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Court battle over land swap under way in Franklin Co.

May 06, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Attorneys debated the meaning of the word "exchange" Thursday in Franklin County Court in a case that could affect the $10 million Village on the Falling Spring project.

In January, Frederick and Kaye Fox, of Chambersburg, filed a lawsuit against the borough and the Chambersburg Area Development Corp. asking the court to set aside the land swap agreement for the project.

"The only issue we see in the case ... is for the court to define the meaning of 'exchange,'" said John McD. Sharpe Jr., the attorney for the development corporation.

"This is public land. ... The public ought to have an opportunity to bid on the property," said Charles Beckley, the attorney for the Foxes.

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Last month the borough passed an ordinance approving the exchange of two borough-owned building plots along the Conococheague and Falling Spring in exchange for three downtown properties owned by the development corporation.

The Foxes' suit claims the deal violated the borough code, which states the sale of real estate valued at more than $1,500 must be advertised and bid. Thursday the parties argued over preliminary objections filed by the borough and development corporation.

"In their wisdom, the legislature made a number of exceptions," Sharpe told Judge Richard J. Walsh. One of those exceptions is when property is "traded-in or exchanged for new property."

Beckley argued later that the clause might apply to a backhoe or dump truck but not real estate.

Beckley said the deal called for the borough to pay the development corporation $30,000, make improvements to public lands around the building sites and support the corporation if it requests zoning variances. He argued those parts of the deal mean it is not an exchange of equal value.

Welton J. Fischer, the assistant borough attorney, said decisions on variances are made by the Zoning Hearing Board, an independent body, not the Borough Council.

Fischer said the agreement was also conducted in the open and was the subject of several public meetings over the past year.

The corporation wants to construct two office buildings on the sites with the borough improving a park, parking and streets around them. The federal government has committed $2 million to public improvements with another $500,000 coming from Chambersburg, Borough Manager Eric Oyer said earlier this week.

The plan, opposed by local veterans' organizations and some historians, is aimed at bringing jobs back to the downtown, according to Sharpe. Opponents have said part of the property is the site of a fort built by Chambersburg founder Benjamin Chambers.

Walsh will now consider whether to sustain or overrule the preliminary objections. Sharpe said if the borough and corporation objections are sustained, the case will be thrown out of court, but the Foxes could appeal to a higher court.

If the objections are overruled, Sharpe said he is prepared to argue other issues to have the case dismissed.

Sharpe said he does not believe the lawsuit will delay the project.

"The deeds have been filed," he said. "They have not asked for an injunction. It's a fait accompli."

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