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April 4, 2014

Border hearing takes a look back in history

JOHNSTOWN — Much of Friday’s hearing on the Richland-Adams township line dispute sounded more like a history lesson than legal testimony.

Surveyor Frederick J. Brown of Sidman spent much of the morning on the witness stand in the Central Park Complex courtroom, poring over maps and documents dating back into the mid-1800s.

Using maps created for Berwind and Bethlehem Steel coal mining companies and for South Fork Borough founder J.C. Stineman, Brown showed how he compared the accepted township line of those days to the survey he completed more than 10 years ago after a Naugle Road traffic accident called the border location into question.

In each case, his newer work virtually traces the historic border, Brown said.

“It is exactly what I did on my retracement survey,” Brown said of the Stineman/South Fork map.

“It matches mine exactly,” he said of the Bethlehem map.

The three-member boundary commission wrapped up testimony Friday and will reconvene after attorneys for both sides submit legal briefs describing each township’s position on how the line should be defined. The commission will then have 30 days to prepare its recommendation to Cambria County Judge David J. Tulowitzki, who will make the final ruling, Chairman Calvin Webb II said.

Although the original documents, survey or map carving Adams Township out of Richland Township cannot be located, Brown said the 1870 list of properties for Adams Township’s first assessment is housed in county records in Ebensburg.

He researched deeds from the list. In each case, he said, the first deed transfer after 1870 listed the properties as partially in Adams and partially in Richland.

“All of a sudden they stopped paying taxes in Richland Township and started paying taxes in Adams Township,” Brown said. “This is them talking to us through the years. They knew where the line was.”

That would contradict an 1872 map by Welton Publishing of Philadelphia, which was introduced at the November hearing. That map shows the line extending to the confluence of South Fork and the Little Conemaugh River, just west of today’s South Fork Borough. The map would put much of the Mount Hope and Ragers Hill Road area in Richland Township, affecting as many as 300 properties.

Brown’s “retracement” would change the taxation and school district for about a dozen homes. Most would change residences now taxed in Richland to place them in Adams Township and Forest Hills School District.

Homeowner Thomas Costa said he and his wife, Pamela, bought their Solomon Run Road home believing it was in Richland Township.

“The main factor was the children wanted to continue going to Richland schools,” Costa said, adding he would not have bought a home in Adams.

Now the Costas are trying to sell their home, and have an offer of $514,000. But the buyer will not close on the deal unless there is assurance the home is in Richland, Costa testified. His home is among those which Brown says have been identified in the wrong township.

Most of Brown’s testimony Friday focused on discrediting the Welton map, which was introduced by Richland Township at the November session. His previous testimony showed where the county tax maps differed from what his research and survey showed.

But Richland’s attorney, Jeffrey Truitt of Pittsburgh, said the township is not necessarily advocating that the court adopt the Welton line. It was primarily introduced to show there has been some question, historically, about the boundary.

Richland Solicitor Gary Costlow said the township supports continued acceptance of the “status quo” line shown on tax maps and the county geographic information system software.

During his testimony, Brown said the county GIS maps were based on tax maps and PennDOT municipal maps, calling both “notoriously inaccurate.”

Randy Griffith is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.

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