Hopewell resident questions use of gas drilling royalties

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A Hopewell Township resident asked the Washington County commissioners Thursday to use gas well royalties from Marcellus Shale drilling at Cross Creek County Park to lower the property taxes of Avella Area School District residents and questioned why they have not developed the park to attract out-of-state visitors.


Robert Moore, 71, told the commissioners he is seeking “what was promised us and what we never got anything out of” and presented them with a sheaf of signed petitions from residents who feel the same.


“They took that property by eminent domain and took it off our tax rolls,” Moore said of the Cross Creek park land, which was flood-prone.


Moore brought with him a 1967 Observer-Reporter article that pointed to, in addition to the dam and lake, “$300,000 worth of planned improvements” including a beach with 1,500 feet of lake frontage for swimming, 2.2 miles of park roads, parking lots with the capacity for 1,000 vehicles, boat docks, picnicking pavilions, hiking and bridle trails, campsites, tennis and volleyball courts and a winter sports area with ski trails, sledding and related facilities.


Commissioners at that time were John P. Bevec, Michael R. Flynn and John Mazza. Current Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said after the meeting that he was a McGuffey High School junior in 1967.


Moore also compared Cross Creek’s amenities to those of Mingo Creek County Park, saying that the park in Nottingham Township has “a lot more than you put in Cross Creek.”


Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan asked Moore if he participated in the preparation of a comprehensive plan for Cross Creek in 2000 and when he replied he had not, she asked Lisa Cessna, director of the county planning commission that oversees the parks, to provide him with a copy of the document.


Cessna said although the commissioners of the 1960s or 1970s may have talked of many features for Cross Creek park, the discussions were never formalized.


Although the state Public Utility Commission website for frequently-asked questions about the Act 13 Impact Fee lists “tax reductions, including homestead exclusions” as an allowable use of the money, it phrases the question, “My county or municipality is eligible to receive money – what can they use it toward?” School districts do not receive impact fees from Act 13.


Asked after the meeting how residents of the rest of the county might view the county commissioners lowering only Avella Area School District taxes as Moore requested, he said of the land that became Cross Creek park, “They took it off the Avella School District. We want it put back. It didn’t come from Fort Cherry; it didn’t come from Burgettstown.”


The petition said residents of Cross Creek, Hopewell and Independence townships are asking the Washington County commissioners “to use the many royalties on gas wells at Cross Creek Park … to lower our Avella school taxes and to use the rest of these royalties to improve the facilities at Cross Creek as we were promised years ago. We feel the large number of gas wells in our three townships under Act 13 should be sufficient to fund many other improvements to our needed infrastructure.”


Millage in Avella Area School District stands at 120.88, and Hopewell Township used its Marcellus Shale impact fee to reduce its property tax millage to 8 from its previous 12.


“All school districts are strapped for funds, as we know,” Maggi said after the meeting.


Moore, a 47-year Hopewell resident, said he’d like to see the county “run that like a state park and charge. My school taxes are $3,000 a year. There’s nothing out there but farmland. This park would be a big lift. You’d have people come from Ohio and West Virginia.”


Tom Birdsall of Independence Township, who attended the meeting with Moore, said afterward, “I do remember that guys wanted to go fish there and not have all the razzmatazz, but now things have changed, and we can use it out there economically. We can be a draw. We’ve lost coal mining and all kinds of things that are no more.”


Maggi counted 116 signatures on the petitions Moore gave to the board and noted after the meeting,“We spent money on improving facilities out there today.”


The county will be seeking bids for the construction of a picnic shelter and restroom at Cross Creek park and a road from Route 50 to the boat launch.


Also in the bidding stage is paving a road and parking lot in Mingo park from Shelter 10 to the observatory access road and the Ten Mile Creek Park entrance road and parking area. The board also authorized the purchase of a $23,732 2014 Ford F-250 truck for use at Cross Creek and on the Panhandle Trail through a state contract that does not require bidding from Stuckey Ford of Hollidaysburg, Blair County. The purchases are to be paid for through Department of Conservation and Natural Resources grants, in the case of the picnic shelter and restroom, and gas lease funds.


Irey Vaughan enumerated $514,295 worth of improvements at Cross Creek park related to gas lease funds, from a new children’s play area to new docks, sluice gate replacement and the Thompson Hill access area being designed for bidding this year.


She also talked of money from the Local Share Account of casino gaming at The Meadows Racetrack & Casino that has gone to Avella area projects.


The Washington County Planning Commission will be working on master plans for Cross Creek and Mingo park this fall with public meetings to be scheduled near the parks.


“Ten Mile is much smaller, so there’s not much more we can do there,” Cessna said.


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