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Cunningham: Lehigh Valley is a Fascinating Jigsaw Puzzle

By Don Cunningham on July 24, 2019

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on July 24, 2019. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

What we call the Lehigh Valley is a fascinating jigsaw puzzle of boroughs, townships, villages, confusing borders and place names that confound and amuse.

It makes both little sense and complete sense.

There’s an Upper and Lower Mount Bethel but no Bethel or even a mountain or hill named Bethel.

Upper and Lower Milford are in Lehigh County but Milford itself is south of both, in Bucks County.

There’s an Upper Saucon in Lehigh County, a Lower Saucon in Northampton County but nowhere is there just a plain Saucon, unless you count the country club.

Lehigh Township is in Northampton County, not Lehigh County. Bethlehem is in both counties. West Easton is not part of Easton.

Catasauqua is in Lehigh County. North Catasauqua is in Northampton County. There’s a place called West Catasauqua but that’s part of Whitehall Township and, unlike its two Catty cousins, it isn’t a municipality.

West Catty is a village, a neighborhood. It’s a place in Whitehall Township like the villages of Egypt, Fullerton and Hockendauqua that residents often refer to as home before using the township name.

Catasauqua is in Lehigh County, next to North Catasauqua, which is in Northampton County. Neither borough includes West Catasauqua, which is in Whitehall Township (which is east of South Whitehall and North Whitehall townships).

Whitehall isn’t alone. The Lehigh Valley is full of villages or neighborhoods that exist only in history, culture and on the occasional street sign. Places like Trexlertown, Butztown, Center Valley, Fogelsville and Laury’s Station have no government, no place to pay taxes or redress grievances. But, to confuse matters, many do have post offices with postal addresses. Plenty of them have playgrounds, Little Leagues and churches that carry the village name.

I could go on but the point is made.

In the Lehigh Valley, it’s possible to live in Upper Saucon Township in Lehigh County, have a next-door neighbor in Lower Saucon Township in Northampton County, both have a Bethlehem mailing address and refer to home as Center Valley.

It’s equal parts original and absurd.

You can blame most of it on William Penn, the founder of Penn’s Woods or Pennsylvania. Some is the result of Lehigh County being carved out of Northampton County in 1812 and the Lehigh River becoming much of the border.

Penn believed the village was sovereign. That’s why Pennsylvania has 2,625 local governments, the third most in the U.S. There are 62 local governments in the Lehigh Valley, 37 in Northampton County and 25 in Lehigh County.

It’s confusing to longtime residents and a Rubik’s Cube for newcomers.

It’s equally expensive for both. Nearly all those 62 governments duplicate the delivery of services with their own police departments, road crews, tax collectors and zoning officers. Some do it in boroughs of less than 1 square mile.

In addition, most have their own municipal authorities to deliver water and wastewater services. Tax rates and fees vary greatly, often depending on growth.

Many states, such as Maryland and Virginia, deliver services and plan for growth across an entire county with countywide schools, police departments, utilities, road services and zoning codes. Others organize smaller towns surrounding a large city into metro governments that retain sovereignty but unify and share services, such as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky.

The Lehigh Valley by regional definition is only Lehigh and Northampton counties. Not so for the federal government.

Every metropolitan region in the U.S. is grouped into a metropolitan planning area. The Lehigh Valley MPA includes Carbon County, a tiny county to the north and — wait for it — Warren County, across the Delaware River in New Jersey.

Not many people in Allentown and Bethlehem think of Lansford or Hackettstown, New Jersey, as part of the Lehigh Valley.

Hackettstown, New Jersey, is part of the Lehigh Valley, according to the federal government, even if that might surprise a lot of people in Lehigh and Northampton counties.
It may seem that this odd combination of history, village identification, parochial politics and strange boundaries would hamper growth and prosperity. That hasn’t been the case.

The Lehigh Valley is Pennsylvania’s third largest region in population and economy behind only Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The population of just the two counties is up to about 673,000 people based on the June census update. Gross domestic product is more than $40 billion, making the two counties the 64th largest economy in the U.S.

Lehigh and Northampton are two of only 20 growing counties of the 67 in Pennsylvania. Only 12 of 56 Pennsylvania cities grew in population since 2010. Allentown is second and Bethlehem is third in the number of people added, just behind Philadelphia. Easton’s percentage of growth is higher than both.

Pittsburgh had a net decrease of 4,000 people, or 1.4%, since 2010.

Only 20% of the boroughs in Pennsylvania grew since the last census but half of the boroughs in the Lehigh Valley are growing. The contrast is even greater with townships. Only one-third of the state’s townships grew since 2010, but seven-eighths of Lehigh Valley townships did.

