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Red tape slows Flight 93 memorial in Somerset County

Paul Peirce
| Sunday, July 1, 2007

Edwin O'Barto, of Unity, felt a wave of patriotism about three years ago when the National Park Service and a family survivors' group approached him about buying some of his land in Somerset County.

The park service and the nonprofit Families of Flight 93 were inquiring about part of the 209 acres owned by O'Barto and his wife, Shirley, in Stonycreek Township, just south of where United Flight 93 crashed Sept. 11, 2001.

The land will become part of a $58 million memorial to honor 40 crew members and passengers who thwarted four terrorists.

"After the sacrifice the people of the flight made, you couldn't help but feel a strong sense of patriotism. If I would have been looking at that time for a buyer independently, I probably could have gotten more money for it, but I still would have sold it to the families," O'Barto said.

Evidence indicates crew and passengers on the Newark-to-San Francisco flight stormed the cockpit of the hijacked plane, forcing the terrorists to crash into a field, aborting an attack on the White House or U.S. Capitol.

The desire to honor those heroes has collided with the federal bureaucracy as plans are made to build a national park to open on the 10th anniversary of the crash.

"You'd think for the sacrifice the people aboard that flight made, they'd lift some of the mandates they have to work under," O'Barto lamented.

Last January, the O'Bartos finalized the sale of 57 acres they own for $125,000, or just under $2,200 an acre, to the Families of Flight 93.

More than 1,300 acres are needed for the memorial, along with easements on another 900 acres around the site to restrict development.

Organizers have bought two out of nine properties. Last fall, the families' group purchased three acres, a house and a garage from Paul E. Vish, of Jenner, for $112,000.

Organizers emphasize the importance and large scale of the project that began in 2002 when Congress passed the Flight 93 Memorial Act.

"This is a sacred project. We're not just building a memorial, but an entire national park," said Flight 93 Memorial Superintendent Joanne M. Hanley. "You just can't plop down a memorial in a middle of a field like a hood ornament."

There is no pattern to follow, said Ed Root, the president of the Families of Flight 93, who lost his cousin, flight attendant Lorraine Bay, on Sept. 11.

"None of us here ever really thought one day we would be involved in creating a national park from scratch, and I can say there's not really a lot of experience out there. I don't want to be critical of the bureaucracy, but we're mandated to work through the federal laws. There's a lot of i's to dot and t's to cross," Root said.

The process made headlines when crash site owner Mike Svonavec, of Svonavec Inc., placed a donation box near the temporary memorial to defray security costs for the property after federal aid ran out in February. Gov. Ed Rendell offered $120,000 in state funds for security over two years.

Svonavec, who owns 273 acres, complained he has lost money because he can't lease the land for surface mining.

The Flight 93 families maintain that $1,000 to $2,000 an acre is the fair market value. Patrick White, vice president of the Flight 93 Families and a land-use lawyer, said Svonavec wanted $10 million.

An independent appraiser is examining the property.

Despite that controversy, Root and Hanley said steady progress has been made.

Under the legislation, the park service had to prepare a detailed general management plan and environmental impact statement to serve as a blueprint for up to 20 years.

That 250-page plan was completed June 22. The service is expected to formally sign off on it this month.

The Flight 93 Advisory Commission, the Families of Flight 93 and the Flight 93 Memorial Task Force helped create the plan. "There is a lot more communication required among the groups" than in a normal real estate transaction involving two parties, Root said.

There was an extensive period for public comment, giving people across the country a voice "to ensure that we create a fitting tribute to the passengers and crew of Flight 93," Hanley said.

"We're building an entire national park here ... just like the Gettysburg National Memorial. It's not a small project," she said.

In addition to buying the land, the park service is operating the temporary memorial, curating artifacts from the site, raising funds and engineering the details of the design.

Another property owner at the site, Anthony Kordell, is co-owner of Rollock Inc., with 143 acres. Both he and O'Barto said selling land to the federal government is tedious and time-consuming.

"It's been nearly six years since the crash and we've had a lot of meetings, but I really have not received a formal offer. I'm probably different from the rest of the owners up here because I'm the only active business in the planned acquisition area," said Kordell, who runs a scrap yard with his son, Christopher.

"About three years ago they brought in three appraisers to bid on relocating my business, even though they knew I was probably going to move my business myself," Kordell said. "They said the relocation appraisals were required under federal law."

Larry and Linda Hoover, of Somerset, have not received an offer on two parcels, a house and a cabin.

Larry Hoover, lay pastor of St. Andrew's Church in Boswell, said landowners are serving as temporary caretakers for the final resting place of the families' loved ones.

"How else can you explain why each of us continues to maintain our properties, continues to pay the taxes on them, all the while knowing that we're eventually going to sell them• A lot of big names may come in from all over to get their photographs taken at the temporary memorial, but how much more patriotic can you get than that?" Hoover said.

Root said there has been momentum on other fronts.

"During the last five-plus years, we've made a lot of progress in several areas including planning, fundraising and some land acquisition. But at the same time we certainly realize a lot more work is in front of us," Root said.

With $12 million in donations and a design selected, fundraising will now step up, Hanley and Root said.

The project will transform the area of former strip mines and open fields while allaying residents' concerns about traffic intruding into their bucolic area.

An entrance road off Route 30 will be moved 1.5 miles east of the current entrance on Lambertsville Road to Haul Road, an old coal-truck path.

That entrance will be marked by a 93-foot tower with 40 wind chimes.

The actual crash site will be open only to Flight 93 family members and authorized personnel. The public will be able to view the area from a plaza framed by a sloped wall.

According to Somerset County records about properties sought for the memorial, PBS Coal Co. is the largest landowner, with 864 acres, followed by Svonavec Inc. In addition to the Kordells and the Hoovers, others are Timothy Lambert, of Aliquippa, with 163 acres; Alvin and Karen Lambert, of Stoystown, 42; Edwin Seymour, of Uniontown, Ohio, 12; and Oscar and Eva Eschrich, of Johnstown, 4.

"We're subject to the Uniform Appraisal Standards for Federal Land Acquisition. It's a stringent process to ensure that private landowners negotiating with the federal government receive fair market value for their properties," Hanley said.

The official appraisal document listed on the U.S. Department of Justice Web site is 144 pages long.

With planning completed, officials anticipate the land acquisition will speed up. Earlier this year, the federal government released $5 million for property acquisition.

"We need all the land and funding in place by November 2008 so we can begin construction in 2009," Hanley said.

Additional Information:

By the numbers

Estimated cost: $58 million

Sources: $30 million in private donations ($12 million raised)

$18 million in federal grants

$10 million in state grants

Cost breakdown:

$27 million for construction

$10 million for property acquisition

$7 million for roads

$6 million for visitor center

$5 million for utilities and parking

$3 million for capital campaign

Annual visitors: 167,000

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