Public v. Private
Tropical storm Agnes in June 1972 raged through eastern Pennsylvania and was the United States’ largest natural disaster in its history at the time. In the Wyoming Valley the Susquehanna River topped the levee system and caused historic flooding which damaged or destroyed 25,000 homes and businesses and caused $1.0 billion in damages.
Families who had Summer homes and cottages at the Lake took shelter from Agnes at the Lake. Many decided to winterize their Lake homes and live at the Lake on a permanent basis. There were other cottage owners who did not wish the expense of the Lake’s sewer installation charges for limited seasonal use and placed cottages on the market. These were purchased and winterized by new owners from the Valley and elsewhere.
The conversion trend continued through the 1980s. In 1984 about 55 Lake homes were sold and about 40 were to be converted to year-round use. Back Mountain growth was even more impacted when the population in general rose 236 percent in the 1970s.
The closure of the Don Hanson Amusement Park and Old Sandy Bottom at the end of the 1984 season, along with Sandy Beach’s closure in May 1974, signaled the closure of the public’s access to and interest in the Lake.
Some borough residents sought to restore public access to the Lake and to maintain its recreational history and foundation for the remaining small business community. Others were concerned that a borough-owned public swimming or recreational site would incur cost and liability issues unaffordable for a small municipality.
A plan to create a publicly owned beach was mostly centered at Sunset. In January 1969 the Harvey’s Lake Beach Association (formerly the Sunset Beach Association) purchased a portion of Sunset beach. In July 1970 additional beach frontage was acquired from Frank Ambrose. In May 1987 the association with Joseph Paglianite of Grotto Pizza who also had Sunset frontage, leased their beach holdings to the Borough. The intent was to test a public beach at Sunset for five years. The Grotto’s restrooms were made available to Sunset Beach swimmers. The Luzerne County Commissioners provided funds for life guards in the 1987 Summer season.
In mid-May 1988 it was uncertain if the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources (DEP) would allow the Borough to use trailers for changing and rest room facilities to operate Sunset Beach. In June DEP granted a reprieve and authorized beach use with the Grotto providing its rest room facilities. On July 19, 1988, Sunset Beach reopened with County paid lifeguards. The Sunset Beach season closed on Sunday, September 18, 1988.
In May 1989 during the primary election Harvey’s Lake voters did not support a referendum to maintain a public beach at Sunset. Sunset Beach did not reopen during the 1989 season. The lease of the beach by the Borough was cancelled on July 18, 1989.
A final effort by the Borough to acquire a public access point or park at the Lake occurred in July 2001. The plan envisioned the purchase of either a five or twelve acre parcel of the former Don Hanson’s Amusement Park, but again there was insufficient support for the public project. The Hanson park grounds were sold in 2002 for private housing development.
The Assessment Issue
In 1988 there were three housing developments in sight at the Lake. The amusement park grounds were for sale with a proposed plan for a condominium and marina complex. There was a seven-home proposal for Sandy Beach and a 20 townhouse plan for Barnum Street. Ultimately, only the park ground development, substantially limited, would occur but the proposals were widely debated.
The Borough does not have a manufacturing base. Increased housing could off-set increased school and other taxes for older established residents. Others believed multi-family developments were risks to the Lake’s water supply, infrastructure and community values. In the meantime real-estate values near the Lake in the mid-1980s had easily doubled. There was more interest by out-of-area buyers for Lake front property. Some offered $100,000 a front-foot for it. It was difficult to foresee multi-family development consistent with maintaining the natural landscape and provision for open common space.
Ten years later the Lake’s development was ensnarled in Luzerne County’s tax reassessment project. Tax reassessment had last occurred in 1965. The 2008 reassessment of Harvey’s Lake Borough was particularly challenging for Lake front properties. It was difficult to determine ownership of some docks and Lake front – or which properties had legal access to the Lake. Exploding Lake front values were based on 1965 values. Some properties were not on the official tax maps. The Warden Place Association’s lakefront beach, officially recorded in late 1979, had not been previously assessed for tax payments and was promptly added to the county tax rolls.
