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Court denies Centralia property owners looking to keep their homes

Published: Thursday, February 23, 2012, 3:54 PM Updated: Thursday, February 23, 2012, 4:02 PM
 



Commonwealth Court has denied another attempt by remaining property owners in Centralia to keep their land.

Seven people, including Borough Council President Stephen Hynoski, claimed condemnation no longer is needed because the underground coal fire has moved and air quality in the Columbia County borough is the same as Lancaster.

View full sizeAP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, fileAn old sign reading "Keep Centralia On The Map" in the entrance of the closed Centralia Municipal Building in Centralia, Pa.

Most homes in Centralia were demolished in the 1980s as an underground fire that began in 1962 threatened residents with poison gases and dangerous sinkholes.

Nothing authorizes the property owners to request to open or set aside a declaration of taking because the public purpose for the condemnation no longer exists, the court ruled.

The decision affirms a September 2010 Columbia County court verdict setting fair value for the properties the commonwealth began condemning in 1993 due to dangers associated with the mine fire that started in 1962.

The same individuals have a suit pending in U.S. Middle District Court that alleges the condemnation was part of the commonwealth’s plot to obtain mineral rights to the anthracite coal they claim are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. U.S. Judge Christopher C. Conner last March refused to issue an injunction that would have stopped the condemnation.
 

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Pa. Coal Town Above Mine Fire Claims Massive Fraud
 Associated Press Writer Michael Rubinkam, Associated Press Writer – Tue Mar 9, 5:54 pm ET

ALLENTOWN, Pa. – Centralians have long believed the government's demolition of their beloved town in the 1980s was part of a plot to swipe the mineral rights to anthracite coal worth hundreds of millions of dollars — and not, as state and federal officials said, the solution to an out-of-control underground mine fire that menaced the town with toxic gases.

Now, in a last-ditch effort to save their homes from the wrecking ball, the few holdouts who remain in the Pennsylvania town are taking their claims of a conspiracy to court.

In a filing late Monday, four property owners and the borough of Centralia said a "massive fraud" forced the needless relocation of more than 1,000 residents and the destruction of more than 500 homes. The property owners asked a state appeals court to stop Pennsylvania officials from kicking them out and finishing off the town 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

"Nobody wants a penny. They just want to be left alone," said Tom Hynoski, a Centralia native whose mother and sister are among the petitioners.

The state condemned the homes in the early 1990s but only recently moved to oust those who remain. The state's attorney on Tuesday ridiculed the residents' claims as "conspiracy theories" and predicted they would be dismissed.

Centralia was all but wiped off the map as the slow-burning mine fire that began in 1962 at the town dump spread to the network of mines beneath the town, threatening residents with poisonous gases and dangerous sinkholes. A $42 million government relocation program was largely completed by 1993, when officials invoked eminent domain to get dozens of holdouts to leave.

The property owners said in court documents they have evidence that the fire is "almost out" and no longer endangers their homes, if it ever did. Data kept by the Department of Environmental Protection show that underground temperatures have gone down by "several hundred percent" since measurements began. Further, a 2008 DEP study found that emissions of toxic gases are not a problem, according to court documents.

"There is no mine fire or other related condition that justifies the taking of their property," the petition said.

State environmental officials, though, insist the fire remains a threat to the residents' health. The blaze has likely followed the coal seam deeper underground — reducing temperatures in certain monitoring bore holes — but gases from the fire can still accumulate in houses atop the fire, they say.

Property owners also claim in court documents that their town was ruined "in the face of evidence that suggests that a massive fraud may have been perpetrated" by parties "motivated primarily by interests in what is conservatively estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars of some of the best anthracite coal in the world."

Their attorney, Andrew Ostrowski, said Tuesday that the borough owns the mineral rights. Once Centralia ceases to exist, the rights go to the state, which could sell them to a coal company to operate "one of the most productive strip mine operations in the country," he said.

Steve Fishman, in-house counsel for the state Department of Community and Economic Development, the agency carrying out eminent domain, disputed that Centralia owns the coal underneath the town, saying that it's not clear who possesses the mineral rights but that he knows of no legal document giving the borough an ownership stake.

He predicted Commonwealth Court would toss the residents' petition, noting it raises claims nearly 20 years after the fact.

