Land case moved to higher court

Merritts contends PennDOT had no right to condemn property

A former Williamsburg-area man who is contesting PennDOT’s right to condemn a small portion of his property for the Canoe Creek intersection project has taken his case to the federal court in Johnstown.

Stewart M. Merritts Jr., who resides in Lovettsville, Va., transferred the case this week from Blair County to U.S. District Court.

He is contending that his land was condemned “without just compensation and without due process,” which he said is a violation of his constitutional rights.

Merritts is acting as his own attorney in filing the “Notice of Removal” from the Blair County Court.

One of his primary complaints is that PennDOT lacks the right to condemn his property because it was part of a 1755 land warrant granted by Robert Morris, the governor of the colony of Pennsylvania before the state gained sovereignty.

Merritts’ legal challenge emanated from PennDOT’s condemnation of land he owns at Route 22 and Flowing Spring Road in Frankstown Township.

Part of the project also involves the abandonment of Flowing Spring Road so that it may become part of Blair County’s Rails to Trails project, linking the present bicycle and hiking trail to Canoe Creek State Park.

Merritts contends the abandonment of Flowing Spring Road will cut off his access to the lower portion of his property where PennDOT intends to improve the drainage along Route 22.

PennDOT indicated in its plans that it will replace an existing 15-inch drain pipe with an 18-inch pipe and 24-inch pipe with a 42-inch pipe on Merritts’ property.

He is challenging the takeover of the road by the nonprofit group, Rails to Trails of Central Pennsylvania,.

In recent court decisions, Blair County President Judge Elizabeth A. Doyle and Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer have rejected Merritts’ arguments that PennDOT cannot condemn land for the drainage improvements.

However, neither judge addressed Merritts’ arguments against the abandonment of Flowing Spring Road for the Rails to Trails portion of the project because that was not a part of PennDOT’s condemnation proceedings.

It will be up to the Frankstown Township supervisors to abandon the road, it was pointed out.

Doyle pointed out that Pennsylvania’s power to condemn the Merritts’ land did not stem from the original land warrant but from Pennsylvania “as a sovereign, a power that cannot be extinguished.”

Merritts appealed Doyle’s decision to the Commonwealth Court, and the opinion written by Jubelirer concluded that Pennsylvania has the sovereign power to condemn property for a public purpose, which, it stated, “includes the department’s power to condemn private property for transportation purposes.”

The Canoe Creek intersection project is a $9.6 million effort realigning Route 22 at Turkey Valley Road to form a four-way intersection, to replace several bridges and culverts, to realign Beaverdam Road and to vacate Flowing Spring Road.

The proposed Rails to Trails extension will be constructed under Route 22.

Plum Contracting Inc. of Greensburg has already begun work on the project.

In his petition to remove the case from Blair County, Merritts stated that the case raises “substantial federal questions” that need resolution and that his claims are based on the Constitution and various laws and treaties of the United States.