Eminent-domain case sets city back $1.25 million

Sean Philip Cotter, 505-5437/@SPCotterYD
  • A jury ruled the fair value for a property the city seized is more than $1 million more than it hoped.
  • The property is the old York County Prison site, which the city took by eminent domain in 2014.

A jury ruled Thursday that York City's Redevelopment Authority owed the former owners of the old York County Prison site about $1.2 million more than the city hoped to pay for it.

The city seized the long-vacant property at 319 E. Chestnut St. through eminent domain in 2014, and a court-appointed board ruled the RDA had to pay about $65,000 for the property. The former owners of the site appealed that ruling to the York County Court of Common Pleas, where a jury unanimously ruled "the fair market value" at that time was $1.25 million, according to the York County Prothonotary's Office.

David Snyder, the attorney representing the Gearhart family. which owned the prison site, said afterward that he and the family were happy with the ruling.

"We’re all very pleased, that's for sure," said Snyder, an attorney with the Philadelphia-based firm Fox Rothschild.

He said no logistics on payment or anything further have been worked out yet. The city has the ability to appeal to a higher court.

Assistant city solicitor Don Hoyt, who argued the case for the RDA, didn't return a call seeking comment Thursday.

York City's acting economic and community development director, Shilvosky Buffaloe, who serves as the RDA secretary, said the city hadn't decided whether it was going to appeal. Reached by phone Thursday, he declined to comment further on the matter other than to say the RDA was still determining the direction it's going to take.

According to the agenda for this week's RDA meeting, the authority has a general-fund balance of just under $315,000. Buffaloe confirmed that any money paid out in this case will come from the authority's general fund, and not the city's, though the city can give money to the authority. The RDA is meant to deal with the city's abandoned properties, demolishing or stabilizing them before selling them off. A significant chunk of its budget comes from federal Community Development Block Grant money.

RDA chairman David Cross did not return a message seeking comment Thursday.

Snyder said the city has owned the property since the RDA took it in 2014. The city does not have the option to simply walk away from the property at this point, he said; it's the city's, so it will have to pay whatever the courts decide.

Price: Snyder said his basic argument in favor of the larger sum was that the building is worth what people will pay for it, and the city wasn't taking into account what developers were paying for similar sites at the time.

"What we wanted is to be paid what people were buying properties for at that time," he said.

Snyder said he called on witnesses who pointed to other area properties sold around that time and indicated there was more demand for the prison property than the city said. He also said that the Think Loud Development organization at that time was buying up properties in that neighborhood and had expressed interest in the prison site. At that point in 2014, that company was in the midst of dropping $16.8 million into a nearby warehouse to house a data center for the related company United Fiber and Data.

The former York County Prison is shown on Chestnut Street in York on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

The jury didn't need to come to a unanimous conclusion, as they would in a criminal trial — just 10 of 12 jurors had to agree. But, in this case, a jury poll showed the members came to a unanimous conclusion after a deliberation of just over half an hour, Snyder said.

Snyder said the Gearhart family — at that point John and Joyce Gearhart — bought the 2.9-acre site in the 1980s.

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.