Property litigation could cost borough of Crafton $2 million
A looming bill could cost taxpayers in Crafton $2 million, if the borough loses a court appeal over property it took from a couple in 1999.
Crafton officials spent years in litigation since seizing the 22 secluded acres next to the Crafton-Ingram-Thornburg baseball fields and Chartiers Creek. That has cost $350,000 in payments and legal fees so far, and Commonwealth Court is considering Crafton's appeal of a 2011 ruling by Allegheny County Senior Judge Timothy O'Reilly that the borough owes $1 million to Jack and Phyllis Duncan for the property and $200,000 to their attorney, Michael Fives.
More than a decade of back interest on the money could add $800,000, Fives said. The total would be more than half the borough's $3.95 million 2012 budget.
“I doubt I'll ever see a dime. I'll be dead. They'll just keep appealing,” said Jack Duncan, 81, of South Park, whose wife died in October 2011. “That's a lot of money, and it didn't need to be that way.”
Crafton officials initially filed to take the property from the Duncans and son Jeff through eminent domain. The couple, who owned Duncan Excavating, made a living selling topsoil, and the floodplain around the creek made for fertile ground. Crafton officials wanted the land for recreational use and a place to direct stormwater runoff.
Duncan and former Councilman John Rago, a Duquesne University law professor, said they negotiated a tentative deal for about $420,000 for the property and an adjoining plot. That agreement would have allowed the Duncans to remove topsoil and restore the land for the borough.
When Rago's term ended and a new council took over in 2000, the deal never materialized. The borough pressed forward in court, Rago said.
“I thought it was a mistake for the borough at the time,” he said.
Dan Cindrich, a councilman from 2000 to January 2012, disputes that the parties ever reached agreement. Cindrich said Duncan demanded an unfair price for the land he bought for $200,000 in April 1999. The Duncans said they got a good deal from the previous owner because they knew the family.
O'Reilly's decision took into account the value of the topsoil and timber on the land. The judge sided closer with experts the Duncans provided, who valued the property at more than $1 million. An expert for the borough valued the property at $93,000, according to the opinion.
Before O'Reilly's ruling, the county's Board of Viewers also valued the property at more than $1 million.
“Many different councils looked at it along the way and said the reasonable value of the property should be much less,” Cindrich said. “It's still an important piece of land to have. It's needed for stormwater retention. It's the only area really available.
“You can't look at it now and say, ‘These guys wasted this much money because it took 13 years.' You can't go back and say, ‘Geez if I would have known that ... .' You have to make the decision at the time. You think it's only going to last one to two years, and we had already had (money) committed.”
Records show most of the $354,182 that Crafton spent in pursuit of the property went toward legal bills. The borough paid attorney Thomas Dempsey more than $203,000 since 2001 for work on the case and paid its solicitor, Thomas Ayoob, more than $26,000 since 2002.
The Duncans got $80,000 in 1999 as part of an agreement to not sue the borough.
“I'm confident we're completely right,” Dempsey said. “I guess we'll find out.”
Fives said Crafton's continued legal wrangling likely will cost the borough more than five times the original agreement.
“It makes no sense. I never could figure this out. This is the longest case I've ever had,” Fives said. “And they've done nothing with the property.”
Council President April Weitzel did not return calls for comment.
Council's vice president, Susan O'Connell, said Crafton's appeal will continue.
“Obviously, it's a situation we'd rather not be in, but it's a situation we have to deal with,” she said.
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or firstname.lastname@example.org.