Latest round of Luzerne County flood buyouts covers more than 150 properties

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - [email protected]
Brozena - File photo

Around 155 flood-prone properties are being demolished through a Luzerne County Community Development Office program, municipal consultant Jim Brozena told county council members this week.

That’s in addition to another nearly 200 buyouts through a Federal Emergency Management Agency program since record Susquehanna River flooding in September 2011.

“We have cleared an awful lot of those low-lying properties that today would certainly be casting a wary eye towards the Susquehanna River,” Brozena said during the work session.

The topic came up because municipalities are asking the county to forgive delinquent taxes on three pending buyout properties in Conyngham, Jenkins and Plains townships so they can be removed from a back-tax auction.

The forgiveness would be contingent on the municipalities acquiring the properties, said Chief Solicitor Romilda Crocamo. Municipalities must agree to own and maintain buyout properties and keep them undeveloped.

“If the sale to municipalities does not go through, there’s no tax forgiveness,”she said.

Municipalities won’t be paying the current owners for the properties as they would in a typical buyout because the owners have defaulted on the taxes, Crocamo said.

The impacted properties in each township, along with the county real estate taxes to be forgiven:

• 171 Courtright St., Plains, $2,434

• 15 Tennant St., Jenkins, $3,217

• 144 Lincoln St., Conyngham, $3,169

Without action, the properties would advance to a final stage, free-and-clear auction, where real estate goes to the highest bidder with no requirement to cover the outstanding taxes. Municipalities can bid, but the price may escalate if there is competition. There’s also a risk a non-municipal entity would prevail with a high bid, leaving the property in limbo.

Brozena said the current owners of all three structures acquired the properties after the 2011 flood, and they are still in disrepair.

Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. obtained ownership of the Plains Township two-unit residential structure as part of a mortgage foreclosure in 2013, he said.

Jeremy Hunter and Lawrence D. Hodges, of Enola, bought the 1,200-square-foot house in Conyngham Township for $3,500 in October 2013. LIW Investments Inc. had previously purchased the property for $5,000 in June 2012, records show.

Marrero, Louisiana resident Kierand Daniels bought the 1,154-square-foot house in Jenkins for $500 in August 2015, according to records.

The impacted school districts have approved or are expected to approve similar forgiveness to facilitate buyouts, Brozena said. County Council is set to vote on the matter Aug. 28.

Long process

The buyouts and demolition are funded by $13.6 million the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had allocated to the county community development office to fix lingering damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.

The total allocation was $25.4 million, and the remaining funds were earmarked for flood-damaged infrastructure repairs, said county Community Development Executive Director Andrew Reilly.

While most buyout properties are now municipal-owned, some are awaiting demolition or municipal sale agreements, including the three tied up in delinquent taxes, Reilly said.

The buyout properties, most residential, also are in Nescopeck, Shickshinny, West Pittston, Pittston and the townships of Hunlock, Nescopeck and Plymouth, he said.

Completing the buyouts has been an “extremely tedious process” over several years due to the need for qualification reviews, detailed one-on-one sessions with property owners, and appraisals, Reilly said. Displaced tenants of rental properties also were eligible for relocation financial assistance.

County officials decided to use more than half the federal allocation for buyouts due to the high interest in removing property owners from high-risk flood zones not protected by the Wyoming Valley Levee along the Susquehanna, said Reilly.

The removal of this batch will reduce stress on residents who lived in the structures and emergency responders responsible for protecting them, he said.

“It made sense to put that money toward buyouts so every time the river rises, these people don’t have to worry about losing their homes and their property,” Reilly said.

Brozena File photo

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

[email protected]

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.