Feds frown on getting too close

Last updated: June 16. 2014 11:07PM - 4282 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com

Philip Blaum's observation deck in Forty Fort, which almost touches the Wyoming Valley Levee wall, might be torn down because of a federal ban on levee encroachment.
Philip Blaum's observation deck in Forty Fort, which almost touches the Wyoming Valley Levee wall, might be torn down because of a federal ban on levee encroachment.
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Forty Fort resident Philip Blaum missed his view of the Susquehanna River, which was blocked by the Wyoming Valley Levee, so he erected an observation deck in his backyard years ago.

“I sit up there a couple of times a week, depending on the weather,” said the 85-year-old, who played in the river as a boy.

But his perch may soon be leveled because it almost touches the levee wall and sits on land owned by the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority, county records show.

Authority Executive Director Christopher Belleman said Monday the ban on encroachments within 15 feet from the levee toe or base must be enforced because it is one of the factors the federal government examines when it inspects and grades the flood control system.

Structures, parked vehicles, gardens and dumped vegetation or garbage can compromise the levee and obstruct problems, Belleman said.

The encroachments also make it more difficult to access the levee and assess concerns during emergencies, he said.

Letters planned

Belleman plans to send letters to property owners this week politely reminding them of the ban, with more stern communications to follow if violations persist. Many property owners already heed the ban, he said.

“I want to make sure they all understand we need to keep that area cleared,” Belleman said.

The letters will be sent to 50 property owners in Plymouth and 35 in Forty Fort, he said.

Belleman declined to identify the owners of properties with suspected violations, though he provided pictures showing several examples of encroachments that must be removed. These photos show two observation platforms and properties with a variety of fencing, a decorative landscaping wall with plantings, a row of privacy shrubs, a pile of garbage bags stuffed with bottles, a tree and garden along the levee.

Blaum said his observation deck was removed twice in the past during construction work on the levee. He said he put it back up because he did not believe it harmed the levee, but he will dismantle it if the county informs him it must come down.

Authority officials flagged encroachments as a concern in 2011, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the local flood control system a minimally acceptable rating.

This rating, which was renewed about a month ago, means there were no major concerns or expectations the system would not perform as intended during a major flood event.

However, elimination of the encroachments and other deficiencies could lead to the coveted “acceptable” rating that is awarded to only a handful of systems in the country, Belleman said.

The authority also must address deficiencies to prevent the levee from slipping to an unacceptable rating in the future, which could jeopardize federal funding, he said.

Tougher standards

The federal government imposed tougher levee certification standards — including the banning of trees within 15 feet of levee bases — several years ago, after Hurricane Katrina.

Another persistent deficiency here: ruts in the levee caused by all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes.

Belleman said he informed police of the urgency to catch violators, and he plans to attend future court hearings of those charged so he can urge the district judge to force the culprits to cover the cost of damages.

Belleman also wants to revive a plan to survey and mark the boundaries of authority-owned land so there’s no confusion about the levee zone that’s off limits to adjacent property owners.

County officials have noted the 15-foot federal standard won’t be met in parts of Plymouth because the authority would have to purchase and demolish several homes within that buffer. The authority did not want to force these property owners out of their homes, officials have said.

The 15-mile Wyoming Valley Levee runs from Exeter to Plymouth on the west side and from the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre to Hanover Township on the east. It’s designed to protect against a flood comparable to Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, or a Susquehanna River level of 41 feet.

The levee exceeded expectations during Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011, holding back the Susquehanna when it rose to a record 42.66 feet.

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