Whitehall-Coplay Press

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Board debates ownership of wall

Wednesday, August 22, 2018 by KATHY LAUER-WILLIAMS Special to The Press in Local News

Commissioners seek information on PennDOT repairs, receipt of deed

According to the Whitehall Township Board of Commissioners, the issue of whether the township is responsible for maintenance of a retaining wall along Race Street near Lehigh Avenue has not yet been resolved.

Board President Dennis Hower said the township received a letter the week before the Aug. 13 board meeting stating the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had completed $1.8 million in repairs to the wall, as per an agreement with the township, and the township would now be liable for maintenance costs of the wall.

“According to the letter, PennDOT said everything has been repaired, and now it’s the township’s responsibility,” Hower said.

However, officials question whether the wall is even located on township property and want answers as to why the wall failed in the first place.

In 2017, the township signed a joint stipulation of settlement with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and PennDOT to settle who would be responsible for future maintenance of the wall. According to the agreement, Penn-DOT had to make the repairs to the wall and then the township was to take ownership of the wall as well as future responsibility of its maintenance.

But board members said they have never gotten any official deed transferring the property to the township. They also expressed concern that increased traffic in the area, particularly trucks, could cause further damage to the wall.

“We need some sort of resolution,” Hower said. “We owe it to the taxpayers.”

Commissioner Joseph Marx said, according to the agreement, the township was supposed to get a survey that showed the wall was on township property. However, he said he had never seen the survey.

Solicitor J. Jackson Eaton said the township needs to review whether the repairs PennDOT was supposed to make were, in fact, made and to receive a copy of a survey that shows township ownership.

Township Engineer Frank Clark said the township plans to map the wall, so it can monitor any structural changes in the wall.

“Something had to happen to make it fail,” Vice President Philip Ginder said.

“We have an order saying they’ve complied,” said Mayor Michael Harakal Jr., who proposed meeting with PennDOT to discuss the issue.

“We’re doing what we can,” he said.

Clark said the wall on the north side of the Race Street bridge was built by the railroad about 100 years ago and was built “big, dumb and heavy.” He said it measures 50 feet tall and is several hundred feet long. He said to repair it, PennDOT built another wall in front of the original to buttress it.

“You’re asking something manmade to hold back nature,” Clark said. “A wall only lasts so long.”

Eaton said the township will respond to the letter from PennDOT when a review is completed.