Lake properties were among the most targeted in the county for tax increases. A year later in September 2009 forty-nine Lake assessment appeals were finalized. The largest dollar reduction of a Lake property was $530,600 (the property owner was assessed for structures he did not own) and the largest percentage reduction of a property was 82.2 percent. Many of the reductions were in the 40 to 60 percent range. More appeals were still pending. The total reduction for the initial forty-nine appeals was $16.6 million in property tax values.
In 1953 Joseph Paglianite purchased Stuccio’s Grotto Pizza at Sunset. Stuccio’s pizza shop at the Lake was managed by Joseph Di Carlo, a World War II veteran who had operated the Luzerne Diner. Veterans had loved the “tomato pies” during their war service in Italy and were also sold by Stuccio at Sandy Beach in the 1950s. Joe’s Grotto Pizza opened at Sunset in 1953. Paglianite and his brother-in-law Dominick Palleri expanded to the Delaware boardwalk in 1960.
Originally a small beer garden with a few tables Joe’s Grotto was expanded to include two dining rooms, a bar, solarium, and outdoor patio. Recently renovated in June 1988 a September 7, 1988, fire caused a half-million dollars in damages likely caused by an electrical fire which began in a stuffed animal machine. Seventy-five fire fighters from six Back Mountain and Kingston fire companies battled the blaze. Eleven months later the Paglianite family reopened a rebuilt Grotto Pizza and expanded it in the Summer of 1990 as Grotto Pizza and Grand Slam Pizza Bar.
Water Quality Crisis
In the 1980s water quality issues re-emerged at the Lake. In 1981 increased nutrient flows, long-hot days, warmer water and a drought prompted a high algae bloom which led to a voluntary closure of public beaches during the Summer. The algae could cause skin irritation and swallowing affected water could cause cramps and stomach issues. A year earlier a study of seventeen Pennsylvania lakes by the U.S. Geological Source had found Harvey’s Lake to have the highest quality of the lakes studied. In 1982 the exceptional quality of the Lake water had returned. Another algae scare occurred in 1983 but Lake closure did not occur.
In the early Summer 1985 the Anabaena algae-microscopic blue/green organisms returned. On July 2 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources again issued an advisory ban on swimming and water contact activities. The Lake was treated by the Ecoscience company from Moscow, Pennsylvania, with chemical algaecide copper sulfate. The advisory ban was lifted later in July.
Another algae bloom occurred for ten days in mid-August 1987 but prompt treatment by Ecoscience permitted safe swimming later in the month. During the bloom cloudy water limited Tommy O’Brien’s scuba-rental service since divers only had five feet of visibility.
In August 1991 waterfowl droppings from ducks and Canada geese raised phosphorus levels in shallow areas of the Lake at Sunset, Sandy Bottom and the Outlet. Other factors were likely lawn fertilizers and illegal sewage flowing into the Lake. The swimming leg of the annual Wilkes-Barre Triathlon at Sandy Bottom had to be cancelled. (The Triathlon celebrated a 35 year anniversary on August 21, 2016, but was cancelled for 2017).
On June 18, 1983, a drunk driver crashed his speedboat into another boat killing two adults and two young children from the Wyoming area. The responsible boat operator received a 16 months to five years term of imprisonment in part due to absence of an appropriate watercraft related homicide statute at the time of the collision. The State legislature subsequently adopted a homicide-by-watercraft addition to the State crimes code effective July 30, 1984.
The tragedy was among the most consequential series of boating accidents in the 1980s. On June 5, 1983, a boater was injured when he struck two Lake docks. On June 15 a boat passenger jumped from his craft and drowned. His body was never recovered. On August 16, 1983, a seventeen year-old boater collided with another boat. Also in August 1985, a thirty-one year old man died when his boat collided with a Lake dock.
On Friday, July 6, 1984, at 6:45 p.m., a severe seventy-five mile per hour downburst, spawned as a tornado in Sweet Valley, swept through Sunset at the Lake causing $250,000.00 in damages. Hoss’s Garden Center was blown off its foundation. Several homes were damaged; a cottage and a borough police cruiser were demolished.
In March 1997 Thomas J. “Chaz” O’Brien passed away at age 67. Also known as “Tommy” he had operated the Harvey’s Lake Diving School for four decades. He “caught the wave” of scuba diving during its rise in the 1950s and taught the sport to Sea Hunt enthusiasts who still recount their adventures with Tommy “… at the Lake.”
