By Keith Gushard
VERNON TOWNSHIP —
A court battle between a Vernon Township property owner and Crawford County government threatens the timetable for building a new Mead Avenue Bridge by fall 2014.
The county-owned Mead Avenue Bridge, which spans French Creek connecting Meadville with Vernon Township, closed in March 2007 over safety concerns after an inspection by the county and EADs Group, the county’s engineering firm, found deficiencies.
Denis Edward Alexatos of Vernon Township has filed preliminary objections in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas to condemnation procedures by the county that would take some of the land Alexatos owns in Vernon Township for the new bridge and for a temporary construction easement. Alexatos owns land in Vernon Township both immediately north and south of the bridge.
All preparation work for the project was scheduled to be completed by May, with bids for the construction work to be opened in June, according to a work schedule by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Construction was expected to start by late summer or early fall with completion by fall 2014. However, the project now is scheduled to go to bid in November of this year with completion of the project by fall 2014.
Though the county owns the Mead Avenue Bridge, both federal and state governments are involved because they are funding the replacement. The federal Highway Administration is paying 80 percent of the cost; Pennsylvania Department of Transportation 15 percent; and PennDOT is picking up the county’s 5 percent because Crawford County is classified as a low- to moderate-income county.
However, Alexatos’ attorney, Raymond Pagliari of Erie, argued Monday in county court that the 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.
“What they want to do, they’ve been told they can’t do by Fish and Wildlife,” Pagliari told Judge John Spataro on Monday.
However, Ted Watts, the county’s attorney, argued project officials are in negotiations with the Fish and Wildlife Service with regard to construction. Watts said the project “has dragged on far too long” and any further delay could add a year or years to the project.
Spataro told both sides he will act promptly whether to schedule a hearing on Alexatos’ preliminary objection and he expects to issue a ruling by Wednesday.
Spataro said he was unaware of any law that would halt the condemnation proceedings from going forward at this point.
Spataro reminded Pagliari that unlike a civil suit, in the condemnation case Pagliari would have a “heavy burden” under the law to prove that the county acted in bad faith and that more land than necessary was to be taken for the project.
Two of Crawford County’s three commissioners said the project, for now, remains on track to be completed by fall 2014.
“We’re not at that point and I hope to keep it that way,” Francis Weiderspahn Jr., chairman of county commissioners, said when asked if the project might be pushed back. “The timetable is just compressed with bids (to be let) in November and construction to start in the spring.”
“The level of frustration can’t be overstated,” Commissioner Jack Lynch said Monday. “We want to get this done.”
Commissioner Sherman Allen could not be reached immediately for comment.
Alexatos did not speak at the hearing.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.