OUR OPINION: Runoff Basin A hole in the ground becomes costly joke

June 25th, 2015 10:39 pm

First Posted: 8/10/2013

So, who owns basin blunder?

Sunday’s 1A story in The Times Leader about back taxes owed for — literally — a hole in the ground at the Wilkes-Barre Township Commons retail center is the sort of fiasco that can make our region a laughingstock.

A recap: There once was a 40-acre tract marketed for retail development. Government officials insisted that any construction include a run-off basin, a big hole designed to retain storm water to avoid flooding in nearby lower lands.

The basin was built. The land owner sought to subdivide the place into seven lots, a logical move in attracting businesses except for one truly ludicrous part: The runoff basin was one of the seven lots.

Who, you may ask, would buy a runoff basin? The answer is no one, and there in lies the fiasco.

The current owner of the basin can’t sell the lot, and more importantly, has no incentive to pay property taxes on it. Let the property go up for a back tax auction, and if it doesn’t sell there, let it go into the county repository of abandoned properties. Almost anything that happens is cheaper than paying the tax bill of $303,052 (and climbing) since 2009.

“Who would buy a basin?” was the obvious question the Wilkes-Barre Township Planning Commission should have asked before approving the subdivision. The basin may just hold excess water, but it is inextricably linked to the the other six lots. Subdividing it as a separate lot was a bit like putting your bladder up for sale.

So what happened here?

Perhaps Wilkes-Barre Township was so eager to see the money from retail development it rubber stamped everything that came before it. The fact that two planning commission members couldn’t remember the decision-making process behind the subdivision supports that.

Maybe small town officials were outmaneuvered by savvy business magnates. The basin is owned by RB Wilkes-Barre, apparently formed solely to subdivide and sell off the original 40 acre lot. RB and many of the companies that ended up buying the subdivided lots share an address with a single New York City corporation adding fuel the the notion that it was all a corporate shell game to boost profits and minimize liabilities (like, say, a run off basin).

It could be a case of the county and township being behind the times technologically, as such basins are disappearing in favor of underground systems. Or it could be a case of the development being ahead of it’s time, as the completion of a a high-ticket (up to $15 million) drainage project would eliminate the need for the basin.

Regardless of the reason, Luzerne County is now the place where you can come in, make millions developing an empty lot, and stick the locals with the tax bill for a hole in the ground.