Builder defends eminent domain project: Hanover PA Evening Sun, 12/23/06

By Ashley Adams

Paul Burkentine says he is in the business of building people their dream homes.

Lately, though, many see him as taking those dreams away.

But Burkentine feels he is being wrongly accused of forcing a Penn Township family out of their home.

Burkentine & Sons Builders Inc. is planning to build a development called Brookside Heights on a 40- to 50-acre tract to the rear of Dana and Bill Heston's property at 823 York St. He has been working on the project since 2002.

Burkentine said that as part of the development and engineering process, he was directed by the township to perform a traffic study. The findings indicated a traffic signal was needed at the intersection of York and Center streets because of the increase in traffic – not only from his subdivision, but from other subdivisions proposed in Penn Township.

Burkentine said there were other traffic studies done by the township and other developers that showed the same need for a traffic signal.

Although installing one at Baer Avenue and York Street was an option, Burkentine said the location of the signal was determined by the traffic engineer, the township and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

"We, the developer, had no say in the matter," Burkentine said.

Penn Township Manager Jeff Garvick has said the need for a traffic light at the York and Center streets intersection dates back to the 1970s and is included in a township comprehensive plan.

"We were directed by Penn Township to determine a design of what was needed to implement a traffic signal at York Street and South Center Street which would tie into Brookside Heights," Burkentine said. "This design is what dictated the properties that were needed to be acquired to implement the traffic signal."

To install the traffic signal, Center Street would have to be widened, meaning the Heston's home and easements from other properties would need to be acquired.

Burkentine has already acquired easements and rights of way with four of the five property owners.

The other acquisitions went smoothly, Burkentine said.

Dana and Bill Heston have said they are happy with their four-bedroom, two-bathroom brick home, which they say a perfect fit for their six children. So they are fighting the issue.

But Burkentine said his original plan for Brookside Heights never showed a traffic signal or access to the development at York and Center streets. The development was suppose to have a cul-de-sac prior to reaching York Street.

He pointed out that it was the township that asked him to change the plan to extend Center Street for public safety reasons.

And, Burkentine said, the Brookside Heights development has other proposed entrances and exits besides the one on York Street.

As shown on the land development plans, the development can be accessed through Brookside Avenue, Baer Avenue, Charles Avenue and Overlook Drive.

But Burkentine agreed to incur all costs and put up a traffic signal for the betterment of the community.

In July 2004, Burkentine said he personally went to the Heston home to speak with Bill and Dana to explain the situation.

To follow up after the meeting, Burkentine said a certified letter was sent to the Hestons in August 2004.

Then, in September 2004, Burkentine made his first offer in writing by sending another certified letter. He said the offer was based on multiple appraisal he did on the house.

Burkentine said he got no response from the Hestons or their attorney.

Then, in December 2004, Burkentine said another certified letter was sent to the Hestons. Again, no response.

Another letter was sent in January 2005 asking the Hestons to meet with the company, Burkentine said. The Heston's attorney finally responded with a counter offer that was more than twice the appraised value of the home, Burkentine said.

In February 2005, Burkentine said he sent a final certified letter stating the company's final offer was $160,000. Which, Burkentine said, is above the appraised value of the home and is still being offered to this day.

Burkentine said he hasn't heard anything from the family or their attorney.

Dana Heston has said the family is willing to move, but they want the fair-market value for their home – something, she has said, hasn't been offered to them. She has also said the family was willing to take the original offer of $160,000 but it was suddenly taken off the table and another offer of $132,000 was given. Since then, Dana Heston has said Burkentine is the one who won't answer her calls nor calls from the family's attorney.

The Hestons have also said they have been threatened by Burkentine with eminent domain.

"I did not, in anyway, mention eminent domain," Burkentine said. "I have no power to execute eminent domain."

He said he told the Hestons that if an agreement couldn't be reached, he would turn all the paperwork over to the township and allow them to solve the situation.

Burkentine said the township has a copy of all correspondence between the company and the Heston family.

In a statement read during Monday's commissioner's meeting, Penn Township Commissioner Joe Klunk said, "Penn Township has not exercised its eminent domain authority regarding the Heston property located at the intersection of Center Street and York Street for intersection improvements. If the township considers eminent domain, it must do so at a public meeting. The township has not even begun such discussions, and certainly has not decided to use eminent domain powers to acquire the Heston property."

Burkentine said he has more than $250,000 of his own money invested in the traffic signal, which is an off-site public improvement to his development, and he shouldn't get blamed for the situation.

"We don't enjoy being put in this situation and feel that is unfair of the township to place the burden completely on Burkentine & Sons," he said.

And because of this issue, Burkentine said other rumors have been flying around town about his company. One such rumor is that his company is in financial turmoil.

"That is totally untrue," Burkentine said.

"We are not happy that the location of a proposed traffic signal imposes on a family's way of living," he said. "This situation is certainly unfair to everyone involved, particularly the Hestons. We sympathize with them and are willing and have always been willing to work with everyone involved to come up with the best possible solution. This has become a situation where everyone needs to work together, including us, the developer, Penn Township and the Hestons."

Hanover PA Evening Sun: http://www.eveningsun.com