On May 13, 1997, a fire destroyed the Country Manor Personal Care home on Queen of Peace road. Ten of the 21 residents lost their lives due to the Lake’s most deadly fire. Six residents died in the fire. Another three died at a hospital. Two months later an 82 year old burn victim died from his injuries. An elderly resident deemed to be too incompetent for trial, carelessly discarded a lit match on a porch chair and a fire spread to the porch and interior of the building. The home was owned by W. P. Equities, Inc., which had recently purchased it. From 1921 to 1941 the building was the Summer home of Judge Andrew Hourigan. In 1941 he gifted it to the Catholic Diocese which transformed the home into Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish. Known locally as Holy Hill the church property was a retreat facility for Catholic clergymen. Another residence across the road was apparently another retreat house for nuns. In November 1982 the Catholic Diocese of Scranton sold the Queen of Peace Parish, now renamed Our Lady of Victory Parish, to Homer and Rebecca Baker who created the County Manor Personal Care Home. In January 2000 a compensation package for families of eight victims was resolved in court. W. P. Equities donated the lot to the Lake’s fire company.
On December 1, 1998, Taco Tom’s was lost in a fire. The taco stand was adjacent to Jones’ Pancake House and was previously a hot-dog stand. Owned by Thomas Williams the building was the target of vandalism twice in 1997.
On July 1, 2002, a mishap with a motorboat at Nick Arnone’s Sunset Marina near the Grotto resulted in the loss of eighteen boats which were lost to fire. An estimated $250,000 in boat losses occurred. Gasoline from the boats leaked into the Lake and the Department of Environmental Resources placed an absorbent boom around the affected area to contain the hazard.
In late July 2003 the Marina Pointe townhouse development project at Sunset began construction with 45 units planned. The formal developer is Marina Commons at Harveys Lake, LLC.
In May 2008 the former Kern’s bar, now greatly remodeled, was reopened at the Outlet as the Lakeside Skillet with additional features in later years – a rare year-round restaurant and meeting place now at the Lake.
On June 13, 2011, the historic Shawanese post office adjacent to DeVeronica’s store at Sunset was closed after a robbery. The building was later declared unfit for occupation. DeVeronica’s store closed in 1996 and was later demolished in 2015. Nich DiVeronica passed away in July 2011.
In late 2013 controversy arose over the old Troxell dam at Outlet when the owner of the dam added additional flagstones to the dam raising the level of the Lake. A sustained heavy rain could rise the Lake level and result in dock and property damage. The owner believed there was earlier approval for the dam’s alteration but under pressure from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources the owner agreed in early 2014 to restore the dam to its original level.
In June 2015 the Lake’s last general store, William and Shirley Javers’ general store at Alderson closed at the end of business on June 28. It followed the closing in earlier years of Taft’s Market in 2003 near Old Sandy Bottom and DeVeronica’s at Sunset.
The Wilkes-Barre Triathlon, an annual event at the Lake for 35 years, was not offered in 2017. The Triathlon began at Old Sandy Bottom with a 1.5 mile swim, followed by a 10k run through the Back Mountain and ending with a 40k bike ride. The event was troubled by financial concerns, road course construction and other competitive events in the region.
The initial paragraph to the Preface of the original 1983 edition seems even more apt in 2017:
“A current generation may only recognize Harvey’s Lake as a nearly private summer playground with few areas of public access. Dances a decade or more ago at Hanson’s Amusement Park or Sandy Beach fill more recent memories, as though the Lake had never seen greater times. But Harvey’s Lake has witnessed many seasons and many generations. The Lake was unknown to the earliest settlers of Wyoming Valley as it was hidden in the frontier mountains beyond the Susquehanna River. Slowly, the Lake became an early settling village for the rough pioneers who cleared the Lake’s watershed of virgin timber to build the robust towns of the Susquehanna sinews of the American landscape, turned the Lake into a Victorian playground—when the magnificence of the Hotel Oneonta was complemented by the simplicity of the picnic basket. The Lake merged from the dark days of world conflict into a raucous two decades when the automobile would doom the Lake’s steamboats and trolley line. Although the Lake continued as a favorite resort for the Wyoming Valley after World War II, a residential community took hold, and today there are only a few reminders of those times when Harvey’s Lake was a special place.”