City pushes for new trial after $1.25M verdict

Sean Philip Cotter
  • York City is seeking a new trial in the eminent-domain case in which a jury ruled against it.
  • Right now, the city's on the hook for $1.25 million.

York City filed a motion in the past week asking for a new trial after a jury ruled that it had to pay $1.25 million to the owners of a property it seized.

The city used eminent domain in 2014 to seize the 319 Chestnut St. property, home to the building that used to be York County's prison, from the Gearhart family who owned it. On July 21, a jury unanimously ruled that the city had to pay the family $1.25 million, as opposed to the $60,000 or so it sought to pay.

The city's Redevelopment Authority, which is the city-government entity that took control of the property, and assistant city solicitor Don Hoyt have filed a motion requesting a new trial on the grounds that some evidence and testimony that should have been allowed into the court was not, and vice versa.

It's common for losing parties to appeal civil judgments in this manner.

Eminent-domain case sets city back $1.25 million

In the motion, the city states that the amount of money it was ordered to pay is excessive and that the verdict isn't based on evidence but on sympathy for the Gearharts.

The city argues that the jury wasn't taken inside the old prison building to check it out but should have been. It also argued the man the city brought to testify about lead paint was wrongly disallowed from testifying.

Hoyt, who argued the case for the authority, didn't return a call Friday seeking comment.

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

The city has owned the property since the authority took it in 2014. The city does not have the option to walk away from the property at this point, according to David Snyder, the Gearharts' attorney; the property is the city's, so it will have to pay whatever the courts ultimately decide.

Snyder said his basic argument in favor of the larger sum is 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 the Think Loud Development organization at that time was buying properties in the neighborhood and had expressed interest in the prison site. At that point in 2014, Think Loud 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 jury didn't need to reach a unanimous conclusion, as it would in a criminal trial — just 10 of 12 jurors had to agree. But, in this case, a jury poll showed the jury was unanimous after a deliberation of just over half an hour, Snyder said.

John and Joyce Gearhart bought the 2.9-acre site in the 1980s.

— Reach Sean Cotter at or on Twitter at @SPCotterYD.