Letter bans Kaleta from Northumberland County land
SHAMOKIN - An avid outdoorsman who was once president of a local conservation club received a letter from the county this week telling him he will be "prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law" if he's found using for personal recreation the land slated for the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA).
Dave Kaleta, of Shamokin, showed the letter to The News-Item and minced no words when asked why he thought the letter was drafted.
"It's because I'm going out there pointing out where they are cutting trails," Kaleta said.
The letter, dated Sept. 10, states, "It has come to the attention of this (commissioners) board that you wish to have permission to utilize the lands of the county for recreation purposes, specifically hunting." The letter also states two of the three commissioners denied the request.
"This letter is to inform you that you do not have permission to utilize this property, and your promotion of use of this property is strictly prohibited," the letter states.
The letter also says the board is "willing to entertain" Kaleta's requests to "hold an event or function for more than just personal recreation," but day-to-day access is not allowed until AOAA plans "come to fruition."
"Until that point comes, we are not comfortable granting open access to the property," the letter, signed by Pat Mack, director of planning and industrial development for the county, states.
The letter was sent in response to Kaleta's request for a waiver to access the land, he said. Kaleta approached Commissioner Rick Shoch for a copy of the waiver, which Shoch said he attempted to get from the planning department. Kaleta regularly walks on the land and takes his hunting dogs there for exercise.
When asked in August if simply walking on county land is trespassing, Pat Mack said, "No." On Thursday, Mack said no one has free access to the land and the county is trying to "gear usage toward groups and promotional events."
"You can't just come and use this property. What if you get lost?" he asked.
Kaleta isn't worried about getting lost; he has hunted grouse and woodcock on the property for more years than he can count, he said.
"I started hunting there when I was 16. I'm 54 now. You do the math," he said.
Kaleta said he has reported illegal activity he sees while he's on county land. In December, Michael Yost, of Coal Township, was charged by police in two communities with felony theft-related offenses for allegedly cutting down and removing 71 tons of pine timber valued at $4,400 from county-owned land; Kaleta was the person who reported the timbering.
Lately, however, his reports question the legality of trails cut for sanctioned off-road vehicle events, including the Coal Mountain Jeep Jamboree and the Valley Forge Trail Riders Hare Scramble. Kaleta believes trails were cut for the events on land determined by the AOAA master plan as "non-motorized." He also believes the trails were cut before surveys and wildlife habitat studies were conducted and has made his views clear publicly.
Mack has said the county is working closely with the state game commission to make sure all steps are taken at the appropriate time to get the AOAA up and running with respect to wildlife.
Sunshine Act violation
Kaleta said prohibiting him access to county land is not only a violation of his rights as a citizen, but is also a violation of the Sunshine Act because the decision was made without a public meeting first.
Kaleta has mailed a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union and has filed several "Right to Know" requests with the county. In addition to asking for AOAA land access waivers he's signed in the past, Kaleta requested documents authorizing the county to require such waivers.
The decision, according to the letter, was made by "two of three members of the Board of Commissioners." Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy said they voted to deny Kaleta access to the land; Shoch said he was unaware there was even a discussion to do so.
Clausi said he voted to send the letter because Kaleta had previously tried to sell for $20 keys to a gate in Excelsior accessing county land known as the Alaska site. Before it was disbanded, Habitat for Wildlife, of which Kaleta was president, worked to rehabilitate former mining sites, removing trash and planting trees and vegetation that attracts a variety of animals and birds.
"This man is out of order," Clausi said.
When asked about the gate and keys, Kaleta said he and volunteers placed the gate on land belonging to Girard Estates as a way to keep motorized vehicles off the Alaska site. Keys were given to the volunteers who work at the site, he said. The $20 in question was a donation from a volunteer who is physically unable to help.
Mack, however, said he spoke with a representative of Girard Estates, and the two men could not determine on what property the gate sits, but agreed a survey should be done to make that determination.
The lock was changed and keys were given to police in case of an emergency, Mack said.
Efforts to reach the Girard Estates representative for comment were unsuccessful.
Kaleta has also said the county is illegally holding 2,700 acres in Coal Township because it was not sold in accordance with the Pennsylvania Real Estate Tax Sale Law.
A working relationship between the county and HFW came to an end in March when David Straub, of Shamokin, then HFW treasurer, said "You don't want to see me mad" during an informal meeting, mentioning "a lot of bad blood between previous commissioners and Habitat for Wildlife." Bridy said he felt threatened by Straub and Kathy Jeremiah, grants manager for the planning department, left the meeting.
HFW disbanded later that month.
Mack noted a "checkered past" with Kaleta.
"We have a very detailed history with Mr. Kaleta so that clouds things," Mack said.
Shoch, contacted Wednesday, said restricting one citizen from public property is "very suspect."
"As a county, if we own property, we have the right to put reasonable restrictions on the use of that property. However, I think it's very suspect when you are putting restriction arbitrarily on a particular person," he said.
No other county residents have received letters like the one sent to Kaleta, according to Mack and Clausi.
"Kaleta is the only person who is viewed as undeserving to use the property," Shoch said.
Bridy said he has nothing personal against Kaleta and the letter was sent because Kaleta asked for open access the county cannot grant.
"I don't have anything against Dave," Bridy said. "He tried to make the area as good as he can and that's great, but we cannot give just blanket waivers to get on the property."
Bridy said it's important to keep track of who is on the land and when as a way to avoid potentially dangerous situations, such as ATV riders getting hurt when on the land during hunting season. Mack and Clausi agreed, stating the county can be held liable if a person is hurt while on the land and waivers offer protection.
"I don't want to get sued," Clausi said.
Shoch took issue with his fellow commissioners for leaving him out of the decision.
"I was never approached by anyone about having a discussion. I was never asked my opinion about it," Shoch said.
Bridy said Shoch wasn't involved in the vote possibly because he "wasn't in the office at the time." He said in the event he needs to confer with another commissioner he doesn't need to talk to both of them; he can just as easily go to Shoch if Clausi is out of town.
Shoch said the decision should have been discussed at a public meeting. Melissa Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, agrees.
"I think there are issues with what they've done and how they've done it," she said. "I'm not sure they can ban one individual person from the property."
Melewsky said the commissioners should have "erred on the side of public access."
"They are affecting the right of a citizen to use public property," she said.