Susquehanna Health gets City Council backing for buyouts, including eminent domain: Williamsport PA Sun-Gazette, 3/9/07

By R A Walker

[The Williamsport PA] City Council voted 5-1 Thursday night to approve the Louisa Street Redevelopment Proposal and the use of eminent domain if necessary to keep Susquehanna Health’s regional medical center project on track.

To date the health system has acquired or has agreements to buy 81 homes.

Only seven properties on Walnut, High and Louisa streets are threatened with acquisition by eminent domain, and in five of those cases, negotiations are in process and acquisition without eminent domain is expected, according to comments at the meeting.

The session began with one of the impacted property owners expressing his concerns during the “limited courtesy of the floor” segment.

“I’ve traveled to many places in the world, but I’ve never found a better place than the Lycoming County-Williamsport area,” said Forest Hafer Jr., owner and resident of 712-714 Walnut St.

“Today, you’re not looking at a happy camper,” he said, “because the city of my birth is dispossessing me.”

Hafer told the Sun-Gazette this week he thinks the city and health system have moved “lightning fast” to the eminent domain stage, and is willing to go to court if necessary to protect his property rights.

His comments were followed by a public hearing during which John Grado, city director of economic and community development, outlined the eminent domain process. He said it involves an appraisal, a acquisition offer and the legal taking of the property if the owner opts to appeal and go to court.

The redevelopment area is bordered by Louisa Street on the north, High Street on the south, Green Street on the east and Locust Street on the west. Health system officials said about 20 additional properties — outside the current acquisition area — will be sought eventually.

Speaking in favor of the project and redevelopment proposal were Jerry S Walls, executive director of the county Planning Commission, and Mayor Mary B. Wolf.

Both extolled the economic benefits of keeping the county’s largest employer within the city.

Walls called the “$250 million reinvestment” at the Williamsport Hospital campus an important “economic stimulus.” Wolf said the project has “not been ... hurried or rushed” and said city and public input led to adjustments in the hospital’s relocation plan for displaced renters and property owners.

Those speaking against the redevelopment proposal included veteran city government critic George Kadash.

He said the city has lost 16,000 homes since the mid-1940s and was supposed to have abandoned, not resurrected, redevelopment initiatives, which he claimed are mainly used for “condemnation purposes.”

Susquehanna Health representatives present included the executive vice president for financial affairs, Charles Santangelo, who said eminent domain was needed because the health system needs to buy all the land it needs before initiating the design phase.

“It’s just not feasible to commit to a planning process unless you know you have the land,” he said.

Councilman Gabriel J. Campana cast the lone “no” vote, even though he said he supported the hospital staying in the city.

“I’m just not sure we’ve given people adequate time,” he said. “I don’t think this should even begin until July.”

Council Vice President J. Marlyne Whaley, who lived in the project area and sold her Walnut Street Home to the health system early, continued to voice support for the project.

The health system, she said, “can’t wait until the last minute.”

“We have to get real,” she added. “This is progress in the making ... Let’s just do what we have to do ... and move on.”

The rest of council agreed, and Council President Thomas P. O’Connor Jr. and Councilmen Patrick Marty and J. Michael Wiley joined Whaley to vote “yes” and pass the resolution.

Councilman James Gilbert abstained because he is an employee of the health system.

Williamsport PA Sun-Gazette: http://www.sungazette.com