Judge denies new trial in former prison lawsuit

Jason Addy
  • A Lebanon County judge ruled against the Redevelopment Authority of the City of York, which was seeking a new trial.
  • A York County jury ruled the fair market value of the former York County Prison site was $1.25 million when the city acquired it in 2014.
  • The RDA expected to pay just $65,000 for the property.

York City’s Redevelopment Authority is on the hook for $1.2 million after a judge denied a new trial in a lawsuit involving the old York County Prison.

Lebanon County Judge Robert J. Eby wrote in his Jan. 9 case opinion that the court had found no merit in any of the RDA’s 11 claims for a new trial.

The RDA filed a motion for a new trial in August 2016, arguing some evidence and testimony should not have been allowed in the proceedings over the fair market value of the 2.9-acre site of the former York County Prison.

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

The RDA acquired the property through eminent domain in 2014 and paid about $65,000 to owners John and Joyce Gearhart after a court-appointed board set the price.

In July 2016, a York County jury took less than 30 minutes to unanimously rule in favor of the Gearharts' appeal of the board’s ruling. The fair market value of the property at 319 E. Chestnut St. was $1.25 million at the time the RDA acquired it, the jury ruled.

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

Eminent-domain case sets city back $1.25 million

The Gearhart family purchased the 2.9-acre site of the former York County Prison in the 1980s. The building served as the county prison until 1979.

In the motion for a new trial, York City solicitor Don Hoyt, on behalf of the RDA, challenged eight of the court’s pretrial and trial rulings and made three claims challenging the jury’s verdict, according to Eby’s opinion.

City pushes for new trial after $1.25M verdict

In his opinion, Eby examined each of the RDA’s 11 challenges before denying all of them.

The RDA’s motion said the jury should not have been shown evidence that the city had lined up a deal to sell the property to a commercial redeveloper before it had acquired the property.

Eby disagreed and said the “contract to sell the condemned property,” and the fact that the developer had purchased other properties in the vicinity, proved there was other interest in the property and should be included in the jury’s evaluation of fair market value.

Documentation of the agreement to sell the property to Think Loud for $1 plus the cost of acquisition was requested by the Gearharts’ attorneys during the discovery phase of the trial, but it was not provided, according to the opinion.

'Arguable obstruction': During a June 2016 deposition, Shilvosky Buffaloe, interim director of the city’s department of economic and community development, testified that the RDA and Think Loud did not have any discussions until after the property was acquired, the opinion states.

After he was confronted with a November 2013 application for a City Revitalization and Improvement Zone (CRIZ), Buffaloe admitted the RDA was aware of Think Loud’s interest in the property before acquiring it.

When the documents came to light, Hoyt argued it was “too late” to add them into evidence, according to the opinion.

“We did not find (RDA’s) protestation of untimeliness to be credible when we learned that it was (RDA) who was, through noncompliance with discovery requests, responsible for the delay,” Eby wrote. “Given the arguable obstruction of Mr. Buffaloe and the noncompliance, whether intentional or unintentional, of (RDA) in providing potentially critical discovery related to that obstruction, we did not find (the Gearhart’s) Motion to Amend ‘too late’ as urged by (RDA).”

Non-expert witness: The RDA also claimed it should receive a new trial as the court prohibited testimony from its expert witness on lead-based paint.

Eby disqualified Peter Voci as a lead-based paint expert after Voci told the judge he was an asbestos expert but worked for a company that is certified in lead-based paint, according to the opinion.

Voci also did not believe he was a lead-based paint expert when questioned directly by the judge, according to the opinion.

The RDA also argued it deserved a new trial as the conversation between Eby and Voci should not have been held in front of the jury. That claim was denied by the judge.

Excessive price: Finally, the RDA made three claims that the $1.25 million market price was excessive and “based on prejudice and sympathy” for the Gearhart family, according to the opinion. Again, the judge denied these claims.

The RDA’s motion for a new trial “astonishingly argues that the jury had ‘had virtually no experience in formulating an accurate opinion of fair market value in an eminent domain case’ and states that their ‘absurd verdict’ was based upon ‘anti-governmental sentiment’ similar to that evidenced in the 2014 Bundy standoff and subsequent occupation by armed militants of federal lands in … Oregon,” Eby wrote.

Hoyt and Buffaloe did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.