Lost Connections

Lost connections: Displaced residents and bittersweet memories

Although the preservation of the natural landscape of the Delaware Water Gap was a victory of sorts for displaced residents, they still lost their homes. Rather than know that their former homes and land is under a 100 feet of water, as is the case of displaced residents of other inundation sites such as Norris, Celilo Falls, or Lake Buchanan, they can actually still see and visit their former properties or houses that were taken from them through the federal eminent domain process. In some cases, the federal government actually sold or leased their old houses to others after the National Recreation Area was established.

© Richard Wasserman, 2010

Beyond the painful aspects of a “normal” eminent domain condemnation and taking process, in the case of Minisink Valley charges of corruption, unequal compensation, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers intimidation, and favoritism produced significant ill-will among the displaced and their families. In his thoroughly research book on the Tocks Island Dam controversy and eminent domain process, former Delaware River Basin Commission staff member Richard Albert argues that from the beginning the planning, research, and eminent domain process were plagued by charges of corruption and intimidation. The prices offered to residents were generally below-market. Some were paid more while others were paid less based on their ability to fight the federal government. This was outlined in the government’s own review from 1969 where it was stated that the appraised value could be adjusted based on, “such factors as the property owners’ age, business acumen, and whether the owners were represented by counsel.”[1] Even the boundaries for the National Recreation Area were drawn “in such a manner as to exclude certain influential persons and businesses. The jagged park boundary had no rhyme or reason, and whose property was in or out was largely a discretionary decision.”[2] Former resident Pete Pappallardo recounts:

"We got $28,000 for 16 acres of land and a 3-bedroom stone ranch. Even at that time we couldn’t even replace it with a trailer…So, it had a huge economic impact on our family and I’m convinced that it hastened my father’s death because he just despaired and gave up."

Pointing to the inequities of compensation, one resident questions whether eminent domain should be thought of in terms of “cost-benefit” analyses or in terms of “human rights:”

"In terms of eminent domain with any community, the richer areas or the more politically connected areas will use whatever power they can to benefit themselves. So once again, if you do a cost-benefit analysis on any of these things you might wind up with a net benefit but again there would be a sub-population which was most negatively impacted. On a balance sheet it might look like a good deal but from a human rights standpoint not so much. (Pappallardo)"

The Army Corps was accused of threatening homeowners with the destruction of necessary access roads if they refused to accept the Corps’ offer. In some cases, the Corps offered to buy only part of a portion of land, leaving farmers with either a field and no house, or vice versa.[3] Local activist and former president of the Delaware Valley Conservation Association (DVCA) Mina Hamilton describes what local residents would expect if they opted to fight the terms of the Corps’ offer:

"First off, if you went to court, which is an intimidating thing to go up against a huge federal agency. It is big undertaking. You have to get a lawyer; you have to find expert witnesses; the Army Corp of Engineers wears uniforms and [is] associated with the U.S. Army. So suing the U.S. Army is not something that everybody is going to do. Some elderly person living on a pension in some remote area without a family is not going to do that. They are going to feel intimidated."

Hamilton emphasizes, “Farmers, Widows, older people, were taken advantage of.”

In a particularly painful twist, to offset the costs of the drawn out displacement process, after the eminent domain takeovers in 1969, the Army Corps of Engineers actually rented out the now-abandoned houses. According to a local reporter, the Corps placed ads in New York City newspapers, including the Village Voice, where houses for rent in the bucolic Delaware Water Gap.[4] Among the first renters were young “free-spirited” individuals seeking to create an alternative life style in the rented properties. One leased farm on the New Jersey side, one-mile north of the Tocks Island Dam site, was home to a commune renamed “Cloud Farm.”[5] Along with legitimate renters, scores of additional “hippie” squatters, seeking to create an alternative communal life in the country, were attracted to the area. Aside from the sting of seeing outsiders living in the homes once occupied by their neighbors, residents of the area reported increasing tensions with the growing squatter population. The Corps quickly lost control of the situation. Some residents resented the squatters and even provoked violent confrontations.[6] The tense situation persisted for almost five years until 1974, when drawn-out court eviction hearings and other confrontations ended, and federal marshals forcibly removed the squatters.

Source: The Observer-Reporter, February 28, 1974

From the residents’ point of view, the National Parks Service’s mismanagement of the properties taken through eminent domain added insult to injury. The NPS’s ill-conceived plan to temporary rent the properties while waiting for the dam litigation to run its course; the failure to prevent squatters from moving in; its abandonment and failure to keep up other homes; and its slow process of razing other buildings prolonged past residents’ angst over the eminent domain taking process. Two decades after the original takings of property, many of the remaining structures had not been razed; most were deteriorating and had been vandalized. The assistant superintendent of the recreation area acknowledged that the “rate of deterioration exceeds the rate at which we are able to protect the buildings.”[7]

As recently as 2003, the Park Service actually “encouraged former residents, who were displaced when the park was created, to come back to live and refurbish their own homes and pay rent.”[8] Rather than helping former residents feel pleased about the turn of events, according to a Newark Star Ledger

Reporter “[i]nstead, the plan revived the anger and despair felt by homeowners who were booted out nearly forty years ago when government men descended on the valley—some say like storm troopers, others say like locusts—to create the $1 billion Tocks Island Dam.”[9]

Today, few structures remain, most of them abandoned as eerie reminders of the communities that had been there. Former residents talk about how nature has taken over the spot where they once lived: “I have gone out to where my house used to be several times over the years. The last time I went back I couldn’t find the driveway anymore because it was overgrown with trees.” (Hedda Matheson)

[1]General Accounting Office, Review of the Tocks Island Reservoir Project: Comptroller General’s Report to Chairman, Subcommittee on Public Works, Senate Committee on Appropriations. (Washington, D.C.: GAO, 1969), p. 27 as cited in Albert, p. 133.

[2] Albert, p. 133.

[3]Dave Pierce, “Long arm of the law changed the Poconos forever,” Pocono Record. August 12, 2001. http://www.poconorecord.com/article/99999999/News/60711004. Accessed March 3, 2016.

[4] Albert, p. 135.

[5] Albert, 136.

[6] Albert

[7] Anthony DePalma, “Instead of a Dam, a Delaware River Ghost Town.” The New York Times. September 4, 1990. http://www.nytimes.com/1990/09/04/nyregion/instead-of-a-dam-a-delaware-river-ghost-town.html. Accessed August 4, 2015.

[8] Duca-Sandberg, p. 2.

[9] Peet quoted in Duca-Sandberg, p. 2.