A summer place — but so much more

First Posted: 8/9/2013

PENN LAKE PARK – Frank and Helen Conly first rented a home in Penn Lake Park Borough 36 years ago.

They liked the lake and the quiet so much that after two years they bought a small lakefront home here among the forested, hilly terrain of southeastern Luzerne County. The couple from the Philadelphia area now live here part of the year.

“We got it to come up during the summer,” Frank Conly said. “We love the lot; we love the privacy; we love the quiet.”

Phil and Betty McGarrigan divide their time between here and their Audubon, N.J., home, where they have an electronics store. But they have roots firmly planted here, where they spend a good part of the year.

The Conlys and the McGarrigans are among several residents of this unlikely municipality who used to view Penn Lake Park’s woodsy landscape around the 57-acre lake as a getaway but now are finding themselves buying property and living here.

They’re discovering what some of the natives have known all along. Tom Carter, whose parents were the first full-time residents of Penn Lake, wouldn’t live anywhere else.

“I’ve lived here since I was 9,” said Carter, who resides with wife, Lois, just off the lake. “The winter times get a little tough, but the summer times make up for it. In the winter, you get the wind off the lake.”

“It’s a good place to raise children, now our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren,” said Lois Carter, a Somerset native who moved to Penn Lake 55 years ago after marrying Tom.

Their son, also named Tom, lived away for 20 years but has returned to live here, where his grandparents ran a store and a gas station.

“Penn Lake is a great place,” he said. “I consider myself lucky to live here.”

The area, he noted, is quiet, safe and just two hours from Philadelphia and New York.

“If you sit out on the lake, you don’t even know what’s happening around you,” said Phil McGarrigan, who enjoys the sailboat races on the lake, where no motorized crafts are allowed.

The popularity of this quiet, secluded and scenic community, with its cozy homes and well-groomed lawns along or near the lake, has made it one of the fastest-growing in the county, even as it celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.

“You’re in the woods, but you’re in a community,” said Betty McGarrigan, treasurer of the Penn Lake Association.

“It’s a nice place to raise kids, a low crime rate and in the Crestwood School District,” added Jill Rosenstock, borough council’s vice president.

Rosenstock said those factors make the borough popular with families.

There is a playground and, of course, the lake with two beaches for residents, one sandy and the other grass. In the summer, there are children’s swimming lessons and fun days. The association also sponsors Halloween parties and has bingo games in the community center every two weeks in the summer. Rosenstock admitted, though, that once the children who live here become teens, they might feel trapped because Penn Lake is out of the way.

But not so much. White Haven is four miles down the road. Wilkes-Barre is about 18 miles north.

“We’re centrally located,” said Councilwoman Barbara Sudimak, who’s also chairwoman of the borough planning commission. “We’re close to two interstates; we’re 30 minutes from two different casinos.”

Betty McGarrigan noted borough taxes are low. She and her husband pay an average of $100 in borough real-estate taxes on each of three houses they own.

A history on ice

The community was founded in 1938, after ice salesman Albert Lewis used the lake to chip out his product.

In 1946, Harry and Mary Goeringer bought the lake and the 800 acres around it from Lewis. They built a house by the lake, later divided the rest of the land into parcels, then created the Penn Lake Association, according to the borough’s history.

It became a borough in 1976, when Penn Lake Park applied for a state grant because the lake’s dam needed a major repair.

Betty McGarrigan said the area, at the time half in Bear Creek Township and half in Dennison Township, was a private vacation spot served by dirt roads. But once Penn Lake Park became a borough and accepted state money, it was able to pave its roads. Summer renters who just came for the season bought houses. New homes were built. And there still is plenty of open space for more construction, according to the borough’s comprehensive plan.

Residents hooked up to a public sewer system in 2006, Rosenstock said.

The Goeringers’ daughter, Carolyn Goeringer Basler, recently sold 390 acres of forest land she inherited from her parents to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to honor her parents’ memory. The land, called the Harry and Mary Goeringer Preserve, connects state gamelands from Bear Creek to Nescopeck State Park.

The state paid Basler $643,000 for the property, a sum estimated at half of its assessed value.

Rosenstock said the preserved land, which includes a two-mile hiking trail, makes Penn Lake Park more desirable for those looking for a new home.

The borough also has improved police protection. Previously covered by state police, Penn Lake contracted with White Haven three years ago for police coverage, Rosenstock said.

She said police were impressed by how alert some of the younger residents with children have been. Once police received calls about “vagrants” in the area. They turned out to be surveyors.

But the borough is not without flaws.

Sudimak and Rosenstock said the local government needs help in paying for repairs to its seven miles of roads.

“We’re not eligible for grants because of the income level,” Rosenstock said.

When Tropical Storm Lee hit in September 2011, three homes and some roads flooded.

There are 266 homes in the 2-square-mile borough, with some of them rentals. About 85 percent of the residents are full time, Rosenstock said.

The population, up to 308 as of the 2010 census, has climbed steadily over the years, growing by 39 people, or 14.5 percent, since 2000 and by 91 people — nearly 42 percent — since 1980, when the population was 217. By comparison, neighboring Dennison Township grew by 217 people, or 23.9 percent, to 1,125, and Bear Creek Township’s population rose by 194, 7.5 percent, to 2,774 from 2000 to 2010. Rosenstock said Penn Lake’s tax base increased by 1.33 percent in the past year.

In a mutual relationship with the borough, the association maintains the beach and the community center, which also serves as the municipal building.

“We lease the two beaches to the association,” Rosenstock said. “That’s what keeps the beach private.”

The center is owned by the association, but the borough owns the land where it sits.

It is a 1.7-mile walk around the lake, which is about 25-30 feet at its deepest.

To meet the needs of the increasing number of residents, as well as the summer visitors, Rob Scott opened the Blossom Bake Shop in November and has since expanded the menu from coffee and baked goods to sandwiches and soups and, as of a few weeks ago, dinners. And he will expand from the current weekend hours.

The eatery is on the site of a former Penn Lake general store. It’s also across the street from where the first Carter generation ran a store and gas station.

Scott, who lives upstairs from his business, said business was slow at first.

“Once summer came, it definitely picked up.”