersey people come in here and they try to tell the people who have lived here for a long time what to do,” said Kahler, the farmer and conservationist. “They want open space, but they don’t want you to spray (for pests). They don’t want you to spread manure. You know, it smells. . . . Hey, if you want to live out here, put up with it!”

Farmers have also had run-ins with local government. School officials in a rural township southwest of Bethlehem, anticipating rising enrollment, want to build a high school on a 108-acre farm, but the family doesn’t want to sell the property. The district has condemned the farm and now is fighting for the land in court.

More Schools

“Our community is preparing schools for people who don’t even live here,” said Ollie Orth, president and founder of the Lehigh-South Mountain Woodlands Assn. and a slow-growth candidate for county commissioner. “It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you provide more school capacity than you need right now, you will fill it by attracting people, especially from New Jersey.”

Even within the city limits of Bethlehem, small family farms that survived past building booms are being devoured by residential neighborhoods. A horse farm on Butztown Road on the north side of town has been replaced by luxury condominiums. Less than a mile away, a cornfield hidden behind a convenience store and gas station has met the same fate.

The alarming loss of farmland inspired one group of determined historians and environmentalists to rally the community to save six acres of one of Bethlehem’s earliest farms as a memorial to the city’s agrarian past. Lehigh County purchased the farm and turned it over to a nonprofit group.

Historic Plantation Saved

The Burnside Plantation, now sandwiched between a rusty paint mill and a 21-story office tower, was the Colonial homestead of James Burnside, who was elected the area’s first legislator in 1752. It once spanned 500 acres and was tilled by Bethlehem’s original religious settlers. The original stone farmhouse, built in 1748, is still standing, and the preservationists plan to move a 150-year-old barn nearby. The barn was donated by AT&T;, which disassembled it to make way for a 450,000-square-foot research facility west of the city.

“Kids nowadays don’t know where chickens come from,” said Gertrude Fox, a 73-year-old environmental activist who three years ago came up with the idea of saving the plantation. “They think they come from the freezer. So we will have teaching facilities here. This will be our last chance. It will be the last farm left in the three cities.”

There have been other environmental success stories here. Residents near Monocacy Creek, in north Bethlehem, have monitored development to protect the stream from runoff. Their efforts paid off when the state fish commission designated it as a trophy trout stream. Several Lehigh Valley communities are moving forward with curb-side trash-recycling programs in response to a state recycling law that goes into effect in two years. And, last year, the Delaware and Lehigh canals were designated a National Heritage Corridor so that they will be preserved for recreational use.

Valley Has Awakened

Even so, the face and character of Bethlehem and its neighbors are changing swiftly, and longtime residents recognize that the once-sleepy Lehigh Valley, for better or worse, has awakened for good.

“You can’t hardly find a place any more that isn’t built up,” said Ethel Hunsicker, who has worked for 36 years at Yeager’s Pharmacy on Main Street in Hellertown, a tiny suburb of Bethlehem where the new freeway is expected to dump much of its traffic.

“Sometimes it just isn’t as friendly any more, but I don’t think I would ever want to move out. I don’t think I could get used to another place.”


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