The board instructed its solicitor Joseph Zator and Township Manager Jon Hammer to initiate discussions with developer Atul Patel, of Hotel Hamilton LLC., and to determine the status of his demolition permit application.
Commissioner David Bond said he did not know if issuing the permit could be legally stopped but it would be worth exploring.
Patel has submitted plans to raze the 257-year-old King George Inn and replace it and two adjoining properties with a bank, restaurant and drugstore at Cedar Crest and Hamilton boulevards. The original plan called for a hotel at the site.
About 40 people who oppose the inn's destruction, including a former historic preservationist, told the commissioners they want the developer to rehabilitate the building or incorporate it into a new building that retains its character.
After receiving criticism for weak historic preservation laws, the commissioners agreed to revise the township's zoning ordinance on historic overlay districts.
Patel, who owns the adjoining former Burger King and Carvel Ice Cream stands, has an agreement to buy the King George Inn from owner Clifford McDermott if he can obtain zoning variances on parking lot and front yard setbacks. His case is scheduled to be presented at the Zoning Hearing Board meeting on Oct. 3.
Several commissioners said they sympathized with the crowd but had limited authority because the township does not own the land.
"None of us want to see an old building like this taken down," Bond said. "Even if we pass a motion, we can't go backwards on a process. In some ways our hands are tied."
"The only protection that can be done is on the local level," said Nancy Lloyd, a resident who has organized much of the opposition to the King George Inn's destruction.
"Please don't say you can't do anything. We'll do anything we can to stop this demolition. But please don't let this go on in this township. I'm sorry to say this borders on neglect," Lloyd said.
President Commissioner Christina Tori Morgan acknowledged the emotion expressed by residents and said she and many other moved to the township in part because of its beauty and historic structures.
"We have some real gems in our township. As everyone knows, there's a cost associated with all of them, paid for by the taxpayers if taken on by the township," she said.
Commissioner Thomas Johns suggested Zator and Hammer show Patel an example of how an old building can be preserved for modern use, such as the Allentown Federal Credit Union on Oxford Drive in the Lehigh Parkway.
Resident Linda Wasser told the board the demolition of the Swiftwater Inn in the Poconos should be a cautionary tale. The inn, which was built in 1776 and was a gathering places for Revolutionaries, was torn down by developers who wanted to replace it with a hotel.
"Now it's a parking lot full of overgrown weeds," she said. "We lost all those years of history... now we have unusable land and I'm afraid that's what's going to happen to the King George Inn."
Sue McDermott, whose husband, Gene McDermott helped save the King George Inn when he bought it with his two brothers more than 20 years ago, has also been a vocal opponent to its demolition.
"The King George has been saved several times," McDermott said. "Go save the King George Inn. I'm bound and determined. There has to be a way to do this. We need you. We need to work together as a community."