Preservation of lands, both natural areas and farmland, has consistently been a priority for Northampton County. The Northampton County 21st Century Open Space Initiative began in 2002 (with consistent funding source established in 2007),when the County Executive and County Council agreed to impose a ½ mill tax increase to support the program, but procedures and planning efforts date back to the 1960’s. The Northampton County 21st Century Open Space Initiative was created to provide administration and funding assistance for the preservation of natural areas/open space lands, farmland preservation and the acquisition, development and/or rehabilitation of municipal parks. Since the program’s inception in 2002, a total of 8,950 acres of farmland were preserved, $4.2 million awarded for the preservation of 1,503 acres of natural areas/open space lands and, $5.94 million awarded for 56 municipal park projects. In 2015, the County has committed another $1 million for municipal park acquisition, development and/or rehabilitation, $750,000 farmland preservation and $400,000 for the preservation of natural areas/open space lands. Click here to see Ordinance 423 – Creation of the 21st Century Open Space Initiative
Click here to see Ordinance 559 – Amendment, November 5, 2012
Click here to see Ordinance 582 – Amendment, December 6, 2013
The Natural Areas/Open Space Program has provided funding assistance to municipalities and non-profits for the fee simple acquisition or conservation easement of open space, natural areas and environmentally sensitive lands. The program has had several acquisition and conservation easements that have enhanced recreational opportunities and protection of our natural resources. These opportunities would not have been made available without the partnerships with the following non-profit land trusts: Conservation Fund, Heritage Conservancy, Natural Lands Trust, The Nature Conservancy and Wildlands Conservancy. Located in the extreme northeast of the County, within the Minsi Lake corridor, the largest concentrations of vernal pools within the Commonwealth exist. In close proximity to this is the only globally significant natural area within the Lehigh Valley, the Mount Bethel Fens. Preservation of these areas has been an extremely high priority. Through partnerships with land trusts and municipalities, the County has provided assistance for the preservation of 320 acres to create a continuous greenway from the Kittatinny Ridge to Minsi Lake (300 acres) and Bear Swamp (180 acres). Adjacent to this preservation area, another 117 acres were preserved in 2012 along the crest of the Kittatinny Ridge within the Kirkridge Retreat property and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, an area in close proximity to the Appalachian Trail. In the urbanized areas of the City of Bethlehem and Bethlehem Township, the County and partners are in the process of acquiring 44 acres to complete a 156-acre preserve. The land, once the home of Archibald Johnston, the first mayor of Bethlehem, president of Lehigh University and Bethlehem Steel, and under imminent threat of development, will now be preserved and fully open to the public. Stream restoration projects, land management and restoration are key goals for this property. This property is within a Natural Heritage Area State Significant Core Habitat recently identified in the Natural Heritage Inventory of Lehigh and Northampton Counties, Pennsylvania – Update 2013. The County provided funding for the fee simple acquisition of the Ballas Tract (90 acres) in Bushkill Township and the Woodland Hills property (148 acres) in Lower Saucon Township. Both of these areas were under threat of development and now will be open space, fully accessible to the public. The County is also working with partners to continue the preservation of Stouts Valley, located in the PA Highlands, through a combination of preservation efforts of environmentally sensitive lands and farmland.
The Municipal Park Program has been funded in two separate phases; Phase I funding was provided from 2006-2012 and Phase II will be from 2013-2017. This program allows local municipalities the ability to acquire, develop and rehabilitate parks and trails within their communities. Municipalities have funded projects from trail right-of-way acquisition and development to purchasing land for passive and active recreation. Phase I funded projects included the South Bethlehem Greenway in the City of Bethlehem. This abandoned rail line is now one of the main contributors to the redevelopment of the south side of Bethlehem. This greenway allows the densely populated, low-to-moderate income residential neighborhoods to connect to the South Side business district, Lehigh University, the Sands Casino and the 142-acre Saucon Park. Phase I funded several trail projects throughout the County that helped create the base for a regional trail system, rehabilitation projects and the development of large scale recreation areas. Phase I provided 27 municipal park acquisition, development, rehabilitation grant projects, totaling $3.94 million of funding from Northampton County. Phase II started in 2013 as a $5 million investment over 5-years with a $1 million allocation annually. All thirty-eight municipalities were allocated a percentage of the $5 million, based on the population of each municipality according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Phase II already has had a significant impact on the communities, totaling $2 million in project support of municipal park rehabilitation, trail development, stream restoration, and park acquisition. Projects within this program have a 2-year limit to support shovel ready projects; only four projects remain uncompleted within the 2013 funding round. To date, the County has provided over $3 million into more than 45 projects.
The Farmland Preservation Program has been the most successful component of the Northampton County 21st Century Open Space Initiative. In response to urban growth pressures in the 1980’s, Northampton County began preserving farms in 1993. The program has identified innovative ways for funding and assistance while preserving an outstanding 13,782 acres since 1993; in 2008, the County preserved its 10,000th acre. To celebrate reaching this milestone, the County shared in and hosted the Commonwealth’s 400,000 Acre Celebration at the Graver Farm in Moore Township. In 2010, Northampton County created the first ever Township Partnership Program. This program allows local municipalities, with a designated Earned Income Tax, to dedicate funding to the County specifically for farmland preservation. Eight municipalities participate to date. The success is clearly evident in this program as the list for farmlands have been vacated for the past three years and the majority has been preserved (if they met the criteria of the state or county policies). In 20120, the program reached its 100th preserved farm and in 2015 it hopes to surpass 15,000 acres of preserved farmland.
Each county within the Commonwealth receives Act 13-Marcellus Shale Tax funding for greenways, recreation and open space projects, Northampton County is focusing on funding projects on a county-wide or regional scale. Projects may include the closure of trail gaps within the County, pilot projects to show an impact on native plantings and restoration of streams within urban areas. In 2013, the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission authored a report titled “Lehigh Valley Trails Inventory”, identified ten priority gaps within the Lehigh Valley; six of those were identified in Northampton County. The County is working on design, engineering and permitting of projects to close four of the identified gaps, with possible construction of one section in 2015. The Marcellus Shale Tax funds allow the County to support these projects to move forward with no monetary assistance required at the local level. After completion of the design, engineering and permitting, the County will apply for additional grants and local in-kind services to construct the trails, while ownership and long-term maintenance responsibilities being held at the local level. To continue support, the County is actively seeking options to provide funding assistance for maintenance along regional trails as a partner in providing a safe and enjoyable trail system.