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Power company unapologetically closes Lancaster park, creates backlash

Written by The Associated Press | May 3, 2016 5:52 PM
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Photo by AP Photo/Michael Rubinkam

In this May 2, 2016 photo, a sign hangs at an entrance to Holtwood Picnic & Recreation area in Holtwood, Pa. Talen Energy, the park's owner, abruptly closed the popular park, which includes trailhead access to a renowned hiking trail, outraging residents and hikers.

(Holtwood) -- A power generating company is getting zapped over its decision to close a popular park in Pennsylvania, and its handling of the fallout.

Talen Energy Corp. abruptly booted the public from Holtwood Picnic & Recreation Area, a 400-acre tract that had served this rural farming community in Lancaster County for at least 50 years. Then the company unapologetically defended the closure in social media posts, which only fanned the flames of outrage.

Residents are banding together to fight the Allentown-based company that was spun off last year from utility giant PPL Corp.

``They just feel like they can stomp on us, a little old township,'' declared Glenda Johnson, 57, of Martic Township, who was among scores of concerned residents at a local board of supervisors meeting Monday night.

Talen was within its rights to close the park _ which it owns _ after selling its Holtwood hydroelectric plant to Brookwood Renewable Energy Partners LP. The park was not included in the April 1 sale of the federally licensed plant, and Talen said it no longer wanted to maintain the land for use by the public.

``We are no longer the plant operator, and as a result do not have the obligation under the plant license to provide recreational access,'' spokesman Todd Martin said.

Generations of residents had come to Holtwood to play baseball or kickball, push their kids on the swings, hold family reunions and go hiking and biking in the woods.

So people were taken by surprise last week when Talen closed the park without warning. The company quickly posted a ``no trespassing'' sign and blocked the park entrance with cones and a traffic barrel.

Talen tried explaining itself after taking heat on its Facebook page, but its matter-of-fact posts only got people angrier.

``There are other hiking trails in Lancaster,'' the company said as it traded messages with upset park users.

``WOW. That is SO not the point!'' came a typically heated reply.

Talen's handling of the closure, from its abrupt nature to the company's communications with the public, has confounded Abhijit Roy, a University of Scranton marketing professor.

``It's a very bad PR move, plain and simple,'' he said. ``I'm really puzzled.''

The park closure is especially sensitive because another big energy company, Williams Cos., intends to run a 180-mile natural gas pipeline through Martic Township, which some residents fiercely oppose and have been fighting.

In the wake of the backlash, Talen, a one-year-old, publicly traded company whose power plants are primarily in the mid-Atlantic and Texas, has entered into talks with a conservation group about the fate of the land. Talen and its predecessor, PPL, already have transferred hundreds of acres of land near the Susquehanna River under a long-running partnership with Lancaster County Conservancy.

``We are hopeful these discussions will lead to an outcome that will benefit everyone who is interested in the land,'' Martin said.

Until then, residents plan to keep up the heat. Several park boosters already have defied the no-trespassing sign to mow and weed-whack, and, this weekend, they're planning a ``community picnic'' at the park. A Facebook page devoted to the effort to keep the park open has generated more than 5,000 likes.

``Basically, we're saying we're going to treat this park like it's our park, because I believe it still is,'' said the picnic's organizer, Matt Clatterbuck.

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