Luzerne County officials are poised to discuss getting out of the recreation business.
Outside entities already handle programming and activities at the county’s Fort Fort Recreational Complex and River Common in Wilkes-Barre, and the state may be interested in acquiring the county’s two remaining facilities: the Seven Tubs Nature Area in Plains Township and Moon Lake Park in Plymouth Township.
The county’s citizen Recreational Facilities Advisory Board presented a report to council committee members Tuesday urging them to initiate discussions with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources about a possible state takeover of the Tubs and Moon Lake.
Committee members agreed to advance the matter to the full 11-member County Council for its consideration.
The Tubs on state Route 115, which features hiking trails along scenic waterfalls, has been targeted by vandals and illegal dumpers, officials say.
The state had declined the county’s past request to take over ownership of the Tubs.
However, the advisory board said the state is interested in the Seven Tubs at this time because the state eventually will own and maintain a Delaware & Lehigh Trail extension in the works running from Mountain Top to the Tubs and into Wilkes-Barre.
The financially strapped county has no plans to start policing and maintaining the Tubs, and state ownership would improve public access, park upkeep and security, the board said.
“With improvements, more county residents would feel comfortable utilizing this beautiful natural area,” the board report said.
Moon Lake has been on the decline for years as budget cuts prompted officials to eliminate a full-time director and seasonal support staff and close the in-ground swimming pool and camping sites. County officials have estimated millions of dollars would be needed for repairs to the water and sewage treatment systems and other park infrastructure.
The park is open for passive activities that don’t require intensive county oversight, such as fishing, mountain biking, hiking and cross-country skiing.
During Tuesday’s committee meeting, county Councilman Harry Haas described Moon Lake Park as a “total mess.”
Haas recently spent time at the 650-acre park as part of a volunteer clean-up and said he was dismayed to find telephone poles cut down so thieves could get at the copper wire. The park office has been boarded up to prevent vandalism and theft, he said.
“It’s a sad state of affairs,” he said.
Several state officials and agencies have expressed a willingness to discuss a state takeover of Moon Lake, advisory board members said.
State ownership could result in additional trail heads and parking areas, the advisory board said.
Haas said 41 volunteers participated in the April 26 clean-up, or twice as many as the prior year, which is evidence people care about the park.
Advisory Board Chairman Phil Russo told council members he counted another more than 103 people around the lake fishing at Moon Lake the day of the clean-up.
Moon Lake was the “jewel in the crown” of the county for many years with its pool and camping but is now in “disarray,” advisory board member Paul Lumia told the committee. He believes the buildings at the park must be torn down due to deterioration.
“It’s really sad to see,” Lumia said. “We really need to take Moon Lake to the next level.”
State eyeing tract
The state also is interested in another 400-acre, county-owned parcel adjacent to Moon Lake that would connect two sections of state forest, the advisory board said. The state wants to build a trail from the Susquehanna River to state Route 118 through the county-owned parcel, the board said.
The county also purchased other parcels north of Moon Lake Park that were part of former watershed properties previously owned by Theta Land Corp. that may be of interest to the state, the board said.
Councilwoman Linda McClosky Houck noted Moon Lake is tied in borrowing packages approved by prior administrations.
The county twice obtained cash for operating expenses with an unusual financing mechanism in which the park was “leased” to the county Industrial Development Authority on paper. The authority borrowed funds to give the county money to cover the imaginary lease, and the county is repaying the bonds with interest to “sublease” it back.
County Chief Solicitor C. David Pedri said these outstanding loans would have to be addressed as part of any sale or transfer of Moon Lake to the state.
The county doesn’t have to pay to maintain and operate the soccer fields and other amenities at the Forty Fort Recreational Complex because those responsibilities are handled by Whitewater Challengers, which has a public-private partnership agreement with the county.
The county covers maintenance of the River Common landing, fishing pier, amphitheater and other non-flood-control amenities along the Susquehanna River but relies on the Riverfront Parks Committee to organize and seek donations for events.
County officials have resisted taking on proposed new recreational projects — including restoration of the now-demolished Ashley coal breaker, creation of the historic Ashley Planes Heritage Park in the Mountain Top area and a skateboard park near the county courthouse — in recent years because the cash-strapped county struggles to maintain what it already owns.