On and Off The Mountain-Stephanie Grubert

The Gypsy Moth caterpillars will hatch in May 2016 from egg masses on trees in areas devastated by the Luzerne County 2015 infestation. At the height of the caterpillar season last May homeowners in many areas of Luzerne County knew what they were facing: a subsequent year of even more widespread damage. Trees can survive one year of Gypsy moth devastation. Some of the many species it eats includes oak, maple, apple, crabapple, aspen, willow, birch, mountain ash, pine and spruce. Two years of infestation will result in death to the trees.

The spray used to kill the Gypsy Moth caterpillars is Bacillus Thuringiensis (BKT) a bacterium that occurs naturally on dead or decaying matter in soil. Various strains of BKT have been used commercially in the United States since 1958 on insect pests of food, forage crops, and forests. Almost everyone is exposed to BKT on a daily basis. It is even used on organic crops. BKT does not harm wildlife, fish or other insects including bees. BKT was first discovered in 1908. Commercial landscapers and home gardeners frequently use BKT for pest control because it is effective, selective, and safe

Gypsy moth caterpillars had not been seen in such large numbers since 2009, according to Luzerne County Manager Bob Lawton, who answered my request for answers last week along with County Staff Engineer Keri Skvarla, who is coordinating the 2016 Gypsy Moth Suppression Program. Luzerne County is administering the residential applications for the Pennsylvania State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). “We are following the state’s guidelines for making the applications available to the public, locating the egg masses and determining eligibility. We got 2000 applications and 1750 were approved for treatment,” explains Lawton. “It is a property owner supported program. The state will administer the spraying. All we do is administrate the program and the billing. DCNR calculated the cost per acre this year at $55,” adds the manager.

The DCNR draws up spraying parameters for individual and development residential areas. They require a 500-foot buffer zone around the residences when determining a spray area. Forestlands that are not part of the property owner supported program are evaluated separately. Pennsylvania has 51,100 infested acres in the DCNR program, and Luzerne County has 21,272 of those acres or 41% of the total. Lawton told me that Mountaintop has the highest concentration of applications for the suppression program in the county. I know from hiking the Gamelands nearly every day from April to November what the gypsy moths have done to my Wilderness Estates neighborhood and the state forest.

Requests for Treatment

The Luzerne County Engineering Office made 2016 Gypsy Moth Suppression Program applications available on their website in July 2015, with a deadline for submission and consideration of August 15, 2015. The Mountaintop Eagle wrote about the program extensively in July publishing a sample Individual Request for Treatment in the paper. The county also provided a Community Association Request for Treatment, which asked for information about the Community Association, Association Phone number, Contact Person, Community Mailing Address and municipality. The contact person agreed on the application to discuss the application with the association and to be the liaison between the County and the Community Association.

The Individual Request for Treatment asked for information about the community name. Our development is Wilderness Estates and we have 29 homes and 32 building lots. The application warns that if you live in a residential community you should check to see if a community application was submitted prior to submitting this individual application.

I received no notification from any other property owner in our development of a Community Association Request for Treatment and therefore I sent in the Individual Application for the two lots that we own in Wilderness.

Months go by and we hear that bills are going to be sent out for the spraying. No bill comes to me, but a bill for $6,710 is received by another Wilderness resident for 122 acres of spraying at $55 an acre.

The Wilderness resident is shocked at the bill and puzzled that he appears to be the only resident in the development to hear back from the county. He circulates the county’s “Time Sensitive Invoice” to the neighbors along with a summary of his understanding of the county’s position. Payment is due November 15, 2015 less than 2 weeks after bills have been received. The resident urges any interested property owners to “call or email the Gypsy Moth Spraying Coordinator and express your views and concerns.”

All this is going on while I am on my Seattle trip and first day back I started my research. I could not understand why our “Community” was billed for 122 acres when the actual amount of acreage in the development is 61.5. We have three houses on Heslop Road that add another 3.61 to the total bringing it to 65.15 acres.

I printed up and reviewed both the Individual and Community applications. It was time to talk to Luzerne County.

Luzerne County Responds With all of my evidence I drafted

a letter to Keri Skvarla, the Luzerne County Staff Engineer and the coordinator of the project. I copied it to Manager Lawton and all members of the County Council. The bottom line was why was our development billed double its actual acreage, and why didn’t I get a bill.

I had asked for an appointment at the engineering office in person, but Skvarla wrote back and asked me what time would be convenient for a call from her the next day. I started reviewing previous news stories in the Eagle and the Wilkes Barre dailies and I could not understand the 500-foot buffer zone requirement for spraying. And why had I not received notice of a bill?

The next day I communicated with the Wilderness Resident who had received the bill for $6,710. He told me he had sent in Individual and Community applications on the advice of a county official at a Gypsy Moth forum at LCCC in July.

Manager Lawton confirmed that since the engineering office had received a Community Application all of the Individual applications from Wilderness were ignored.

Why did the county have to make this process so complicated? Lawton apologized more than once for the confusion, pretty much admitting that the engineering office had taken the easier road by dealing with only one person. Could they have called the Wilderness Resident to set the record straight between the two applications?

The Wilderness Resident had no intention of collecting from the neighbors. And what amount was he supposed to collect? He was not given a list of who had submitted Individual applications. Each property owner knows the size of his or her acreage from his or her tax bill or from the Luzerne County Assessment Database. How was the 100% “buffer zone” calculation supposed to be determined for payment?

Since nobody in our development got an individual bill for his or her property, I am pretty sure nobody sent in even an estimated payment. I know I wouldn’t. The administration of the 2016 Gypsy Moth Suppression Program is ridiculous.

“From my count, there are a total of 29 homes in your development. I have received individual applications from 10 of those homes,” said Skvarla early Monday morning as I prepared this column for this week’s edition. “One property owner from Wilderness left a message with the county objecting to spraying for gypsy moth on his property. Due to DCNR policy, if there is an objector in a treatment area, the area cannot be sprayed,” continued the Luzerne County Staff Engineer.

Another Wilderness property owner came to the engineering office Thursday November 12 with his payment. Skvarla refused the payment because of this objector. Payments will be returned to any Wilderness property owner who sent a payment to the county.

So as of this writing, there is no spraying plan in place for Wilderness Estates. There may be other Mountaintop developments or individuals that managed to slog through the Luzerne County administration and billing debacle to participate in the DCNR’s property owner supported program. I would like to hear from them.

For the rest of us we can pray for a wet month of May 2016 and the Gypsy Moth caterpillars will die of natural causes. For others hiring a private sprayer could be a better and more financially attractive option. Skvarla did not know whether private spraying companies required releases from all properties in a proposed spray area in a development.