Avella couple file federal lawsuit againt North Franklin over surprise house demolition

September 27, 2013

An Avella couple Friday filed a federal lawsuit against North Franklin Township and the Washington County Redevelopment Authority over claims the municipality carried out a surprise demolition of a house they were remodeling in the community.

John S. and Kimberly Bernett are seeking an unspecified amount of money in damages in the three-count lawsuit alleging the township and authority denied them their constitutional right to equal protection of their property, wrongfully used the legal process in the case and were negligent for having a poorly trained code enforcement officer, the record shows.

“What they did was unbelievable,” said the couple’s attorney, Charles E. Kurowski of Washington. “You go to work one morning to work on your house, and it’s gone.”

John S. Bernett invests in rental properties and has restored the Duane Hotel on South Main Street in Washington through his company, Tri-State Restoration Inc. He purchased the condemned house at 16 Mill St. in North Franklin in 2007, and later installed new electrical service there and a new roof on the structure, repairs that cost $42,436 under a building permit the township approved.

He claims he discovered the house was gone and property graded March 28, and later learned the township ordered the demolition under a program administered by the authority.

The authority twice advertised in January in newspaper legal notices regarding demolition projects in North Franklin but did not list addresses.

William McGowen, the authority’s executive director, has said the demolition program required the municipality to post the property, notify the owner of condemnation and have the owner sign a release to proceed. Its attorney, Colin Fitch of Washington, declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying he was unaware one had been filed.

The Bernetts claim in the lawsuit they were never notified of a plan to demolish the house and have been denied income from potential tenants.

“Other properties are in worse condition and abandoned and have not been addressed by the township,” they stated in the court record.

Kurowski indicated in the lawsuit that the township and authority denied fault in the case.

The township’s attorney, Thomas Lonich of Washington, could not be reached Friday.

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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