Borough files suit against housing agency

July 11, 2003|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The Waynesboro Borough Council filed suit Thursday in Franklin County Court against the Valley Housing Development Corp., alleging it violated Pennsylvania's Right to Know Act by failing to turn over all of a rental market analysis for a proposed 22-unit low-income housing project.

The suit asks the corporation, which is developing the project on land owned by the Franklin County Housing Authority, to turn over 98 pages the council says is missing from the analysis and claims the study "employed flawed methodology" in the feasibility study used to determine the need for additional low-income housing units.

The council wants the records because it "fears there are many inaccuracies in the documents" the corporation is using to attempt to get state funding for the project, according to a copy of the suit filed with the Prothonotary's Office.


The authority is seeking $2.6 million in state funding for the project.

The council requested the records on June 17, according to the suit, and the corporation did not provide them within a reasonable time, according to the suit. At the June 18 council meeting, the council voted unanimously to authorize its attorney to take legal action to get the documents.

A June 24 letter to the council from Bonnie Zehler, the executive director of the housing authority and Valley Housing, stated the request for the documents was "presently under legal review as to whether they are in fact public record."

The letter, a copy of which was included in the suit, stated that "due to staffing limitations, we will not be able to provide you with the information before July 23, 2003."

The borough raised a number of objections to the study in a June 12 letter to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, which would provide state funding for the 22-unit complex behind the Mount Vernon Terrace development.

Zehler said Thursday, however, that the gap between page 18 in the analysis and page 117 is easily explainable.

"The rental market analysis uses a form out of the PHFA application" and the form comes from page 117, she said. "The number on that page has nothing to do with the paging of the document."

"If that's the case, they could have readily made that explanation available to us," Borough Council President Douglas Tengler said Thursday.

There also are inaccuracies in the study about communities surrounding Waynesboro, including the listing of Old Forge Borough, which the study said is nine miles north of Waynesboro and has a population of 8,726.

"There is no Old Forge Borough in Franklin County," Tengler said. While there is an Old Forge, Pa., in Lackawanna County (near Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) with about the same population, Tengler said the study "was supposed to explain the need for housing in this specific area."

Zehler said the housing authority was preparing a press release for today that would explain that and other questions raised about the study.

"It will really clear up a lot of that information," she said.

"Everything the housing authority is doing is following the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act," Zehler said of the council's claims that it is unreasonably delaying the release of documents.

The suit claims a number of other inaccuracies or inconsistencies in the study, including estimates of the number of people in the area qualified for low-income rental housing.

According to a June 12 letter from Tengler and Councilman Clinton Barkdoll to the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency that was included as an exhibit in the suit, the study said there were 3,402 qualified residents in the Waynesboro area in 1990, but the number declined to 2,633 in 2000 and is expected to fall lower by 2006.

The letter also stated 71 percent of those 2,633 people live in homes they own and do not need rental housing. The study also overstated the cost of property taxes on housing and the cost of rental units in the Waynesboro area, according to the letter.

The study, conducted by a Pittsburgh consulting firm, also ignored several low- and moderate-income housing projects in the Waynesboro area, and failed to interview a cross section of the community, members of council and residents of neighborhoods that would be affected by the housing project.

The suit asks the court to order Valley Housing to turn over copies of all correspondence between it and the state housing finance agency, the housing authority and the consultants dating back to Jan. 1, 2001, along with all housing authority and Valley Housing minutes from the same time period.

Council also wants to see copies of all checks to the consulting firm during that time and information about the rates the authority paid to property owners of Section 8 rental properties since 2000.

The suit also asks the court to fine Valley Housing up to $300 for each day it may be found to be in violation of the Right to Know Act and seeks $1,467.50 in reimbursement for the borough's legal fees in pursuing the court action.

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