A key piece in the relocation of Lancaster County Prison was secured last week after county commissioners used the right of eminent domain to take the land officials said was needed for completion of the project that is still in its early stages.
The unanimous vote of Resolution No. 90 at the Sept. 28 meeting was met with concern by the commissioners as they voiced reservations about having to utilize eminent domain to take the 5-acre parcel of land owned by the Fraternal Order of Police Red Rose Lodge 16 in Lancaster Township at the southern end of Lancaster City.
But commissioners said litigation surrounding ownership of the land necessitated taking the step to utilize eminent domain.
Commissioner Josh Parsons said the vote was the “best course of action” for both the county and the Fraternal Order of Police since an agreement had already been reached to pay a fair market value of $265,000 for the land.
“This really doesn’t change anything for the FOP or for the county, and that’s why in this limited circumstance I’m willing to use eminent domain, which I’m usually very cautious about and actually haven’t used it before,” Parsons said. “But this is a very limited, unique circumstance.”
Claudia Shank, attorney with McNees Wallace & Nurick, LLC and the county’s special counsel on the land acquisition, said the county authorized entering into a purchase agreement for the property about a month ago with the Fraternal Order of Police.
But since the agreement was signed, Shank said, a neighboring property owner asserted a claim of an “alleged” right of first refusal to the property and filed a lawsuit against the Fraternal Order of Police attempting to seek injunctive relief to stop the sale.
Wanda Nye, owner of the Dirty Ol’ Tavern at 917 S. Prince St., filed a court case in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas on Sept. 13, alleging that her late husband, Russell Shelley, agreed to sell the land in 1968 to the Fraternal Order of Police with the condition he was allowed to buy it back for the same price if they decided to sell.
Shank said because of the lawsuit, the best course of action for the county was to declare eminent domain and seize the land. She said the move will give the title of the land to the county and allow the courts to decide compensation.
Mark Lauriello, CEO of RETTEW and prison project engineer, said three separate properties are needed to build the prison. The first is the main 75-acre tract purchased from Clyde Kreider earlier this year that will house the prison. A separate 3-acre tract purchased from Kreider allows for access to Highland Avenue/Route 222. Both pieces were purchased together for $3 million in February.
Lauriello said the third key tract is the one owned by the Fraternal Order of Police, which sits between the two Kreider tracts and is needed for access and utilities.
“It’s a very important tract,” Lauriello said. “The project really can’t move forward without it.”
Commissioner Ray D’Agostino said he’s “not prone” to use eminent domain on land, but he said the county was “left with no choice” in the case after a lawsuit was filed. D’Agostino said commissioners and staff were concerned that legal proceedings “could drag on,” delaying the project.
“I think we’ve done what we can do to try to do this in a way that’s beneficial to everyone, so I’m in agreement with taking this action,” D’Agostino said.
Commissioner John Trescot said he’s “normally fairly much against,” but the case presented a unique situation. He said there’s recognition that eminent domain exists “for a reason when it is necessary for the public good.”
“In this case, I’m supportive of moving forward with the condemnation and the taking of the property,” Trescot said.
After the commissioners voted to seize the land, they also voted unanimously on another resolution terminating the sale agreement that was previously in place with the Fraternal Order of Police to purchase the property. Shank said the sale agreement included a due diligence period, which the county was still within, and it will receive a full deposit of money that was paid.
Shank said the county will now send a letter to the Fraternal Order of Police terminating the agreement and will then file a declaration of taking in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas. She said the actions will initiate the litigation process necessary for the condemnation to happen.
County officials have said construction on the prison is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2024 and have it opened by the end of 2026.
D’Agostino, who served as the point person among the commissioners working with the Fraternal Order of Police on the purchase of the property, said he appreciated the group’s cooperation throughout the process. He said they have been supportive of the prison project.
“It’s unfortunate we find ourselves in this situation, but at the end of the day we’ve got to do what we feel is best for the people of Lancaster County, which is to make sure we get the property,” D’Agostino said.