By Keith Gushard
A Crawford County Court of Common Pleas judge will decide if Crawford County is taking more land than it needs to replace a bridge over French Creek connecting Vernon Township with the City of Meadville.
In a ruling handed down Tuesday, Judge John Spataro ordered an evidentiary hearing for Sept. 19 to determine whether the amount of property condemned by Crawford County “is more than is reasonably required for the replacement and reconstruction of the Mead Avenue Bridge.”
The Mead Avenue Bridge, owned by Crawford County, closed in March 2007 because of safety concerns after an inspection by the county and EADs Group, the county’s engineering firm, found deficiencies.
A new, larger bridge is planned to be built on the site of the current Mead Avenue Bridge and is proposed to be operational by the fall of 2014. The project is currently estimated at about $10 million.
Land in Vernon Township located both north and south of the current Mead Avenue Bridge has been condemned by the county for the new bridge and for a temporary construction easement.
But, Denis E. and Rose A. Alexatos, a husband and wife from Vernon Township who own the land that’s been condemned, filed preliminary objections to the county’s condemnation procedures with county court in May.
Attorneys for both sides were in county court Monday with Alexatos’ attorney, Raymond Pagliari, arguing for an evidentiary hearing in the case. Pagliari argued some of the stream bank modifications proposed in the bridge construction plans are prohibited by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and that taking some of Alexatos’ land in Vernon Township was excessive.
In his ruling issued Tuesday, Spataro said the evidentiary hearing will be held on the amount of land, but he will rule on four other issues raised in the preliminary objections without an evidentiary hearing.
Spataro said those four issues are:
n Whether the federal Fish and Wildlife Service not approving of the current flood mitigation design prevents the county from condemning the property;
n Whether the condemnation by the county is premature since the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission have yet to finalize approval;
n Whether the county’s failure to submit for final approval by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission proper staging, storm water management, flood mitigation and other necessary operations to protect endangered species of mussels and other aquatic life in French Creek make the county’s condemnation proceedings procedurally defective; and
n Whether environmental permits and clearances are required before the county may initiate and pursue condemnation proceedings.
In issuing his order Tuesday, Spataro noted Alexatos has “the burden of proof” to show the county has acted improperly.
Though Crawford County owns the Mead Avenue Bridge, the federal Highway Administration will pay 80 percent of the replacement cost; Pennsylvania Department of Transportation will pay 15 percent; and PennDOT also is picking up the county’s 5 percent because Crawford County is classified as a low- to moderate-income county.
Construction cost of the bridge itself is estimated at $7 million to $7.25 million, while another $2 million to $3 million will be needed for necessary property and right-of-way acquisition, engineering, traffic control signal and lighting, plus realignment of the Cussewago Road/Route 102, Mead Avenue and Hank Street intersection in Vernon Township.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.