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Hearing planned in bid to prevent jail project in Fayette County

| Monday, Aug. 11, 2014, 11:12 p.m.

A hearing will be scheduled for an out-of-county senior judge to determine whether Fayette County should be permitted to intervene in a zoning appeal seeking to stop construction of a $32 million jail.

Connellsville attorney Rich Bower told Senior Judge William Ober of Westmoreland County on Monday that county commissioners did not approve the legal move during a public meeting and the intervening action should be disallowed.

“They took no action ... to authorize a notice to take place,” Bower argued during a status conference for the appeals.

Several county residents, through their attorneys, are appealing a Fayette zoning hearing board decision in May that granted variances that pave the way for officials to build the proposed Justice and Rehabilitation Center. The two appeals, which have been consolidated, seek to reverse the board's decision.

The county has a sales agreement with Fay-Penn Economic Development Council to buy land in Dunbar and North Union for $1.2 million to build the jail.

Fayette County judges recused themselves from the case, so Ober was appointed to preside over appeals.

Ober noted on Monday that status conferences are typically held in a judge's chambers, but because of the “public interest in this matter, I'm willing to hold it in open court.”

Fayette County officials are seeking to intervene.

“This will be a correctional facility; the project will be a county project,” assistant county solicitor Sheryl Heid argued. “We believe we fully have grounds to intervene in this matter.”

Testimony will be taken at a later date.

Attorneys agreed that no additional testimony will be needed for Ober to rule on appeals. Ober will use a transcript from the zoning hearing board and other documents to decide whether the zoning variances should stand or be reversed. Ober said he will schedule a hearing on the notice of intervention “as early as possible.”

The variances allow the county to build the jail on a lot smaller than the required 150 acres, to plant 143 fewer trees than required and to permit a small section of barbed wire fencing to be visible to the public.

The board granted a special exception allowing the jail to be built on land zoned for industrial use on 18.87 acres of a 61-acre site off Route 119 and Mt. Braddock Road, near Laurel Mall and the Meason House. Terry and Diane Kriss, owners of the historic Meason House; North Union residents Evelyn Hovanec and John Cofchin; and husband and wife Ralph and Jerrie Mazza of Franklin are appealing the board's decision.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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