Schuylkill County Commissioner Boots Hetherington seemed really anxious to complete a sale of County-owned land on Wednesday evening.
The land deal would see Schuylkill County government collect $1.375 million for two parcels of land, 975.5 acres in all, in Porter and Tremont townships. The buyer would Pennsylvania Game Commission, with the sale facilitated by a non-profit group called The Nature Conservancy.
Hetherington seemed really excited about completing it. Why? It was hard to tell at first, but then he revealed later, in a public statement, that it’s about the money.
But Wednesday was only a Commissioners Work Session meeting. It’s not regular practice for the Commissioners to take formal votes on anything, even though they did on other matters at this meeting.
This sale, however, was an informational-only item on the Public Agenda.
What’s the Magic Number?
Regardless, perhaps caught up in the rhythm of the meeting at that point, Boots called for a first motion to get the land sale to a vote. At that point, Commissioner George Halcovage chimed in and reminded Boots that they weren’t voting on this sale that night.
When Halcovage did that, in the tone he did, it was obvious there was some objection to it. That caused the two Commissioners, each running for re-election this year in the Republican Primary, to squabble back and forth a bit.
“We’re not voting on that this week. That’s for next week,” Halcovage reminded Boots. “I just have some questions on this, Mr. Chairman.”
And Boots started shuffling papers in front of him. He responded to Halcovage in a dismissive and slightly perturbed tone, “OK.”
“Go ahead,” Boots said.
Halcovage questioned Boots and County Administrator on the proposed price of the land the County might be selling. He said the County typically gets $2,000 per acre in a deal such as this.
According to the numbers provided to the public on Wednesday, the proposed sale price of $1.375 million for the land in question would be a rate of $1,409.53 per acre.
If the County got $2,000 for that same land, it would get $1.951 million. That’s $576,000 more than what Boots’ deal would bring in.
Halcovage also questioned if mineral rights were included in this proposed sale, another issue he says has precedent in other similar deals in the past.
Boots was taken aback by the figure Halcovage put out there. He turned to his GOP adversary and said, “Where did this $2,000 number come from?
“What’s this magic $2,000 number you’re coming up with,” Boots asked with a confused and agitated looked on his face.
Bender replied, “That had been our past practice.”
After getting confirmation on his “magic” figure, Halcovage again returned to the prospect of mineral rights and whether they are included.
Halcovage indicated there may be some coal reserves on the land in question. Not including it “would go against our past practices,” he said.
And one more issue not addressed by Boots, who definitely seemed to be spearheading this potential deal, was possible easements on it.
Working to Get Already Public Land Into the Public’s Hands?
Nicole Wooten, a land protection manager with The Nature Conservancy, addressed some of those questions from Halcovage, namely on how everyone came up with the $1.375 million price tag.
As for the price quoted on the Public Agenda, she said her organization gets a “third-party independent” appraisal on the land it’s considering purchasing.
“That’s exactly where that number came from,” she said. “As a non-profit, we’re not allowed to make a profit off of land. So we have to follow that appraisal. That is the Fair Market Value.”
Halcovage said he worried that by selling below the rate the County typically gets for similar land, it would be setting a new precedent.
Wooten also explained that her organization will not own the property and is “working to get it into the public’s hands” through the Game Commission.
That part seemed rather confusing because … well, it already is in the public’s hands. It’s County-owned land.
On Wednesday, it was revealed that the land is already open for hunting, which is what the Game Commission would do if it owned the land.
And regarding easements on the land, Wooten said the final terms of the sale would spell out those details. Halcovage said the County might want to be able to run power lines or utilities through the land for economic development purposes in the future.
Wooten said those issues would have to be dealt with through the Game Commission when it owned the land.
With regard to mineral rights, Commissioner Gary Hess noted that coal reserves can’t be gotten from the land because of its proximity to a public reservoir.
At the end of the somewhat contentious discussion, Boots read from a prepared statement that indicated he knew what Halcovage might address.
He said, “I am a farmer. Typically, I buy land and not sell it. However, this is an unusual opportunity.”
Boots acknowledged that the land in question does have some mineral deposits on it but really can’t be accessed due to that proximity to a reservoir.
“The mineral rights are essentially worthless under today’s regulations,” he said in his statement.
He also cited an assessment of the land he said was completed by SEDCO president Frank Zukas and that determined the land would not be attractive for economic development. Boots believes those reasons are reason enough to unload the land to the Game Commission.
But it wasn’t until the very end that Boots revealed the real intent of this deal … getting money. After all, why sell land that isn’t going anywhere and likely isn’t going to be anything more or less than what it is right now?
“I strongly feel that this is a unique opportunity to generate $1.375 million in funding while keeping the area open for hunting and recreation while preventing strip mining,” Boots said. “These funds would be earmarked for projects that would benefit every citizen of Schuylkill County.”
March 4, 2023 at 10:44 pm
The counties new website is complete garbage. It is next to impossible to find any information (done on purpose). The previous site although antiquated compared to other Pa counties, users were able to get very basic information through searches such as parcel locator or sherif sale information, case searches, etc. This new site is a complete waste of tax payer dollars. Who’s the mastermind behind this? This is the garbage produced by current leadership and I will remember come election time.
March 5, 2023 at 9:36 am
The new website is the product of what happens when people who don’t know what they’re talking about are wooed by a salesperson. You’re right, it’s AWFUL. Everything is just vomited on the pages with little rhyme or reason. Compared to other counties’ sites, it’s got to be one of the worst. And it took about a year to create, somehow.