Imagine putting over $42,000 into a renovation project, only to have the government demolish the entire building without a single shred of warning. This is the reality for John and Kimberly Bernett, who are the victims of a mortifying government blunder that resulted in the razing of a property they had purchased through their family company, Tri-State Restoration, Inc.
The Bernetts bought a condemned home in Washington, Pennsylvania, in order to renovate and sell the property. John had already begun remodeling the house, installing an entirely new electrical system, a new roof structure, plumbing and replacement drywall that amounted to $42,436 in renovation costs. But when he arrived at his property on March 28th, nothing remained. A demolition crew had knocked down the entire building and graded the land under the order of the Washington County Redevelopment Authority.
The Authority claims that the township provided it with the address and information justifying demolition, but what criteria did the property actually meet to justify its destruction? Nobody knows.
Under Washington County law, the demolition program requires the municipality to list the property as slated for demolition, notify the owner, and have the owner sign a release to proceed to flatten their home.
However, Mr. and Mrs. Bernett claimed that they were never asked to sign a release, much less notified of the demolition. In fact, North Franklin Township knew the Bernetts were unaware of the proposed demolition as the notification letter it had issued came back marked “return to sender.” The authority had advertised legal notices regarding demolition projects in a newspaper in North Franklin, but it never listed specific addresses. The Bernetts were aware of the fact that the building had been condemned, but that’s the entire purpose of their business: restoring dilapidated buildings. Furthermore, the township was fully aware that the house was being fixed up, because they had previously signed off on the building permits.
The Bernetts have filed suit against the Washington County Redevelopment Authority and North Franklin Township, alleging a violation of their constitutional rights to equal protection of their property, abuse of process, and negligence on behalf of its allegedly ill-trained code enforcement officer, who apparently mistook a house being fixed up for a house being run down. They are demanding compensatory damages for loss of future tenants and punitive damages for the undue hardship caused by this surprise demolition.
If a municipality is allowed to throw out the rule of law and raze people’s rightfully owned properties that are being rehabilitated—without even notifying them—then property rights are in serious trouble in the Keystone State.
— Phil Applebaum
Phil Applebaum is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice