After a lengthy debate, the borough council voted 5-3 on November 14 to condemn, via eminent domain, certain easements and rights of way on a property that's long stood in the way of its plans to expand the Schuylkill River Trail.
The property, formerly a rail line along the French Creek Corridor, extends north across High and Fillmore Streets.
The members who voted in the affirmative claimed that using eminent domain was a last resort. Borough manager E. Jean Krack said he attempted on multiple occasions to contact Valley Forge Railways, the owner of the parcel, but to no avail.
“The railroad abandoned the property,” he said.
Solicitor Andrew D.H. Rau added that the borough was at a “dead end with the property owner” and emphasized that it wasn’t attempting to take the property as taxable land, but just seeking an easement to allow for the trail.
The decision had its detractors. While councilman Jim Kovaleski called eminent domain “heavy handed” and suggested that there were other, better, alternatives, Karl Bucus was the most vocal critic of the proposal. He suggested the council would be wise to table the issue for a month; during which time it could develop a preliminary budget outlining the legal cost of the maneuver, while enlisting the aid of trail-supporting legislators Jim Gerlach and Andy Dinniman in the hopes of acquiring the right to build through less controversial means. The suggestion was voted down 6-2.
The advocates of eminent domain downplayed the problem of its cost.
While Rau said he couldn’t provide any estimate of what legal fees the borough would incur in the course of the eminent domain action, he said that if it becomes apparent the cost will outweigh the benefit, the borough could withdraw its request.
Council president Richard Kirkner added legal fees shouldn’t be the only financial consideration. The grant to develop the trail isn’t, he said, open-ended.
“If we don’t get this done at a certain point the grant could go away and the cost of building a trail is on us…it could make the legal fees seem trivial,” said Kirkner.
“Do we want a trail? Or do we want to talk about eminent domain here?”
Councilmen Christopher Bauers, Jim Kovaleski and Karl Bucus voted no.