Is Ardmore eminent domain battle over? Main Line Times (Ardmore PA), 12/15/2005

By Cheryl Allison

Could the eminent domain fight in Ardmore be over? There were signs this week it might just be.

While most followers of Pennsylvania's new eminent domain law effort were taking a cautiously optimistic view of the effect last week's unanimous Senate vote to pass SB 881 might have on the Ardmore situation, one person was ready to say it flat out.

That person was Lower Merion Board of Commissioners President Matt Comisky.

The eminent domain bill, if it becomes law as expected, "will completely change what we can do in Ardmore," Comisky said. "It will limit what our flexibility is."

While Comisky has been a supporter of the controversial redevelopment plan known as Option B, he has consistently pointed out that it never dictated that eminent domain would be used to take several businesses on Lancaster Avenue.

However, he was clear that under the provisions of SB 881, it would not be an option. The bill prohibits taking of private property and transferring it to another private owner for the purpose of economic development. (Exceptions were added late in the debate last week for the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and for Delaware County.) The bill, written by Senate Majority Whip Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin), still has to go back to the House, which passed a stronger version in November by a vote of 172-25. It also has to go to Gov. Ed Rendell for his signature. But observers were confident, based on the Senate vote, there are enough votes for an override, even if he should veto it. State Sen. Connie Williams, whose 17th District includes Lower Merion, initially co-sponsored Piccola's bill, then withdrew her sponsorship. She wasn't convinced it would help communities like Norristown, also in her district, in need of redevelopment. Piccola had initially been reluctant to accept amendments to the bill, she said.

Williams voted in favor of the bill last week. "After all that, there was a lot of negotiation. I think we came out with a pretty good bill. It protects Ardmore," she said, but still provides for the use of eminent domain in some cases under a new, stricter definition of blight.

Williams said she expected action on a House version to come fairly quickly, and that it could go to Rendell and be signed "before the end of the year." Because of issues such as the legislative pay raise, "People want to get things done," she said, describing the mood in Harrisburg. The law would take effect 120 days after it is signed.

Comisky said, even with that gap, the Lower Merion board - five new members of which will be seated in January - is "not going to try to rush this" to beat a new law. "There's no possibility," he said. The township still must complete a required environmental assessment for the proposed new Ardmore train station, and it still has not finished writing a request for proposals from developers. That RFP won't go out until at least February or March. A new law "will clearly change the RFP," Comisky said. "Many of the projects [in the plan] will still continue," such as the train station and new parking, he said. "It will be a question of where and how we build it."

Can the township still come up with a successful plan to revitalize Ardmore? Comisky was asked. "I think we have to," he answered. "I view it as an alternative in our plan. We have to move forward."

Sharon Eckstein, president of the Save Ardmore Coalition, which has opposed eminent domain as a part of Ardmore redevelopment, said she is "very pleased and very heartened" by the Senate vote. She noted it was a bi-partisan vote that shows the issue "resonates with people and with our elected officials. ... I'm confident the House and Senate will reach together a bill that will protect Pennsylvania residents from eminent domain abuse."

Without having heard Comisky's comments, Ardmore business owner Scott Mahan, whose Suburban Office Equipment has been among the targeted properties, said that given SB 881's success, "It would make sense to take eminent domain off the table now and not slow down the progress of moving a better plan forward."

That would "channel the energy of SAC and its supporters toward advancing a plan that all could live with," he said.

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