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MMP&W Fire Co. chief has OK to apply for demolition permits

Preservationists say Shuster promised money for new firehouse; Chief disagrees

Preservationists say Shuster promised money for new firehouse; Chief disagrees

December 15, 2009|By KATE S. ALEXANDER

MERCERSBURG, Pa. -- MMP&W Fire Co. has given its chief permission to apply for permits to demolish an 18th century stone house on Pa. 16 in Mercersburg.

Amid negotiations with preservationists trying to save the house, the fire department board of directors voted this month to move forward with obtaining demolition permits.

The fire department purchased the so-called Smith House adjacent to its property after it sat on the housing market for a year. Upon learning of the ownership transfer, several residents contacted MMP&W, urging it to not demolish the house.

Fire Chief Dusty Stoner said the decision to apply for permits is merely a way for the fire department to keep its options open. Stoner said previously that the fire department planned to demolish the house.

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"We have not applied for anything, yet, I have other priorities," he said. "I have been instructed to apply for the permits in the event that we decide to remove the building."

Applying for demolition permits can be a lengthy process, said Stoner, who also serves on the Mercersburg Borough Council. The permit has a one-year shelf-life, so Stoner said applying for the permits now could save the department time in the future, if it decides to demolish the home.

Word of the fire department's decision spread quickly through the community on Tuesday.

"It's unethical," said Jack Bickley, a retired civil engineer working to save the Smith House. "We have kept them apprised of our efforts and they hold this meeting, in secret, and decide to pursue demolition permits."

Organized as Save the Smith House Inc., the preservationists have met repeatedly with representatives of MMP&W to work out a solution which meets the fire department's needs and keeps the 275-year-old house standing, Bickley said.

The house, which sits a half block off Main Street, is not listed on the national Register of Historic Places and is not within the Mercersburg Historical District.

Since learning of the planned demolition, Save the Smith House has taken steps to register the house as historic and obtain funding to preserve the structure.

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa. was brought into the conversation this past summer when the preservationists asked him for assistance in securing funding.

Bickley said Shuster said he could help secure $3 million for building a new firehouse if the Smith house was left standing. MMP&W's choice to pursue demolition permits is turning its back on Shuster's offer, he said.

Stoner said Shuster made no such offer the day he visited the Smith house.

"If Bill Shuster said, 'Here's $5 million if you don't tear down this house,' I'd be an (idiot) to say 'no,'" Stoner said. "He never said that and that is not going to happen. It's this kind of negative, false campaigning that has people turning against saving the house."

Shuster's Press Secretary Jeff Urbanchuk said he could not substantiate either claim without consulting Shuster and his staff.

As for what happens next, Bickley said he is unsure what his organization will do. It will continue applying for historical registration, he said.

While the preservationists have not decided on their next move, Stoner said the spreading of "lies" by the group could prompt his board to abandon negotiations and pursue demolition.

"We don't have to work with them," he said. "We own it and legally we can tear it down."

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