"I've never doubted they would try this, since their pattern has always been simply to delay, hoping that at some point we'll simply go away," Fishman said.

As far as the fire, he said, "I don't think there's anyone who seriously believes that the fire is out, and that it does not pose a threat."

Another attorney for the Centralians, Don Bailey, a former congressman and state auditor general, is working on a separate federal civil rights lawsuit in hopes of recovering "seed money" to rebuild the borough, Ostrowski said.

One key issue raised in the Commonwealth Court petition, and likely to be raised in the federal suit, is a 2006 agreement between the Department of Community and Economic Development and Centralia homeowners Robert and Mary Netchel that allowed the Netchels to keep their home.

In December, Ostrowski sent a letter to John Zelinka, an attorney working on behalf of the economic development department, seeking the same deal for his clients. He said Zelinka never responded.

Fishman, the department counsel, said the Netchels were permitted to hang on to their house because it was on the fringes of the fire impact zone, and not in any danger.

But Hynoski produced a map that places the Netchel house squarely in the middle of the eminent domain zone, with many houses knocked down on either side of it.

"We just want to be treated the same way the Netchels were," said Hynoski, who hopes to attract civil rights groups to his cause. "It is clear violation of the 14th Amendment, equal protection. The government cannot do for one person and not do for another person in the same circumstance."

He said none of the people who still live in Centralia have ever gotten sick from the fire.
 

 

Associated Press Article

Press enterprise article on Feb 9th

Last Centralians bound for court
        Holdouts don't wish to haggle over buyout deals, they want to stay in homes, lawyer says
 
 
        By LEON BOGDAN
 
        Press Enterprise Writer
 
        BLOOMSBURG – The last Centralians are headed to trial here next month to settle disputed buyout offers as the state again tries to finish home condemnations that began 17 years ago.
 
        But the handful of residents left will not be leaving anytime soon, and they believe the argument is about much more than property values, says a Harrisburg lawyer.
 
        Attorney Andrew Ostrowski contends conditions in Centralia have "greatly" changed, and scientific proof shows the mine fire burning underground is either waning or clearly poses no threat.
 
        He won't be able to present any of those purported findings to a jury, though, because the cases will focus strictly on what the few remaining homes and lots are worth.
 
        Still, Ostrowski hopes to "find a court somewhere" where he can challenge the safety and health dangers he and residents believe no longer exist.
 
        "We're not interested in talking about a couple thousand here, a couple thousand there. The people are not leaving," Ostrowski said Monday.
 
        "Value is not our issue. Our issues are the fire, the homes, the people whose lives are being disrupted and wanting to stay where they were born and raised."
 
 
        'Unwilling evictees'
 
        Residents whose properties remain at issue:
 
        • Stephen and Bonnie Hynoski, who own four parcels on Meyers Street, including a two-and-a-half story home, a mobile home and a vacant lot.
 
        • Helen Hynoski, a widow, along with single family members Walter and Christine Hynoski, a home on East Center Street.
 
        • Carl Womer and the late Helen Womer, a home on Wood Street.
 
        • Lamar Mervine Jr. and Lana Mervine, the former mayor of Centralia whose estate on Troutwine Street is being handled by a son, Harold.
 
        Court papers filed by Ostrowski refer to these families as "unwilling evictees" who remain "unwilling to compromise their interest in their land."
 
        Eminent domain proceedings declared by the state in 1993 turned a decade-long voluntary relocation effort into a mandatory seizure of homes.
 
        But Ostrowski argues the mine fires "no longer provide justification" for such government action, and issues that led to formal condemnations 17 years ago must be looked at again.
 
        "Our bottom line is nobody is leaving voluntarily," Ostrowski said.
 
 
        County agency out
 
        While the $42 million relocation was initially handled by the Columbia County Redevelopment Authority, it was removed as the lead agency as buyouts wound down several years ago.
 
        Today, the Centralia project is under the realm of the Department of Community and Economic Development. In 2008, it reached several settlements: $95,000 to the Comarinsky estate for a home on Troutwine Street; and $70,900 to Helen Tanis for her home on West Center Street.
 
        Both deals included $22,500 payments for relocation expenses.
 
