Landowner files zoning case against Speers

March 7, 2013

The owner of a 28.5-acre tract of land in the Mon Valley communities of Speers and Dunlevy has taken Speers Borough to court for failing to disclose to the public changes in its zoning ordinance and map that affect its use of its land.

Mon Rail Terminal Inc. of 51 Colvin Road, Charleroi, claims Speers Borough officials failed to follow required procedures when they rezoned part of Mon Rail Terminal’s land from heavy industrial to residential twice over a period of 16 years.

Just over 27 acres of the vacant tract lies in Speers, while another part comprising less than an acre and a half is in neighboring Dunlevy Borough.

Jeffrey M. Umbel, president of Mon Rail Terminal Inc., requested in 1996 to rezone about 12.5 acres of property to a residential area for a cul-de-sac subdivision of townhouses.

“Opposition to this low-intensity use was instantaneous and vociferous for the residents and elected officials of Dunlevy,” the appeal claims, because access to the property would have been through Dewey Street in Dunlevy and it would have developed open space.

Umbel met with Speers solicitor Jack A. France and withdrew the application for rezoning because of Dunlevy residents’ opposition. France did not return a call this week for comment on the matter.

Mon Rail Terminal claims, however, that Speers enacted an ordinance in 1996 to change part of the heavy industrial property to residential to create a wooded buffer between Speers and Dunlevy for the Futura Trailer Park Development owned by Charles Barcelona and abutting the residence of Joseph Barcelona.

In March 2010, Umbel and a representative of Antero Resources – according to its website an independent exploration and production company in the Marcellus Shale strata – came to a Speers Borough Council meeting to present a plan for withdrawing water.

“At that meeting, a zoning map on display in council’s meeting room showed that the propery was zoned heavy industrial,” the appeal states.

“Speers council expressed no opposition to the proposed industrial development of the property.”

Seven months later, and without notice to Mon Rail Terminal, the borough enacted an ordinance that “allegedly completed” the rezoning of half of the Mon Rail property, according to the appeal.

In February of last year, Mon Rail Terminal filed suit in federal court against both Dunlevy and Speers boroughs.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon dismissed the complaint against Speers but allowed it to be refiled in state court.

Representing both Speers and Dunlevy, which are insured through the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Risk Management Association, in the federal case was attorney Michael Crotty of West Chester, Chester County.

Although Mon Rail Terminal claimed “Dunlevy engaged in corruption and self-dealing” in allowing the trailer park, Crotty said the borough denies the assertion and said Dunlevy’s opposition to the water withdrawl proposal was based on legitimate public health and safety concerns, as vetted by the borough engineer, and is consistent with “prior representation made by Mon Rail that to try to get access to private property was too dangerous to run the water trucks up and down Dewey Street in Dunlevy Borough.”

Crotty said the “prior representation” referred to a separate suit Mon Rail previously filed in county court in which Mon Rail sued its neighbors attempting to get road access through Speers.

In federal court, Crotty said Dunlevy is in what is known as the discovery phase, meaning the sides are submitting written questions and answers to each other in advance of taking depositions.

In Washington County Court, Mon Rail claims that Speers failed to comply with procedures that would have notified the public of impending changes or pending ordinances so that people could comment or intervene.

Mon Rail claims the rezoning matters were not advertised in a newspaper of general circulation, and further contends they were made without a public hearing or submission to borough or Washington County planning commissions or the Washington County law library either before or after re-enactment.

Mon Rail Terminal asked the court to declare the zoning changes null and void.

Umbel’s attorney, Ira Weiss of Pittsburgh, also filed a writ against Speers. Robert Junker, an attorney in Weiss’ firm, responded to an emailed inquiry that the writ relates to a mandamus action about a sewer line that Speers Borough constructed across property owned by Mon Rail Terminal.

“The mandamus action will seek to compel Speers Borough to properly commence the eminent domain procedure for the taking of Mon Rail’s property,” Junker wrote.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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