CLEARFIELD – Treasure Lake’s proposed plans to withdraw from Sandy Township and to incorporate as its own borough met a road block last week after three persons on a five-person committee declared those plans “undesirable” and recommended an “immediate end to litigation.”
This case has been pending for four years and heavily litigated. By order dated Sept. 24, the court appointed Peter Smith to serve as the chairperson of the Borough Advisory Committee.
The court appointed Brady LaBorde and Mark Sullivan to serve as recommended by Sandy Township. It appointed Jason S. Gray Jr. and Robert M. Hanak, Esq. to serve as recommended by Treasure Lake.
The majority’s 23-page recommendation was written by Smith, a Clearfield attorney, and he was joined by LaBorde and Sullivan, both Sandy Township representatives. Gray and Hanak filed a nine-page dissenting report, which opposed the majority’s conclusion that the plans would be disadvantageous to both Sandy Township and Treasure Lake.
Now, Treasure Lake’s plans are in the hands of Clearfield County President Judge Fredric J. Ammerman. He must determine whether or not to accept the recommendation as presented by the committee majority.
The judge had permitted the five-person committee to conduct three hearings to collect evidence and public opinion. The hearings were held Sept. 24-25 and Oct. 4 and lasted approximately three hours each. Both counsels were permitted three hours to present evidence, which occurred over two days in September. The Oct. 4 proceeding was to collect public comment at which point 25 people either spoke or submitted written comments.
The committee convened Oct. 8 and Oct. 17 to deliberate and again Nov. 13 to discuss the drafted recommendation. The committee was directed to “render expert advice and findings of fact relating to the desirability of an incorporation.”
After the hearings and deliberation, the committee majority concluded that there wasn’t adequate “desirability” established for incorporating Treasure Lake as a borough. And, after considering the matter for weeks, “the weight of the evidence against the incorporation of Treasure Lake as a borough is clear and convincing.”
Smith wrote that the committee majority believes Sandy Township, as currently constituted, is “successful and prospering” as a municipal entity. He wrote it provides above average services to all of its residents, including those residing in the proposed Treasure Lake Borough.
However, Smith wrote if Treasure Lake became an independent borough, the committee majority believes that Sandy Township residents would immediately experience significant tax increases. Further, the committee majority found that residents of each area would experience a significant and undesirable decline in the scope, quality and availability of municipal services, including the most essential services of police and fire protection.
Smith wrote that Sandy Township, as currently constituted, provides housing, employment retail establishments, churches, entertainment and other social opportunities to its spectrum of residents. On the other hand, he wrote that these opportunities provided by Treasure Lake are extremely attractive but limited to residential and recreational uses. In addition, availability is further limited to the more economically fortunate members of Sandy Township who can afford to purchase residences and reside in Treasure Lake.
Smith wrote that there’s already a significant economic distance among Sandy Township, Treasure Lake and Clearfield County residents. Median household incomes are $78,800 in Treasure Lake as opposed to $58,700 in Sandy Township and $42,500 throughout Clearfield County.
Smith wrote that the map of the proposed Treasure Lake Borough will have approximately 3,000 acres of undeveloped land. In principle, he wrote that parts of the undeveloped land could be zoned and used for low income or multi-unit housing, non-residential and non-recreational purposes. However, he indicated this would require a two-thirds vote by the owners of lots in Treasure Lake and is unlikely to be granted.
Smith wrote that Treasure Lake lot owners are currently assessed $830 per year. He wrote that petitioners have argued it as inequitable for them to pay this annual assessment, which amounts to less than $70 per month, and Sandy Township taxes to which the committee majority disagrees.
According to the committee majority, the single biggest complaint advanced by the proponents of Treasure Lake Borough against their current status of residents of Sandy Township is fairness. Treasure Lake residents believe they’re taxed twice and feel they don’t receive the full benefit of those tax dollars principally because the township doesn’t maintain the roads within Treasure Lake.
To this extent, Smith wrote that the petitioners argue that they are “subsidizing” the balance of Sandy Township and those residents who do not live within Treasure Lake. He wrote the committee majority finds this argument to be incorrect.
First, he wrote that the Treasure Lake property owners’ decision to purchase residences and to reside within Treasure Lake was voluntary and informed. Far from inequitable, he wrote the committee majority finds that the Treasure Lake lot owners are “getting a bargain.” For an additional $70 per month, he wrote that they’re living within a private, gated community that is among the nicest in western Pennsylvania. He wrote they’re also receiving the benefit of living within one of the most successful townships in western Pennsylvania.
“Some proponents of incorporation called this ‘double taxation,’” wrote Smith. “It is not. Local real estate and school taxes are indeed taxes. The property owner’s annual assessment is nothing more than a bill due under a private agreement payable by one private party to another private party.”
He wrote that road maintenance is their largest and most visible financial grievance. He pointed out that Treasure Lake’s expert witness agreed that Sandy Township is prohibited by law from maintaining private roads.
“If this is truly a problem and $70 per month is too much, then a simpler and less radical solution exists,” wrote Smith. “Remove the gats, dedicate the roads to the township and let the township take over the roads . . . That the solution has not been implemented indicates that exclusion of the general public and other factors are more important.”
He wrote that a right to an independent and self-governing political voice is among the strongest arguments advanced by the petitioners. He said the petitioners see themselves as a political unit distinct from Sandy Township, and they’re seeking the right to pursue individual interests. He wrote the petitioners believe this will ensure their tax dollars are spent only on their municipality.
However, Smith wrote “the principles behind this argument are unassailable and the facts and reasoning advanced in its support are flawed.” He wrote the committee majority finds that the best interests and future success of Sandy Township and Treasure Lake are linked. If granted, he wrote that Treasure Lake Borough would continue to rely upon and derive benefit from Sandy Township’s public infrastructure and entire spectrum of social and economic resources, which Sandy Township’s infrastructure enables.
“The residents of Treasure Lake have the right to vote in all Sandy Township municipal elections. They already have a fair and equal political voice,” wrote Smith. “ . . . The residents of Treasure Lake have an equal vote in the selection of Sandy Township’s government officials. Those officials, in turn, allocate Sandy Township’s resources. Treasure Lake residents already have full, fair and equal political vote.”
Smith wrote that the incorporation of Treasure Lake as a borough would be unfair, not just to other residents of Sandy Township, but also to adjourning municipalities. He wrote that the committee majority believes Treasure Lake’s inhabitants “get direct and immediate benefit from their tax dollars every time they exit the Lake to travel anywhere else, shop, work, worship, take their kids to school, go to the doctor,” etc.
Smith wrote that the committee majority recommends that the petition to incorporate Treasure Lake as a borough be denied, because its consequences on every level of legitimate examination would be undesirable.