ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Lehigh County commissioners face the prospect of authorizing eminent domain to avoid a delay in building a new bridge linking Whitehall Township and North Catasauqua over the Lehigh River.
The existing North Catasauqua-Hokendauqua Bridge is rated as the second worst bridge in Pennsylvania, commissioners were told Wednesday night by Glenn Solt, the county's general services director.
Some commissioners don't want to use the power of eminent domain to obtain right-of way easements so the project can proceed this year.
"If we don't clear this right-of-way, this project will stall," warned Solt. "It will stop in its tracks."
A proposed ordinance authorizing the county executive to use eminent domain to keep the project moving forward was introduced at the commissioners meeting, but they won't vote on it until their next meeting at 7:30 p.m. June 13.
"There are some deadlines we do need to meet with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, so as not to slow the project," explained Commissioner Lisa Scheller when introducing the proposed ordinance. "We have not yet finished the acquisition of these properties."
If the matter is not resolved promptly, said Solt: "We can easily miss the construction season. The intent is to begin construction prior to winter."
Commissioner Daniel McCarthy said it's a worthwhile project the county already has put off for "longer than we should have." McCarthy opposes any further delays
In 2008, the county and PennDOT entered into an agreement to replace the three existing bridges, which date back to 1908, with one new bridge and a tunnel culvert, through which will pass the Ironton Rail-Trail. The bridges carry Lehigh Street over the river, railroad tracks and trail. Solt has said it's a $15-million project. Scheller said the federal government will reimburse the county for 100 percent of the cost, but the county needs to get the rights-of-way so the project can proceed.
The three property owners that may be involved in an eminent domain proceeding are Whitehall Township, Norfolk Southern Railroad and WHW Company.
Commissioner Scott Ott announced he will vote against the county initiating eminent domain proceedings because the idea of government imposing deadlines, especially on individuals, "makes me uncomfortable." He added: "I know it will pass anyway without my support."
Commissioner Percy Dougherty said he has "severe reservations" about using eminent domain. The veteran commissioner said he can recall no case when commissioners resorted to eminent domain. "This is a legal procedure of last resort. I hope we've tried everything possible before we have to go to such a drastic remedy."
Commissioner Michael Schware said he shares some of the same concerns as Ott and Dougherty and recommended the three property owners receive certified letters advising them commissioners will be acting on the matter and inviting them to attend the next meeting. Solt agreed to have the county administration do that.
McCarthy said sending a letter is an excellent idea, because it "balances the concerns we all have that we're not operating in a carefree or reckless fashion."
McCarthy said "most of us probably crossed a bridge or a road to get here tonight" that was partially or totally made possible by eminent domain. "When used properly, it's a rational expression of government" to benefit many people, he said.
McCarthy said delaying replacement of the "antiquated" bridge could impact hundreds who use it every day: "These bridges have a tendency to all of a sudden need to be closed due to weight limitations or discovery of a problem with the structure that may appear suddenly."
"This is a critical project," said Solt after the meeting. "Residents have been waiting for it for quite some time." He described the bridge as "perfectly safe but in dire need of replacement." He said an engineering firm inspects it every six months to ensure it is safe and the weight limit was reduced from seven tons to three tons within the last year.
In response to a question from Dougherty about whether an eminent domain appeal could delay the project, Solt said "on this particular project there's not a valid reason for filing an appeal." He added a challenge regarding the value of a property could be resolved without delaying the bridge.
Solt said the county has settled with nine of 12 property owners. He said all have had "lots of time to consider the offers and make counter offers."
The county has offered about $10,000 for about a half acre of land owned by WHW on the west side of the Lehigh River, according to Solt, but the property owners have not taken any action on that offer. "They have not said to us ‘this offer is inadequate'."
Solt said WHW "will benefit greatly" from the bridge project because it will give that company access to 49 acres of land it owns along the west bank of the Lehigh, just north of the bridge. He said WHW now has no access to use the property for anything other than a dumping ground. The project "makes his land more viable."
"We're talking about vacant land," said McCarthy. "Nobody's house or business is being taken."
Scheller said Whitehall has agreed to the terms but the property won't be turned over to the county by the required date. She and Solt indicated Norfolk Southern's situation is similar. Solt said there is no controversy with Whitehall, only that township approval was delayed. He explained the county needs two rights-of-way from Whitehall: one for 5,700 square feet and the other for 12,900 square feet. He called all the properties "tiny slivers" of land.
The county isn't looking for any land from Norfolk Southern, said Solt, only an aerial easement because the new bridge will go over its tracks
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