South Abington Residents Continue Fight Against Turnpike Commission

October 18, 2018 GMT

SCRANTON — Wally and Ann Tompkins fear a Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission project will force them from their South Abington Twp. home, the only home Wally Tompkins ever owned. The Tompkinses and others who live in the township’s Woodcrest Estates development have spent months fighting the at least $170 million Scranton Beltway project, which would add two higher-speed connections between the turnpike’s Northeast Extension and Interstate 81. The connections — one in Dupont and Pittston Twp. and another in South Abington Twp. — aim to alleviate traffic problems on I-81 by pushing more traffic, including truck traffic, onto the turnpike. Some South Abington Twp. residents worry the cost of the connection will be their homes if the turnpike commission acquires property for the project through eminent domain laws, which allow the government to take private property for public use. Given those anxieties, Lackawanna County commissioners on Wednesday unanimously approved a resolution opposing the project-related condemnation and taking of residential property in South Abington Twp. without further study and empirical evidence that shows public need for the beltway outweighs the rights of the individual property owners. The resolution is largely a symbolic gesture, but the Tompkinses appreciate the county’s backing. “A lot of people don’t know, when I was a kid, I ... really did live in an automobile from the time I was born, like a gypsy, until I joined the Army,” said Wally Tompkins, who served during the Vietnam era. “I had to fight from the time I was a baby all the way up, going to reform schools and everything. Now I have a home. ... (This) is the only home I’ve ever owned, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose it.” It’s not yet known how many properties the turnpike commission must acquire to complete the project, which is in the preliminary engineering phase and at least four to five years from construction. Despite the county’s resolution and pushback from affected property owners, turnpike commission officials remain committed to the beltway project. “While we understand where the county is coming from, we do have a job to do and we’re going to stay on track with this project,” said turnpike spokesman Carl DeFebo. “Certainly this project brings ... safety and mobility benefits that are key not only to those who travel I-81, but people who travel locally, including those folks in the township who could see reduced traffic.” Noting the county’s request for further study, DeFebo said that’s what the turnpike commission is doing now. He added that acquiring property via eminent domain is a last resort and that the commission prefers to settle with affected residents. Meanwhile, state Rep. Marty Flynn, D-113, Scranton, and his staff are working to schedule a new meeting between turnpike officials, township officials and residents. Flynn’s chief of staff, Thom Welby, again expressed skepticism Wednesday that the $170 million project will succeed at easing traffic woes. Whatever happens, Ann Tompkins said she and her husband won’t forfeit their home without a fight. “We’re still fighting,” she said. “We’re not ever going to stop the fight until we can stay in our home forever.” Contact the writers: jhorvath@timesshamrock 570-348-9141, @jhorvathTT