Upper Macungie is the fastest growing township in Pennsylvania. The combined population of Upper and Lower Macungie and Macungie Borough is now more than 60,000 people, just about the population of Carbon County.

Somehow it all works.

It may not make sense that you can’t get from eastern Salisbury Township to western Salisbury without passing through Allentown or Emmaus, but it hasn’t stopped the underdog Lehigh Valley from leaping forward.

There’s an Upper Saucon in Lehigh County, a Lower Saucon in Northampton County but nowhere is there just a plain Saucon, unless you count the country club.

Lehigh Township is in Northampton County, not Lehigh County. Bethlehem is in both counties. West Easton is not part of Easton.

Catasauqua is in Lehigh County. North Catasauqua is in Northampton County. There’s a place called West Catasauqua but that’s part of Whitehall Township and, unlike its two Catty cousins, it isn’t a municipality.

West Catty is a village, a neighborhood. It’s a place in Whitehall Township like the villages of Egypt, Fullerton and Hockendauqua that residents often refer to as home before using the township name.

Whitehall isn’t alone. The Lehigh Valley is full of villages or neighborhoods that exist only in history, culture and on the occasional street sign. Places like Trexlertown, Butztown, Center Valley, Fogelsville and Laury’s Station have no government, no place to pay taxes or redress grievances. But, to confuse matters, many do have post offices with postal addresses. Plenty of them have playgrounds, Little Leagues and churches that carry the village name.

I could go on but the point is made.

In the Lehigh Valley, it’s possible to live in Upper Saucon Township in Lehigh County, have a next-door neighbor in Lower Saucon Township in Northampton County, both have a Bethlehem mailing address and refer to home as Center Valley.

It’s equal parts original and absurd.

You can blame most of it on William Penn, the founder of Penn’s Woods or Pennsylvania. Some is the result of Lehigh County being carved out of Northampton County in 1812 and the Lehigh River becoming much of the border.

Penn believed the village was sovereign. That’s why Pennsylvania has 2,625 local governments, the third most in the U.S. There are 62 local governments in the Lehigh Valley, 37 in Northampton County and 25 in Lehigh County.

It’s confusing to longtime residents and a Rubik’s Cube for newcomers.

It’s equally expensive for both. Nearly all those 62 governments duplicate the delivery of services with their own police departments, road crews, tax collectors and zoning officers. Some do it in boroughs of less than 1 square mile.

In addition, most have their own municipal authorities to deliver water and wastewater services. Tax rates and fees vary greatly, often depending on growth.

Many states, such as Maryland and Virginia, deliver services and plan for growth across an entire county with countywide schools, police departments, utilities, road services and zoning codes. Others organize smaller towns surrounding a large city into metro governments that retain sovereignty but unify and share services, such as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, and Louisville, Kentucky.

The Lehigh Valley by regional definition is only Lehigh and Northampton counties. Not so for the federal government.

Every metropolitan region in the U.S. is grouped into a metropolitan planning area. The Lehigh Valley MPA includes Carbon County, a tiny county to the north and — wait for it — Warren County, across the Delaware River in New Jersey.

Not many people in Allentown and Bethlehem think of Lansford or Hackettstown, New Jersey, as part of the Lehigh Valley.

It may seem that this odd combination of history, village identification, parochial politics and strange boundaries would hamper growth and prosperity. That hasn’t been the case.

The Lehigh Valley is Pennsylvania’s third largest region in population and economy behind only Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The population of just the two counties is up to about 673,000 people based on the June census update. Gross domestic product is more than $40 billion, making the two counties the 64th largest economy in the U.S.

Lehigh and Northampton are two of only 20 growing counties of the 67 in Pennsylvania. Only 12 of 56 Pennsylvania cities grew in population since 2010. Allentown is second and Bethlehem is third in the number of people added, just behind Philadelphia. Easton’s percentage of growth is higher than both.

Pittsburgh had a net decrease of 4,000 people, or 1.4%, since 2010.

Only 20% of the boroughs in Pennsylvania grew since the last census but half of the boroughs in the Lehigh Valley are growing. The contrast is even greater with townships. Only one-third of the state’s townships grew since 2010, but seven-eighths of Lehigh Valley townships did.

Upper Macungie is the fastest growing township in Pennsylvania. The combined population of Upper and Lower Macungie and Macungie Borough is now more than 60,000 people, just about the population of Carbon County.

Somehow it all works.

It may not make sense that you can’t get from eastern Salisbury Township to western Salisbury without passing through Allentown or Emmaus, but it hasn’t stopped the underdog Lehigh Valley from leaping forward.

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