Indiana, PA - Indiana County

BURRELL TOWNSHIP: State, water authority hit impasse

by on May 19, 2017 10:59 AM

BLACK LICK — A long-awaited project to extend clean drinking water service to the Palmerton neighborhood in Burrell Township has been stalled by a disagreement over a land lease for a water storage tank.

The township board of supervisors reported Wednesday that Highridge Water Authority had earlier arranged to build a water storage tank high on PennView Mountain, on state game lands owned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, but the commission now has demanded a steep fee, high rent and other consideration for use of the land.

Township and water authority officials said the Palmerton project has stopped in its tracks.

“Everything was in place, all the financing, the engineering … and (Highridge) received a letter in the last several days outlining the procedure they want followed. It is not acceptable in any way,” said supervisors Chairman Larry Henry.

“They’re being obstinate,” Highridge Executive Director George Sulkosky said Thursday.

For use of one-quarter acre of ground for the water tank, Henry said, the game commission has asked a fee “for disturbing the property,” rent of $1,700 a year, and 23 acres of land owned by Highridge in another location.

“That’s on top of giving them a tap to get water for fighting fire, and access to any hydrant for firefighting,” Henry said. “This project for Fairfield and Palmerton is important. Those people are losing their water, they have no fire protection.”

Sulkosky said the water tank on the game land would serve Highridge in two ways. It was engineered for that elevation to act as a gravity-fed backup supply to existing customers in Burrell Township, providing water when electric service goes out and pumps don’t work. And it would be the primary supply for about 45 homes in Palmerton and Fairfield Heights, where well water is becoming scarce.

“A lot of people have lost their water or the quality has diminished because of strip mining in the past,” Sulkosky said.

“We would like to have at least a three-day supply of water in a tank, and we want to make sure of there’s sufficient pressure not only for users but for fire companies, so it’s a safety issue as well.”

Sulkosky said the Highridge Authority and Pennsylvania Game Commission are alike, and they should have some mutual understanding.

“That’s what upsets us most about the game commission stance on this,” he said. “We’re a public entity, we’re in the business of providing public safety, we’re nontaxable. Everything the game commission is, we are too. We’re upset that they’ve taken a very narrow view of the use of their property.”

Sulkosky said Highridge and the game commission have gotten along well in the past.

“We’ve allowed them to use our properties. We signed an agreement in 2009 allowing the game commission to use 130 acres of our property for hunting, recreation, preservation, the things they’re involved with,” he said. “We thought we were good neighbors but we get a refusal and a demand for these items before we can use their property.”

The township and water authority leaders alike said they were puzzled about the demand, because the water tank is proposed for a field on a reclaimed strip mine site, and the project doesn’t involve cutting any virgin timber.

“It’s stripped and there’s nothing but grass. We’re talking hundreds of acres. We want to bury a waterline in that, and there would be a water tank which could be a visual impairment, according to them,” Sulkosky said. “But the 130 acres we allow them to use have water tanks on them, too, and I don’t think that’s been an impediment for people hunting wild game.”

Fairfield Heights residents were the first to ask Burrell Township supervisors for help with their water supplies in 2013, and the pleas from Palmerton residents soon followed. The township each year squirreled away its Community Development Block Grant entitlement for this project. The Indiana County Office of Planning and Development went to bat for the township to obtain about $280,000 from the Department of Environmental Protection. The award is to pay for boring a channel for the pipeline under Route 22 from the game lands to the Palmerton area.

And the township and county will have to account for the delay in the project with the funding sources, Sulkosky said.

“The planning office has to satisfy their superiors in Harrisburg … and we can’t do that until we have the license from the game commission,” Sulkosky said.

“So we have responded to the game commission with a counterproposal for their consideration. And hopefully we can take up some discussion if they’re willing to do so.”

Without the delays, Sulkosky said, the authority is ready to immediately award contracts, begin work and finish construction in three to four months.

Officials at the game commission couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

In related business Wednesday, the township supervisors agreed to post a mandatory water connection ordinance for public review and comment for the next month.

The ordinance mirrors one already enacted in other municipalities served by the Highridge authority. It requires residential structures within 150 feet of future main water pipelines to be connected and billed for service — a change from an existing ordinance that required all structures within 250 feet to become customers.

The new ordinance also changes the definition of a dwelling to broaden the kinds of properties subject to mandatory connection.

In particular, Sulkosky said, the revision “cleans up” the definition of a dwelling subject to the mandatory water tap ordinance to include recreational vehicles, even those seasonally stationed at an RV park.

Highridge drafted the change after losing a 2015 court challenge filed by Bonarrigo Enterprises, of Blairsville, which fought the authority’s bill for $950 for each of 17 campers stationed at an RV park along Rocky Road.

Judge Thomas Bianco ruled for Bonarrigo, saying that an RV didn’t meet the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of a structure erected on a parcel of real property, and didn’t match the definition of a dwelling according to the ordinance.

Now it does, Sulkosky said.

Violation of the ordinance could result in liens, fines and imprisonment.

Highridge drafted the revisions and asked the municipal officials in the southern Indiana County service area to adopt the ordinance soon after the court decision. The Burrell Township board reviewed the ordinance Nov. 18, 2015, and proposed to vote on it after a meeting with Highridge officials, but the matter didn’t return to the supervisors’ agenda until this week.

Henry said Highridge has agreed to pay for the necessary advertising for the proposed ordinance. The supervisors will consider it for formal adoption June 21.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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