Judge: College can demolish houses

Three vacant houses on Union Avenue can be demolished and the properties turned into a parking lot for use by Lycoming College.

That was a decision made Friday by Lycoming County Judge Richard A. Gray, who reversed a decision by City Council and upheld an appeal filed by the college.

The properties are at 81, 91 and 97 Union Ave.

“The court appreciates the difficulty of council’s duties and has no doubt that all have acted in a way believed to be in the city’s best interest,” Gray said. “However, given the law … council’s decision cannot stand.”

“The ruling was as expected,” said Jerry Rashid, director of college relations. “The college looks forward to continuing its historically strong working relationship with the city.”

The college can receive the demolition permits within five days of the ruling and will pursue creating a parking lot, Rashid said.

The lot will provide parking for those who attend practice or games at the Shangraw Athletic Complex, the stadium where football, lacrosse, soccer and softball teams practice and play games.

Rashid offered no time for when the demolition might take place.

Once the city zoning hearing board denied the college its variance request, the college voted to update plans to create a green space on the properties, which no longer is going to be pursued, Rashid said.

Gray’s ruling on the civil matter came as no surprise to some on council.

Council President Bill Hall and Councilmen Don Noviello and N. Clifford “Skip” Smith at the time of the vote July 12 were in favor of not challenging it in court.

Councilwomen Bonnie Katz and Liz Miele and Councilman Randall J. Allison didn’t want to see the properties lost.

Councilman Jonathan Williamson abstained because he works at the college as a political science professor.

Reached Monday, Allison said, “That satisfies me. We challenged it under exceptions under the ordinance and if the judge found against that I am satisfied and would not want to pursue it any further.”

Allison said he, Miele and Katz were seeking to preserve housing stock in family neighborhoods.

“It seemed like it would be worth it to explore whether it was feasible to save those homes,” Allison said. “It seemed like there was another way to get it done and to save those homes, so that the college could put the parking lot on another part of the parcel and keep the homes for family homes.”

Noviello said he suspected council did not have the authority to restrict private property owners from doing what they wanted on their properties.

“I knew we would have a difficult time telling people what they can do,” he said. “Unless it’s a usage that is extremely questionable, I will usually come down on the side of the property owner.”

Katz said she suspected a judge would reverse the decision.

“It’s sad to see the houses go, but it’s the law,” she said. “We tried to preserve the neighborhood and our focal point on this was to see if the college would preserve the neighborhood, but we also realize it’s the law and it’s their property and they can do with it as they please.”

Smith said he presumed that was the law and that a judge would rule on it as Gray did.