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Eminent domain could topple man's trees

July 21, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- Trees that some people say create a visibility problem for motorists have placed the Washington Township (Pa.) Supervisors on the cusp of a lengthy and costly legal process.

The supervisors talked this week about how declaring eminent domain to take the land and cut down the trees is one of their few remaining options. Residents who say they can't see other vehicles at the intersection of Mentzer Gap Road and Hearthwood Drive said they support the board taking the land if negotiations fail.

"I hope the board would move forward with eminent domain," said Larry Miller of Hearthwood Drive.

At issue are trees on James Hickman's property. The ones that were in the township right of way have been removed.

"What was done definitely helped the ability to see up to the east," said Supervisor Carroll Sturm, who lives on Hearthwood Drive.

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Miller and some of his neighbors still have concerns about a few of Hickman's trees, two of which Miller described as meshing together "like a solid wall."

Hickman says he's cooperated with the township, but nothing appeases municipal leaders. He described feeling bullied and retained attorney Timothy Misner to help him with future discussions.

Hickman moved in 1991 to the property, which already had trees growing. He planted others, but estimated the large trees in question are 20 years old.

The trees shield the view of Mentzer Gap Road from the house and protect the house if a vehicle swerves off the road, Hickman said. Speeding should be the real concern, he said.

"I don't see the problem, and there are a number of other people who don't see the problem," Hickman said.

Sandy Petty of Hearthwood Drive asked the supervisors on Monday whether Hickman would be willing to cut the lowest branches off the trees. Sturm responded that Hickman indicated he didn't want any further changes to the trees.

The supervisors asked their solicitor, John Lisko, whether they could declare eminent domain on the trees, but not the ground. Their declared reason for eminent domain would be public safety.

However, Lisko said he would assume an appraisal of the trees would be essentially equivalent to the value of the land around their bases.

Supervisor Stephen Kulla, who is an attorney, cautioned his fellow board members that they must try to come to an agreement with Hickman before spending time and money on eminent domain proceedings.

Lisko said the first step is to declare eminent domain, then wait to see whether Hickman and his attorney file a substantial objection within 30 days.

"If they do, then we could be in court for years," Lisko said.

Either way, a board would be appointed to determine the value of the land. The eminent domain process would include engineering, attorney and appraisal fees, according to Lisko.

"It is an expensive process," he said.

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