5/24/2006

City ends 7-year fight for property: Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, 5/24/06

Coatesville Council and the Saha family resolved the eminent-domain dispute

By Kathleen Brady Shea

Amid raucous references to Rasputin, Romper Room and Desmond Tutu, Coatesville [Pennsylvania] City Council has plugged a multimillion-dollar hemorrhage of legal fees, ending a seven-year eminent-domain dispute with the Saha family.

Late Monday night - after a council meeting punctuated by discord, impassioned pleas for unity, and more discord - four council members signed a settlement agreement with Dick and Nancy Saha, owners of a 48-acre homestead and horse farm in Valley Township.

Amy Saha, the couple's daughter, responded tearfully to the 4-3 vote.

"I just want to thank every one of you," she said to council members and the standing-room-only crowd. "I hope this finally puts an end to this ordeal for my parents."

Council member Patsy Ray sought and received a round of applause for the Sahas.

"I thank God this is over and hope it doesn't happen to another person," Ray said.

Since 2000, the Sahas have battled Coatesville's effort to reach beyond its border and condemn up to 42 acres of their land for five holes of a municipal golf course. The course was planned as part of a $60 million recreation complex - an effort to revitalize the city of about 11,000 residents in western Chester County.

The resolution, which calls for five payments totaling $227,000, grants the city an easement to use five acres of the Sahas' land along an old railroad bed, likely as part of a hiking trail.

Dick Saha said the payments will not cover his legal costs, which topped $300,000. Legal fees for the city hit $3.5 million, according to city records.

The condemnation, viewed by many as an unjust but legal land grab, sparked outrage within and outside the city.

Saha and his supporters urged voters to speak through the ballot box and helped get opponents of the golf course plan elected in 2003 and 2005.

Now Saha believes the voter backlash has backfired, resulting in two polarizing groups. One, dubbed the block of four, consists of Council President Kareem Johnson, Robin Scott, Ray, and Kurt Schenk; the other is made up of Martin Eggleston, Ed Simpson, and Stephanie Smith-Dowridge

On Monday night, disagreements began even before the meeting as rival citizens' groups jockeyed outside City Hall and in the lobby to display placards promoting or dissing one of the two council factions.

Once the meeting began, clashes erupted over whether the signs could be displayed in council chambers and whether public comments could be limited to citizens of the city.

After Johnson ruled that signs could not be held up and that any Pennsylvania citizen could speak, council members continued sniping over multiple issues, including the alleged secret swearing-in of Harry G. Walker III, the new city manager, and the lack of municipal experience of Andrew G. Lehr, the new city solicitor.

But the council's primary topic was its own squabbling, which was periodically interrupted.

Several people lauded the tenure of departing Police Chief Dominick P. Bellizzie, whose last meeting included the eviction of a group of defiant sign-wavers. And Walker's announcement that benefactors had offered a bailout so the city could open its pools this summer produced cheers.

Then the finger-pointing resumed, motivating one spectator's loud whisper:

"It's a shame that adults are acting like this," he said.

Nearby heads nodded in a rare moment of agreement.


Philadelphia Inquirer: www.philly.com