New development or farming?
That question will be coming before Luzerne County Council members as they figure out what to do with more than 400 acres of county-owned land in Butler Township.
The county has been renting 145.6 acres of this land to family farms since the 1970s without written leases or competitive bidding, prompting the administration to publicly release a request for proposals opening up the leasing opportunity to any interested agricultural entities. Proposals are due April 30.
But when county Manager C. David Pedri recently briefed council’s real estate committee on the continued farming lease plan, the possibility of selling the land for development also came up.
Councilman Robert Schnee asked if the administration is obtaining an appraisal to provide council with a ballpark figure on the value.
“I mean that’s prime land that we’re talking about down there,” Schnee said.
Council members Jane Walsh Waitkus and Matthew Vough also supported an appraisal.
“I think it’s important to determine what’s the highest and best use for this,” Walsh Waitkus said. “We have a responsibility to the taxpayers of the county to do the right thing.”
Pedri said he sought an appraisal on the land’s worth for agricultural leases, but he will also request a standard appraisal.
The township has experienced “huge” growth, primarily residential, the last few years, Pedri said.
“That area in particular has seen some development,” Pedri said, referring to the section around the county-owned land. “We are talking about a potential worthwhile, valuable piece of land here.”
In all, the county owns approximately 530 acres in the township because it operated the Kis-Lyn work camp for juvenile delinquents from 1912 to 1965.
However, 407 acres are available because the Keystone Job Corps Center operates a federally funded, residential educational and vocation program on 123 acres. Prior commissioners had approved a 50-year lease extension with the federal government for Keystone in 2001.
Before a sale could be executed, a subdivision would be necessary to carve out the Keystone portion, Pedri said.
Butler Township Manager Maryanne Petrilla, a prior county commissioner, said Thursday the county-owned property is “beautiful land” that would be ideal for residential development to increase the county, township and school district tax base. Much of the terrain is flat and would require minimal preparation for construction, she said.
The township has been issuing five to 12 building permits per week because prospective buyers are attracted to the municipality’s proximity to Interstates 80 and 81, the Poconos and Wilkes-Barre, she said.
“We’re just very lucky,” said Petrilla.
Schnee pointed out one of the county-owned farming fields is adjacent to Drums Elementary/Middle School.
Commissioners had discussed selling the land at times in the past, but the plans never advanced. One push in 1995 had been initiated by some Hazleton area officials, with one Hazleton Area School Board member saying at the time it was improper for the county to “land bank” and unnecessarily keep it off the tax rolls.
A citizen had urged commissioners to reconsider plans to sell in 2008, maintaining some had become increasingly concerned the Conyngham-Butler Valley was losing too much rural landscape to new development.
Petrilla said Thursday the township still has numerous farms, and several participate in a government program to ensure their land is preserved for agriculture.
Pedri suggested the county simultaneously review the farm lease responses and appraisal to decide what should happen with the property in 2019. County council has the final say on real estate decisions.
The current farming will continue in 2018 because soil preparation already has begun, he said.
Former Butler Township supervisor Ransom Young had alerted county officials in 2014 that the county had been renting some of the land to family farms without formal agreements and competitive bidding. He said at the time the farmers took care of the land and were not at fault, but he was raising the issue to help the county receive maximum revenue.
Pedri said two farming families have leased the sites for $600 and $1,400 annually since 1971. Letters have been prepared informing them to vacate the land at the end of this year while encouraging them to respond to the proposal, which seeks a three-year lease with three one-year extensions.
The parcels advertised for agricultural leasing are 42.1, 35.4 and 69 acres. Pedri said the farming lease issue had “fallen off the radar” for a few years but must be addressed to maximize revenue and provide the county with written protection in case something happens on the land.
“They have been good stewards of the land. With that being said, it is 2018,” Pedri said.
Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.