Home sweet home: Chester (PA) Daily Local, 5/11/05

By Adam Cirucci

Dick Saha’s home is his again.
The city [of Coatsville PA] never took possession of his family’s horse farm, but at times during the six-year eminent domain battle he said it sure felt that way.

"There are certain fields that we didn’t cut because we didn’t know what would happen," Saha, 75, said Tuesday. "Now, until we die or give it to our children, it’s ours. There are no fences, no boundaries, other than what is on the map."

Saha and Coatesville City Council officially put an end Monday to the land dispute that for years hung over the city’s bold redevelopment plans like a dark cloud.

"It’s a relief. There are no two ways about it," he said of the settlement. "It’s a chance for the city to move on and we’re just ready to go on with our lives."

Under the agreement, which council voted unanimously to adopt at Monday’s meeting, the city and Dick and Nancy Saha agreed to terminate all litigation between them, including the revocation of the eminent domain case.

Excluded from the agreement is a defamation suit filed by the Sahas against the city in May 2003 over a newspaper advertisement. That case is now being defended by the city’s insurance carrier.

According to the agreement, Saha will sell the city five acres of land along an abandoned railroad bed. The price was not disclosed, but Saha said it was less than the estimated $300,000 he spent on legal fees.

The city is expected to develop a series of nature trails on that land.

The agreement also calls for the Sahas to give the city an option to acquire up to an additional 32 acres if they ever decide to sell more of their 48-acre property.

The Sahas first learned of Coatesville’s plans for their land in April 1999, when city council approved condemnation of seven properties, some of which were located in Valley and West Caln, to make way for a municipal golf course.

Since then, the Sahas have been fighting the city in the court of law and public opinion, while periodically attempting to negotiate a settlement.

Saha said that last month’s departure of City Manager Paul G. Janssen Jr. was a major breakthrough in resolving the dispute.

He said Janssen’s second-in-command, now acting City Manager E. Jean Krack, was "easier to work with."

Janssen, who had championed the proposed 18-hole Iron Hawk Golf Course, resigned suddenly April 6 to take a job as municipal manager in Norristown.

Reached by telephone Tuesday, Janssen said that he was pleased to hear of the settlement and hoped it would bring some peace to Coatesville’s often turbulent political atmosphere.

"I’m very happy. I had said that I hoped that my stepping aside would make this possible," he said.

Janssen also expressed confidence in Krack’s abilities as city manager.

"Jean is doing a great job. He is the guy that can get it done and that is one of the reasons why I left when I did," he said.

City officials originally maintained that the proposed Iron Hawk Golf Course was essential to the success of the $60 million regional recreation center, the cornerstone of an ambitious redevelopment plan estimated to bring $700 million in private investment and thousands of jobs into the city in the next decade.

Councilman David DeSimone, who supported the condemnation and golf course project, said Tuesday that the settlement would bring stability to the city and its revitalization efforts.

"It was time to make sure that development happens," he said. "My concern was that there were certain factions out there that were willing to jeopardize and sacrifice the entire city’s revitalization for this."

DeSimone said he felt that everyone in Coatesville could breathe a little easier on Tuesday morning.

Saha has experienced the same uncertainty over the past six years.

"You don’t know how or when the court rulings were going to come down," he said. "You might wake up the next day and see bulldozers out there."

Councilman Edward Simpson,a longtime Saha supporter, said Krack was instrumental in negotiating the agreement.

"You could tell that (with Janssen) there was this animosity there," he said. "When he left, it opened up the door. Jean Krack took the initiative from day one. He extended an olive branch to Dick (Saha)."

Simpson pointed out that it took Krack about a month to accomplish what Janssen couldn’t do in six years.

Krack agreed that Janssen’s departure gave him an opportunity to re-establish an open dialogue with the Sahas.

"In any situation like this, you always carry a certain amount of baggage — whether you attend to it or not," he said. "He (Saha) worked with me. He negotiated and I respect that."

Krack attributed the settlement to simply "the art of negotiation and compromise."

"There is no winner on either side, we were finding some middle ground," he said. "People sat down and talked, but we talked about different things and that is what made the difference."

Krack also emphasized Tuesday that the settlement does not necessarily amount to a nail in the coffin for the golf course project.

He pointed out that if Saha ever chooses to sell his property, the city can obtain the acreage needed for the project.

Simpson said that while council has yet to take any official action on the project, at this point, it is obvious the 18-hole golf course is indefinitely on hold.

The regional recreation center, however, is still part of the big picture of the city’s redevelopment, he said.

But one thing is clear, as long as Saha retains his property, the city simply will not have the necessary space for the propsed golf course project.

West Chester-based developer Randy White, who plans to build a five-story apartment building on East Lincoln Highway, said he was glad to hear of the settlement.

"I’m very happy that the city has come to an agreement to put this behind them," he said. "I think it’s going to help the project move ahead at full steam."

White, of TR White Inc., said the eminent domain dispute had the potential to be a major obstacle to city’s redevelopment.

Developer Don Pulver, who plans to build a hotel and conference center at the intersection of Route 82 and the Route 30 Bypass, said he too, was pleased by news of the agreement.

"It’s great to get rid of the controversy," he said. "Now the main thing is to keep it (redevelopment) moving along."

And Saha could not agree more.

He said he was fighting eminent domain abuse, not the city’s redevelopment.

In total, the city spent about $8 million on land acquisition and legal fees associated with the golf course and regional recreation center, but Saha said his family has invested the most.

"When we started out, our lawyers gave us a 5 percent chance of winning. They didn’t think we’d last this long," he said. "But I just hope that it gives hope to people who find themselves in the same position. Not false hope, but some hope."

Chester Daily Local: www.dailylocal.com