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Family, flood-protection agency at odds over levee land

Woman had planned to build environmental center on banks of Susquehanna River.

FORTY FORT – Michael Sgarlat was fine with the Luzerne County Flood Protection Authority taking his land to build property-saving levees, but when the authority also tried to take his daughter’s childhood dream, he took the authority to court.

For years, Megan Sgarlat, an environmental educator in Philadelphia, had hoped to bring an environmental center to the banks of the Susquehanna River, but the county is attempting to condemn and take the land because it says it can’t allow access across the levee.

“Our decisions are driven, obviously, somewhat by the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers,” said Jim Brozena, authority executive director. “Since (Hurricane) Katrina, the Corps is more cautious about private easements over flood control systems … It’s the Corps’ concern; it’s the county’s concern; it’s the Commonwealth’s concern … The fact is that we have much less control over that.”

The Sgarlat family once owned a gravel and sand excavation business that stretched along the riverbank from Church Street in Kingston to Rutter Avenue in Forty Fort. Since then, lots have been developed or sold and the Cross-Valley Expressway split it in half, but the family still owns all the riverfront land on both sides of the expressway.

The county began the eminent domain process in 2000 to take the roughly four acres needed for the levee, from the expressway to the Sgarlats’ property line in Forty Fort, but quickly decided it would need to take the nearly seven acres on the river side of the project, too.

Michael Sgarlat, an attorney, said the process was flawed, however, because it hadn’t notified his daughter, who was a party to the negotiation since she signed an agreement in 1996 to purchase the 44-acre marshland on the Kingston side of the Expressway and made a $10,000 downpayment.

She was eventually added to the legal proceedings, but negotiations for compensation continued to falter. Michael Sgarlat said the county was offering less than the $3,900 per acre his family had been paid for the land taken in the 1970s for the expressway. He said the property is worth much more because last year he was offered about $300,000 for three other acres.

He is also pushing for a private easement over the levee to access the land on the river side. The marshy 44 acres is hemmed in on all sides, but could be accessed from a partially paved path that runs from East Turner Street in Forty Fort, across the levee, along the river and under the expressway. The county posted a no public access sign and installed pylons to block the path.

Because the access has been eliminated, the county is also attempting to condemn the 44 acres. The case is in the county Court of Common Pleas.

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