        Jury selection in the outstanding cases is set to start March 16.
 
 
        Leon Bogdan covers courts and police and can be reached at 784-2121, extension 1307, or by e-mailing him at leon.b@pressenterprise.net
 

 

JANUARY 2010 PHOTOS

 

               
                
                
                
                 
                
 
 

DAMAGED CEMETERY

               
 

 


updated 02/06/10

History of Centralia And Conygham Township:

Centralia:

Centralia was first known as the "Bull's Head", and the first house in the town on the Catawissa road was built in 1841 by Jonathan Faust, and called the "'Bull's Head Tavern". This Hotel subsequently passed into the hands of Reuben Wasser, but retained it's former name throughout it's natural life. It was a stopping place for travelers, and for about 12 years comprised all of Centralia that then existed. Jonathan Faust did not own the land on which the house was built; he did not even buy the lumber but appropriated it without compunction, and his right of possession was never disputed.

The "Bull's Head Tavern" was originally a log house and in 1916 it was razed to make way for a store. Patrick Dempsey, a contractor, erected the property which was used as a fruit and seed store and a residence. Mr. William Weidensaul conducted the tavern as a saloon till 1867. He was follwed by James Goldsworthy, and later it became the property of Mr. Andrew Zimbo. 

In 1860 Jonathan Hoagland opened the first store opposite the "Bull's Head Tavern". two years later he was appointed postmaster. for a few years the village had been know as centerville, but as an office of that name already existed in the State, at the insistence of the postal authorities, Centralia was suggested by Mr. Rae.

In 1865, the Lehigh and Mahanoy Railroad Company, later known as the Lehigh Valley, Built a line through the town on what is appropriately known as Railroad St. A freight and passenger station was then built on the Western extremity of Railroad Street. With this new entrance into the town several new collieries were opened and the town began to grow in size, population and wealth.

Increasing lawlessness caused an application to be made for incorporation, and at the February session of Columbia County Court, Bloomsburg, in 1866, the Borough of Centralia was formally chartered. James Dyke was
elected first mayor, or chief Burgess as it was then called.

Conynghm Township:   Conyngham was the seventh and last township formed out of the original territory of Catawissa. After being embraced successively in Roaring Creek and Locust, the extreme southern part of the county, at the February court, 1856, was erected into the township of Conyngham. It was named in honor of the president judge, Honorable John Nesbitt Conyngham, and by an unforeseen coincidence the township which perpetuates his name was formed at the last session in Bloomsburg over which he presided. The propriety of this tribute in appreciation of his upright character and unswerving integrity is attested by his eminent ability and untarnished record as an impartial judge and an honorable man.
     Until the year 1830 Conyngham township, and indeed the western middle coal field, was known only as a wild, mountainous country, whose fastnesses were the haunts of the deer, the fox and the catamount. The region was not, however, entirely unknown. The Sunbury and Reading state road passed through Ashland, just at the foot of Locust mountain, and from that point a rough wagon track led over the mountains northward. About the year 1804 the Red tavern was built on the top of Locust mountain by John Rhodeburger. Subsequently, when in 1816 or 1817 the bridle path was so improved as to be really a good road, there was an almost ceaseless stream of travel past the Red house. Stage-coaches dashed down the level grade above, while the echoing horn intensifies the hurry and confusion of the always noisy tavern yard. Four hostlers emerged from the stable door, ready to grasp the bits and undo the fastenings of the coach horses the moment they were stopped; others brought out the relay that had been resting, and the coach was ready to renew the journey before the jaded passengers had scarcely become aware of the stop. A new driver mounted the box, deftly grasped the reins, uttered a quiet signal to start or noisily cracked his whip, and the coach disappeared in a cloud of dust.
     Nearly the whole of Conyngham township was surveyed about the year seventeen hundred and ninety-three. No one, at that time, would have supposed that beneath it's rugged surface were the store houses of a vast mineral wealth. But during the succeeding thirty years rumors of discoveries of coal and iron began to be circulated and credited. The confirmation of these reports caused
Con't Here

I would like to meet with residents from the 1920's to the 1960's. I would like to know what life was like BEFORE the mine fire. Please call if you would like to  talk
570-205-2215

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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