Lehigh County commissioners won a vigorous round of applause when they voted 6-3 to weigh in on the effort to save the King George Inn at Hamilton and Cedar Crest boulevards in South Whitehall Township.
Commissioner Percy Dougherty led the charge to get involved at Wednesday’s meeting, making a motion that the commissioners go on record by sending a letter to the township encouraging the adaptive re-use of that building.
Dougherty won the first round of applause of the night when he said the county commissioners “have a responsibility to save our history.”
He called the King George one of the major historic sites in the county, which is important to all county residents and should be saved.
Dougherty made his motion immediately after resident Nancy Lloyd, who represents a group trying to save the King George, asked commissioners to attend an Oct. 3 zoning hearing board meeting in South Whitehall “to make any concerns you might have known.” She also asked them to write letters opposing demolition of the building.
Lloyd said the inn is one of the oldest surviving structures from colonial America in the Lehigh Valley, dating to 1755 and built on the Easton-Reading road, “one of the busiest highways of our pre-Revolution nation.” She also said it is the oldest building on the National Register of Historic Places in South Whitehall. “It has stood for 257 years.”
Commissioner Dan McCarthy initially suggested any action on King George Inn be delayed until a future meeting, but Dougherty did not want to wait until the next commissioners meeting on Oct. 9 because “it seems like the bulldozers could come in any day.”
Save the King George Inn people attending the commissioners meeting are afraid it will be demolished in less than two weeks if no one intervenes.
“The building could be torn down any day,” warned Lloyd.
Dougherty said his “innocuous” motion is supporting residents who want to save the old inn, “rather than trying to bully the township.”
He acknowledged: “This is something that we as commissioners have no control over. This is a township matter and they have to settle it.”
But he also said: “We as a board have a responsibility to weigh on this, not directing or threatening, but making sure the township understands we are interested in preserving these sites.”
Dougherty’s motion was seconded by Commissioner Michael Schware, who said he would like to see the building preserved. “I wish this had been brought to us earlier and we could have weighed in on it earlier. I don’t view this as us imposing our will on anyone.”
“We are not anti-development,” said Lloyd, suggesting the former restaurant should be preserved and reused as a bank building, which she said is what a developer wants to build on that corner.
“We’re not looking to block any type of development,” echoed Dean Ziegler, who has started a save-the-inn Facebook page and on-line petition drive. “We’re looking to incorporate an existing structure into a new development.”
Noting the township zoning board will meet Oct. 3, Ziegler maintained: “If the demolition permit is granted at that time, the King George Inn could be demolished the next day.”
Bill Leiner of Coplay called on the commissioners to send a message that they “support this historic treasure.”
Voting with Dougherty and Schware to send the letter to South Whitehall were Commissioners McCarthy, Thomas Creighton, David Jones and Lisa Scheller.
Voting against sending that letter were Commissioners Vic Mazziotti, Brad Osborne and Scott Ott.
Ott said it was appropriate for commissioners to take individual action to write letters or go to meetings, but added: “I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to throw our weight around with the government of South Whitehall. I would not like for them to have even an implied sense that Big Brother is telling them what to do.”
He added: “It is not part of the responsibility of this board to weigh in on matters that are before other levels of government. We have no jurisdiction. Advice that is unsolicited is generally found to be not valuable.”
Osborne, a former South Whitehall commissioner, said he’s sympathetic to the residents’ request for help, but shares Ott’s concern that the county commissioners are entering into “a formal conversation with another body of government, trying to encourage it in one direction or the other without all the facts.”
But no matter how the vote turned out, Osborne said he is willing to work individually with “some of the main people in South Whitehall who are part of this decision” to find out what can be done to preserve the building.
He also told residents who want to save it: “I can assure you personally that you have the ear of the South Whitehall commissioners and you have the ear of the zoning hearing board. I know that directly and personally.” He promised to help residents, saying he would be more effective one-on-one.
Mazziotti objected to Dougherty’s motion because it was “based on a brief presentation by somebody in the audience” and because it is inappropriate for commissioners to inform “another governmental body how we feel about an action they’re about to take.”
Mazziotti said would be willing to consider the issue if it would be presented at a county commissioners’ committee meeting, “but I’m not willing to vote on it tonight. We should not let other people’s timetables direct our action to behave in a prudent and reasonable way -- and I don’t think this would be either.”