Alpine Rose track won't be heard from Appalachian Trail, Richard
During countless Eldred Township meetings between March 2002 and October, opponents assailed the Alpine Rose road course and country club Richard Muller Jr. plans to build on 350 acres along Upper Smith Gap Road.
Members of the Blue Mountain Preservation Association and the Appalachian Trail Conference testified at public meetings, publicized their concerns in the local news media and asked the courts to intervene, arguing that Muller's $25 million resort does not belong at the foot of the Blue Mountain, along which the Appalachian National Scenic Trail runs.
They say Alpine Rose, which will include 4 miles of road courses where members can speed in their high-performance cars, will destroy the tranquility of the trail and their community and will damage the habitat in the Aquashicola Creek Watershed.
"They want to make my project seem ugly in the public eye," Muller said during a recent interview in his Bethlehem office.
But for two years and seven months, Muller kept quiet, rarely responding directly to opponents' criticisms.
"We didn't want to get into proving people wrong. Let them believe what they want to believe," the Reading developer said.
His attorney, Emil Kantra, recommended from the start that Muller "button his lip" rather than confront his opponents.
"My goal is not to attack all of the people who are attacking me," Muller said between afternoon meetings with the Alpine Rose board of directors. "My goal is to explain to all of the officials. That's who my dealing is with."
On Oct. 5, the Eldred Township Board of Supervisors voted 2-1 to approve Muller's final plans.
The preservation association and the trail conference have appealed the final plan approval in Monroe County Court and are awaiting a Commonwealth Court decision on their appeal of supervisors' preliminary plan approval.
Muller defended the plans, saying his high-profile project received "absolute scrutiny" from the federal, state, county and township governments. Each of the 87 sheets in his final plan cost $10,000, he said.
"Ultimately, it's making our project a better, safer, more environmentally friendly project, so we didn't resist," Muller said of the review his plan received. "When my opponents say it's faulty engineering or the township planning commission or supervisors are at fault for approving it (they are accusing numerous experts of being wrong)."
He pointed to a stack of documents 5 inches thick that he has submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Included are studies by environmental consultants about whether Alpine Rose would disturb valuable habitat for timber rattlesnakes, bog turtles, Indiana bats and Northeastern bulrush. After reviewing the reports, the U.S. Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service and the state Fish and Boat Commission signed off on Muller's plans.
In February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the project is designed with adequate safeguards to protect wetlands on the 350-acre tract.
The required traffic impact, air quality and geotechnical studies were also completed.
Perhaps the biggest point of contention between Alpine Rose supporters and opponents is whether cars lapping the road course will create excessive noise pollution at neighboring homes and the Appalachian Trail.
A covenant on the final plan says noise levels at 19 designated points on and around the resort may not exceed the previously determined existing sound levels listed in a May 2003 sound study by more than 5 decibels.
Alpine Rose opponents say the study, performed by Traffic Planning and Design of Pottstown and Environmental Acoustics of Harrisburg, is flawed and unscientific, and the township failed to establish a reliable method of enforcing the condition.
The study shows that at three receptor points noise will increase by more than the 5-decibel limit.
Muller argues that Monroe County Court President Judge Ronald E. Vican examined the 400-page noise study before he affirmed the supervisors' decision to approve his preliminary plans and upheld the noise mitigation agreement between the developer and the township.
Muller estimates he will spend $2.5 million on sound attenuation walls and says he will adjust the mitigation measures or the number of cars on the course to comply, if necessary.
The developer points out that the National Park Service, which manages the Appalachian Trail, allows park visitors to make even louder noise than would be audible from Alpine Rose.
A park service law says noises up to 60 decibels when measured from 50 feet away are permitted on park property.
In the May 2003 sound study, the loudest projected sound level at the 19 receptors surrounding Alpine Rose is 53.5 decibels. When 25 cars are on the road course, existing sound levels on the trail will not change, the study says.
Muller said he did his own tests with cars, unmufflered trucks, a rifle and a chain saw to determine the effect on the trail.
"I just wanted to prove to myself," he said. "You couldn't even hear it."
Alpine Rose opponents say the road course will produce noise, light, traffic and pollution that will compromise the goals of the Appalachian Trail Act, which requires municipalities "to preserve the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the trail and to conserve and maintain it as a public natural resource."
But Muller wants people to know that in April 2002, the Appalachian Trail Conference made a map that shows the project would have no visual impact on the trail.
Hikers will be able to see only the entrance to the resort on Upper Smith Gap Road, according to the map. Due to the mountain's slope, the road course -- which, at 40 feet, is wider than a three-lane highway -- will be invisible.
After the trail conference made the map, members stopped working cooperatively with Muller, he said.
National Park Service "director's orders" say the agency will work cooperatively in planning to mitigate negative effects on public property and will respect the rights of other landowners and park neighbors. The Appalachian Trail Conference is a nonprofit agency that partners with the government agency to manage the trail.
"They didn't want to mitigate. They wanted to sue, delay and kill my project," Muller said.
He said the trail conference has interfered with his Fifth Amendment property rights to develop a lawful business.
Muller dismissed accusations that he wanted to build Alpine Rose in Eldred Township because it had no zoning law. In April, the township became the last municipality in Monroe County to adopt a zoning ordinance.
After three earlier attempts to build the resort in Berks County failed, a realtor friend brought Muller to Eldred to show him the land, which was for sale.
"I didn't even know where I was," said Muller, who worked in the retail business for 35 years before embarking on the Alpine Rose project.
Muller said he plans to secure all necessary funding before he starts major construction. He also is waiting for final permits from two state agencies and plans to seek state economic development grant money or low-interest loans to offset the cost.
Opponents have written several letters to Gov. Ed Rendell and other state officials, saying tax dollars should not help Alpine Rose because it will hurt, not serve, the common good.
Muller said the resort will benefit the local, regional and state economy to the tune of $9 million in the first five years. The forecast, a tally of estimated tax revenue the business will generate, assumes an average of 687 people a day will visit Alpine Rose for 250 days each year.
The developer also has pledged to donate up to $475,000 in matching funds to the Kunkletown Volunteer Fire Co. over the first 10 years in addition to providing other fund-raising assistance and access to the resort's emergency resources.
Muller said he knows of no other driving facility in the United States that does not host professional or amateur racing. Resort members will drive street-legal cars with mufflers.
"There is nothing like this that I know of in the United States," Muller said. "This is not a race track. It is a driver's club. ... Our project will not be insured for racing."
According to a test Muller performed, an "average" driver's average speed around the road course would be 60 mph. It would peak at 120 mph at one spot on the course. At other points, turns will slow drivers to speeds as low as 25 mph.
Muller is confident the business will succeed, and he expects to have a waiting list of people who want to become members. They will travel from within a 200-mile radius and even from across the country and around the world, he said.
Auto enthusiasts enjoy the same type of camaraderie as hunters, anglers and golfers, he explained.