Luzerne County Councilman Stephen A. Urban publicly criticized the nonprofit Earth Conservancy at two recent council meetings, estimating the tax-exempt organization is still “sitting on” approximately 14,000 acres of land.
“A lot of it is not mine-scarred. A lot of it is not being used for anything,” Urban said, urging the county administration to seek a payment in lieu of taxes and reexamine the organization’s tax-exempt status.
Earth Conservancy Executive Director Mike Dziak said he won’t engage in a direct response to Urban through the media, but he agreed to provide a lengthy update on the state of the nonprofit’s operation for public information purposes.
For starters, the nonprofit now owns approximately 8,000 acres, or half of the 16,000 acres of former Blue Coal land it acquired in the early 1990s, Dziak said.
He estimated the nonprofit has had more than 500 sales transactions, from strips of land abutting existing homes to lots and tracts it prepped for residential and commercial development. Much was sold or donated to the state or preservation organizations to permanently keep it as green space for public use — a key mandate in the group’s original mission.
More than 2,000 acres was reclaimed, and another 2,000 must be cleaned up before it can be used for new development or recreation, he said.
“I don’t think anybody has sold more land in the county than Earth Conservancy,” Dziak said.
The organization has struggled to communicate its progress to the masses because its properties are scattered and its projects include mine reclamation, acid mine water treatment and construction of trails, recreation areas and a composting facility that saves municipalities money while providing material to help make its land green again, he said.
“It’s a complex story. It’s still very difficult because people don’t have the time to listen and understand,” Dziak said. “If Earth Conservancy was not conceived the way it was, who knows what would have happened to this land.”
Urban brought up the subject twice in recent weeks because a council majority voted last month to grant a tax break for a development project on 330 acres in Hanover Township and Nanticoke that Missouri-based NorthPoint Development plans to buy from Earth Conservancy.
The councilman said the nonprofit had received $11 million for the sale of another Hanover Township property to Texas-based developer Trammell Crow Co. NorthPoint later acquired the site, which now houses online pet-supply retailer Chewy.com.
“I don’t know what they will be getting for this one,” Urban said, referring to Earth Conservancy’s pending sale of the 330-acre site.
Dziak said the lion’s share of the receipt from the Trammel Crow sale was used to repay a $9 million loan that Earth Conservancy went out on a limb to secure so the nonprofit could fill deep mine pits and contour the land to eliminate ponds and prevent runoff, he said.
“Nobody was ever going to take that risk and do that except us,” Dziak said of the loan.
Earth Conservancy wanted to “change the face” of this Route 29 gateway area because it is visible from Interstate 81, he said. Before completion of this project and the nearby Greater Hanover Area Recreation Park on previously mine-scarred land, prospective developers wanted to immediately turn around when they saw the black coal terrain, he said.
Any proceeds from the 330-acre sale will be pumped into other projects, such as reclamation of the 1,500-acre Bliss and Truesdale sites in Hanover and Newport townships, which will require extensive work to address mine drainage, Dziak said
While the two NorthPoint projects have tax breaks, Dziak said the nonprofit carved out residential development sites in Nuangola and Hanover Township and sold lots in other areas, leading to the construction of more than 50 new homes that are on the tax rolls.
“Probably between half a million to a million dollars goes into tax coffers every year due to development on land that we sold,” he said.
Up for grabs
All Earth Conservancy land is for sale, but the challenge often is finding developers willing to invest, Dziak said.
An example: the organization reclaimed a 50-acre tract near the Greater Hanover Area Recreation Park for residential development that has access to trails it also built.
However, the site requires an estimated $2.5 million in infrastructure and is zoned for single family homes, which means a developer would have to fetch approximately $50,000 for each of the 50 lots just to break even on the infrastructure investment. Dziak said a demand for housing due to the new NorthPoint projects may prompt a developer to pursue a zoning change for multi-family residences to proceed.
The massive Avondale pit in Plymouth Township — a longtime magnet for illegal dumping — also was filled in by Earth Conservancy to make way for residential development out of the flood zone if township officials or a private developer figure out a way to pay for infrastructure to the site, he said.
A local company is considering an office on at least a portion of a 50-acre site the nonprofit reclaimed in Hanover Township, and several developers are interested in a 32-acre residential tract Earth Conservancy owns near the Wilkeswood Apartments in Wilkes-Barre Township, he said.
Dziak said his initial forecast that the work could be completed in 20 years did not anticipate economic downturns or delays awaiting the expiration of coal company leases on some of the parcels the nonprofit acquired in 1994, including a 20-year lease that did not run out until last year.
“I don’t see any way that in the next five years we would be finished. I think maybe in the next 10.”