Price dispute hangs over county-owned land
After a year of research and investigation, Hazleton resident Frank V. DeAndrea Jr. submitted an offer to purchase $ 20,000 in September 2020 for a steep mountainside plot of county-owned land. Alfalfa in Hollenback Township.
At the county’s request, DeAndrea paid for a legal announcement announcing the proposed purchase and a certified appraisal, which found the 48.33 acres to be worth $ 17,000.
But based on comments requested by county valuation director Kristin Montgomery last week, the council’s real estate committee voted to recommend that council approve a $ 45,000 counter-offer.
To further complicate the matter, the property is valued at $ 77,300 for property tax purposes, although county officials have acknowledged that some valuations of county-owned properties are too high and have never been challenged by the government. through the appeal process as they were tax exempt under county ownership.
The situation illustrates the complexities and divergent opinions that surface as the county tackles the arduous task of offloading property that has come to belong to the county over the decades.
DeAndrea said he first inquired about the purchase of the property in late 2019, when he searched for records and discovered that it belonged to the county. He owns the adjoining 300 acres and uses the site for hunting and outdoor recreation, which he would do with the plot as well.
The part of the county is landlocked and on a sloping section of Nescopeck Mountain, which makes it unappealing to anyone, he said.
Retired State Police Soldier and former Hazleton Police Chief DeAndrea said $ 20,000 is a very fair offer as it exceeds his valuation.
But Montgomery presented a different point of view to the Real Estate Committee, saying it was “a lot of land” and “being landlocked is no longer legal in Pennsylvania.”
“If you take a case to court, the court will give you the easiest right of way, and the owners must give you the right to walk through their property to access your property,” Montgomery said. “But it’s a process and it costs money to go to court, so it takes away a bit of the fact that the grip isn’t there.”
She also pointed to the county’s valuation, saying that equates to about $ 73,900 with post-reassessment sales analysis and other factors taken into account. She mentioned that someone had come forward with a possible interest in afforestation of the land.
The site could also be a “nice piece of land” to build a house and “get away from it all,” as more and more people are interested in moving to rural areas, she said.
“I think they are really fishing with a value of $ 20,000,” Montgomery told the committee. “I think they are underestimated myself.”
Councilor LeeAnn McDermott, who chairs the real estate committee, said Montgomery suggested a counter-offer of $ 40,000 to $ 50,000.
Montgomery said it wasn’t her decision to make, but she wouldn’t personally accept $ 20,000.
The committee, which includes board members Chris Perry and Matthew Vough, then voted to recommend a full board vote on a $ 45,000 counter-offer at a future board meeting.
In a follow-up interview, DeAndrea said he would have attended the committee meeting to present counter-arguments, but had no idea that a meeting had been scheduled with his proposed purchase among the topics.
He responded by first emphasizing that he respects and supports the county’s efforts to maximize purchase prices, but said he didn’t think they were aware of all the facts about this property. He said he remains optimistic. County council members will realize that his offer is worth accepting after he appears before them.
DeAndrea took issue with the claim that he was trying to cut supply. He said he asked county officials if they had a list of accredited assessors from which he could choose the assessment they wanted him to get, and he was told there was no no list and that he should choose himself. He chose Cheryl I. Roman because she is a Certified Residential Appraiser in Pennsylvania and is particularly familiar with real estate in the area that includes the Township of Hollenback.
“I paid for an appraiser, and now they’re not happy with the appraisal?” Said DeAndrea.
DeAndrea said a court-ordered easement to the landlocked property would likely not be a direct route to this parcel, making an access road longer and more expensive to build. He estimated that it would cost thousands of dollars for a legal challenge and to level a path with a bulldozer, not to mention the paving. He also questioned the likelihood of a court ordering an easement on someone else’s land that is large enough to bring in utilities for development or trucks for a logging operation.
During the committee meeting, Montgomery said there was also the possibility that access to land would be available through an adjoining plot that does not have an identified owner at this time. This other parcel may be county owned or owned by default, but more research would be needed, she said.
DeAndrea said an investigation indicated the property was part of a plot owned by another neighbor, meaning it has no connection with county property. And even if it were available, that adjacent strip is steeper than what he wants to buy and contains rock ledges that make it inaccessible to all-terrain vehicles, not to mention cars and trucks, he said.
Roman’s assessment indicated that an easement in this case would need to be provided through the plots of multiple owners. There is no electricity “anywhere near” to the plot that DeAndrea wants to buy, and it would be “extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive to dig a well for water and a septic tank for them. wastewater “, according to the assessment.
“Due to the steep slope of the subject property and the inability and cost of bringing water and sewage to the site, this is not conducive to residential housing,” he said. . “The use of the subject is best for hunting and recreational use, which is the use by the surrounding senior landowners.”
DeAndrea said he complied with all of the county’s demands and didn’t think anyone would be willing to pay more than $ 20,000 due to the challenges with the package.
Informed of DeAndrea’s response, McDermott said she welcomed and encouraged his further contribution to help the board make a decision.
While DeAndrea said he came forward on his own to alert the county that he was interested in the Hollenback Township plot, the council’s real estate committee systematically worked to figure out how to unload the county’s unused properties. .
McDermott said 222 plots have been found to be marketable, but only 114 have deeds.
Of these, 27 are valued at less than $ 10,000, and these are the ones that will be targeted first.
McDermott said he met with the county mapping / GIS department to examine each of those plots and compile a list of all adjacent landowners and their addresses. She has started to draft a letter for the committee’s approval that will be sent to neighbors informing them that county-owned plots are available and how to submit an offer.