Bennett takes PennDOT to court
A local developer’s quest to save his property from eminent domain action hit the courtroom on Thursday afternoon.
Joseph Bennett is challenging the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s attempt to take his land along Route 443 next to Aldi’s for stormwater basins related to an upcoming road widening and improvement project along the thoroughfare.
During testimony in front of Carbon County Common Pleas Judge Joseph J. Matika, Bennett said he purchased the property near the end of 2017 with the intent of developing the site for a Kentucky Fried Chicken location, among other commercial business. Upon learning of PennDOT’s plans to use the property for infiltration and detention basins, Bennett asked for a meeting with the department and its engineers, when he suggested they locate the basins on a property to the rear of his owned by the Rudelitsch estate.
“We met with PennDOT at the site in May 2018 and showed them where a pond would be better located,” Bennett said. “The whole point of the 443 project is to widen the road to create better access to the large number of businesses along that road. Nobody is going to turn off there to go to a pond. They are going to go to a KFC. There were other alternatives to accomplish PennDOT’s goal. The property in the back was less valuable and a better fit.”
According to testimony taken Thursday, PennDOT responded 32 days later and said the change couldn’t be made. It filed the declaration of taking against Bennett in December 2018.
Joseph Digirolamo, an engineer with Taylor Wiseman & Taylor, who was contracted by PennDOT to work on the project design, said they began analysis in 2012.
“Over the course of the next three to four years, we evaluated every option we could,” Digirolamo said. “We took into account almost every environmental concern you can think of. We evaluated the whole 443 corridor and the Bennett property, in our opinion, was the best location for these basins.”
Digirolamo said his firm did a sketch to determine whether the basins would fit on the Rudelitsch property and determined they would not. No further testing, he said, was done to determine the feasibility of locating the basins there.
Bennett’s attorney, Francis Hoegen, argued that by May 2018, when Bennett met with PennDOT and Digirolamo, design plans were so far along that PennDOT did not even want to consider moving the basins because of the delays it would have caused for both continued design and the start of construction.
“It took two to three years to get to final design and determine the Bennett property was best for the basins, but in just 32 days you determined relocation was not a possibility,” Hoegen said. “Had PennDOT taken more time and care, Mr. Bennett could have pursued his commercial development.”
According to Digirolamo, 1,500 feet of additional pipe would have been necessary to run the drainage back to the Rudelitsch property.
“We had no environmental clearances for that property at that point,” Digirolamo said. “It would have likely cost another $200,000 from a design standpoint and another year to fully study whether that area could support basins.”
Greg Haas of Carbon Engineering testified on Bennett’s behalf and said it would have been “very feasible” to relocate the basins to the north of Bennett’s property.
Hoegen planned to call an additional witness, an appraiser, to testify regarding the loss of revenue to Bennett over PennDOT’s decision to take his land. Bennett said that instead of being located on his property, the KFC will now be built between McDonald’s and the PennDOT driver’s license center further west along Route 443, and a Wendy’s, which had also been planned for his site, will now be where pediatrician Dr. Narenda Ambani’s office is located.
PennDOT’s attorney, Robert Kopacz, countered, saying the department would have compensation conversations with Bennett, but that was for an other day.
Matika gave Hoegen seven days to present any case law showing why Bennett’s loss of revenue was applicable to Thursday’s argument, before ruling on Bennett’s objections.