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York City must pay $1.25M for old prison property, appeals court affirms

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

A state appeals court has affirmed a jury verdict that York City's Redevelopment Authority must pay $1.25 million for condemning and seizing the old York County Prison.

Commonwealth Court on Tuesday, March 13, issued a memorandum opinion concluding that appeal issues raised by the authority "do not warrant reversal of the judgment."

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

The court confirmed the trial judge's post-trial order denying the RDA a new trial.

The RDA in 2013 designated the property as blighted, then acquired it through eminent domain in 2014. It paid about $65,000 to owners John and Joyce Gearhart after a court-appointed board set the price.

Quick verdict: The Gearharts took the RDA to court, and in July 2016, a York County jury took less than 30 minutes to unanimously find in favor of the Gearharts. The fair market value of the 319 E. Chestnut St. property was $1.25 million at the time the RDA acquired it, the jury ruled.

The Gearharts purchased the roughly 3-acre site in the 1980s. The building served as the county prison until 1979.

Commonwealth Court on Tuesday affirmed the jury's ruling, determined $1.25 million was the fair market value of the property at the time and also ruled the trial judge "properly exercised (his) discretion as the 'gatekeeper of the evidence'" at trial.

Attorney Don Hoyt, the RDA's solicitor, said he can't yet comment because he hasn't finished reviewing Tuesday's opinion.

"When I finish reviewing it, I'll talk to my client about options," he said.

Earlier appeal denied: Lebanon County Senior Common Pleas Judge Robert J. Eby in January 2017 denied the RDA's appeal for a new trial, which was filed in August 2016.

The RDA argued some evidence and testimony should not have been allowed in the proceedings regarding 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’s motion argued 11 points, including that 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 Development 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 Eby's 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.

But after he was confronted with a November 2013 application for a City Revitalization and Improvement Zone, 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 that 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).”

More:Judge denies new trial in former prison lawsuit

Nonexpert witness: The RDA also claimed it should receive a new trial because Eby prohibited testimony from RDA's 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.

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

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 that it deserved a new trial because the conversation between Eby and Voci should not have been held in front of the jury. That claim also was denied by Eby.

City pushes for new trial after $1.25M verdict

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 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.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.