Lawyer tells town: If you need it, take it

CHATHAM–The town is facing two more obstacles before it can start repairs on the White Mills Road bridge in northwestern Chatham. One issue is prompting the town to use the eminent domain process to acquire nearby land.

A key component of the $2.4 million project is obtaining two-tenths of an acre near the bridge–actually four small parcels of land at each of the bridge’s four corners. The town had plans to purchase the land, but the parcels are now caught up in a contested estate battle, so there is no designated owner to approve the sale of the property.

“It appears the two sides on this surrogate court issue can’t decide how to give us the easement,” said Town Attorney Tal Rappelyea at a special town board meeting on Monday, July 2, to talk about the bridge issue.

“Without getting into specifics of this contested will, there are certain situations where it’s not as simple as getting one person to sign off,” Mr. Rappelyea said. “The dynamics within those relationships don’t allow these signatures to take place.”

Mr. Rappelyea, along with a property rights consultant hired by the town, then explained that the only way to move forward with the project before the estate is settled is for the town to use its powers of eminent domain.

Mr. Rappelyea explained that through the process of taking land for a greater public use, the town can still pay the rightful owners for the property.

After the land is appraised by two parties, said Mr. Rappelyea, “The town will take the money and deposit it with the court. When the estate is worked out, the person with the claim will get a check, plus interest.”

The property rights consultant, Jim Deloria of R.K. Hite & Company, Inc., said this can all be done within the framework of laws that protect both sides.

“The crux of our efforts for the town is to ensure that people who own property and have certain rights–that those rights are preserved,” Mr. Deloria said.

Mr. Rappelyea added that the parties involved are not against giving the rights to the town, but “they can’t figure out how to do this.”

“Try to sift through any negative connotation about eminent domain you have in your head and look at it as a way to get what you need,” Mr. Rappelyea said.

The board voted unanimously to move forward with eminent domain proceedings.

“I don’t like the words ’eminent domain,’” said councilman Henry Swartz, “but I know so many people who are affected by the closure. It’s a road that a couple hundred people need to use every day.”

The bridge over the CSX railroad was permanently closed in October 2007 because of extensive deterioration.

The other issue with the bridge discussed at the meeting is a chicken-and-egg situation involving the state Department of Transportation (DOT) and the CSX railroad company, which currently owns the bridge, with the town owning the road over the bridge.

DOT rules require that the town obtain approval for bridge repairs from CSX before it will release its portion of the project funds. But CSX wants the town to provide $200,000 up front before it will authorize the repairs.

Mr. Rappelyea said it would not be wise for the town to provide the up-front money from its own coffers. “The problem with that approach is that we may not get reimbursed,” he said.

Town Supervisor Jesse DeGroodt said the best way to move forward was to arrange a meeting between town officials, CSX and DOT.

Town officials are concerned that CSX may use its ownership of the bridge as leverage in the discussions, because it is looking to divest its small, local bridges.

“CSX does not want to own it,” said Mr. Rappelyea. “Even though it’s in the statute.”

The project engineer, Byron Raych of Barton & Loguidice, offered to help facilitate the meeting of three parties. He also suggested getting Representative Chris Gibson’s office involved in the negotiations.

“I think it would help to have someone with more power or pull than you or I,” Mr. Raych said.


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