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Wilkes-Barre Twp. Council votes against request that could reclaim acres of abandoned mine land and add new business

Lawyers for Bluecup Ventures question managing partner Jeff Randolph, left, during a Wilkes-Barre Twp. Council Special Hearing on Monday, Nov. 21. Bluecup requested conditional use permit to build a warehouse on abandoned mine land in the township.
Kat Bolus, WVIA News
Lawyers for Bluecup Ventures question managing partner Jeff Randolph, left, during a Wilkes-Barre Twp. Council Special Hearing on Monday, Nov. 21. Bluecup requested conditional use permit to build a warehouse on abandoned mine land in the township.

An East Coast developer planned to rehab around 73 acres of mine-scarred land in Wilkes-Barre Twp.

However, a township council majority voted Monday night against a special exception to the township’s zoning ordinance that would allow the company Bluecup Ventures to not only clean up the property but put a warehouse on it. They cited traffic and safety issues.

“We're trying to figure out, really, our next steps," said Jeff Randolph, managing partner of Bluecup. "We thought this was a positive addition to the community.”

The site near Johnson Street, Haul and Allan Roads in the township is zoned for heavy industrial usage. It was once home to the Franklin Colliery. Mining began in the early 1900s and continued until around 1981, according to a report prepared by engineering and construction firm Kleinfelder for Bluecup. Bluecup asked the township for a conditional use permit to use the property for a less intensive industry.

"The site has been entirely disturbed. There's nothing there that hasn't been undermined, surface mined and/or used for transportation and coal processing," Randolph said.

After reclaiming the mine land, the company was planning to construct a one-million square foot warehouse on around 25% of the property. The warehouse would be "built to spec," meaning there is no tenant yet. It would be targeted for a large company who distributes goods regionally from Boston to Richmond, Virginia, he said during Monday’s four-hour long hearing.

The main issue environmentally is that the site is primarily coal tilings, a combination of coal, slate and iron.

“There's no soil or soil conditions that allow any sort of filtration of the site. And what that does is it the water goes through and it comes off with a very distorted pH level … it it basically affects the ecosystem negatively," Randolph said.

During Monday’s hearing Randolph said his engineer described the site as “a valve that’s broken.” The runoff ends up in the Susquehanna River.

“Right now the water is not controlled ... it's harmful. It's a pollutant that comes off the site," he said.

The company also planned to use the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance program (LERTA). They would take a 65% tax exemption instead of the standard 100% on any improvements to the property so that tax revenue would still be generated for the township and school district.

“I hate getting incentives. It feels like it's the wrong thing to do … we didn't want to be overreaching," Randolph said.

Bluecup estimates that over the 10 years of the LERTA the property would increase tax revenue in the township by $840,000 per year and that the Wilkes-Barre Area School District would receive $590,000 annually.

Bluecup has followed this land remediation method for two other projects — one in the Lehigh Valley and another in Hazle Twp.

Four witnesses from Bluecup were questioned by both council and the community during the Monday's hearing. The court reporter asked for a break during the meeting and the council also went into a lengthy executive session after 9 p.m.

Residents, council members and township officials expressed concerns to traffic changes in the township, including trucks driving through residential areas and new stresses on police officers and firefighters. Bluecup estimates that the possible 150 employees of the future warehouse could take 1,000 daily truck and car trips per day. They will drive through the township and on to what residents said is an already crowded Route 309 to get to Interstate 81.

However, an intensive traffic study overseen by Bluecup, the township and PennDOT showed few changes in traffic patterns. The township’s engineer, Daryl Pawlush, agreed with the study.

Calling himself a “straight shooter,” township zoning and code enforcement officer Thomas Zedolik, however, urged the council to keep in mind the uncertainty of it all.

“As the zoning officer you're not allowed to have an opinion either way," John Rodgers, township solicitor, said to Zedolik. "You're going to prejudice the entire case if we go to court on an appeal it's going to be because of your testimony.”

Cindy Dorzinsky, a township resident, said during the hearing that there are better things that can be put on the property.

"I do not think this would be a compliment to the township, it would be a detriment and dangerous when there's too much speculation and not enough certainty," she said.

John Allan spoke at the meeting. He owns Allan Industries, a scrap metal recycling company that has been in the township since 1976 and the closest business to the property. Customers use Allan Road to access his business, which would be moved temporarily during construction of the warehouse and then replaced.

“I feel strongly in my heart that this is going to adversely affect my business," Allan said.

He said he is constantly chasing tractor trailers off of Allan Road and believes that if the warehouse is built, the large trucks will block the road to his business.

“This will choke my business during its construction and afterwards," he said.

Councilwoman Kati Arnone made the motion to deny the conditional use permit and councilwoman Mary Waskewich seconded it. Councilman John Jablowski was the third vote to deny Bluecup’s request.

Randolph said he was surprised with the outcome of Monday’s meeting. His company did extensive traffic studies. But they weren’t convincing enough for some members of the community.

“We like working in Wilkes-Barre Township and the Wilkes-Barre area," he said.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.