A developer's nine-year attempt to construct housing on a strip of green space in Roxborough has devolved into a court battle over how much the city may have to pay for the land and his failed efforts to build on it.
Greg Ventresca, of the Keystone Companies Group, bought an eight-acre parcel near the Ivy Ridge SEPTA station in 2005 for $500,000. He is now asking the city to pay $2.5 million to cover the value of the land and his company's costs in trying to develop the property.
A Commonwealth Court judge has ruled that Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones's actions to prevent the construction of homes amounted to the city's taking of the property.
"I have never seen a situation so bizarre and blatant as this," Ventresca's attorney, Anthony Twardowski, said this week. "The efforts on the part of the city through the Councilman to thwart this development is just something I've never encountered before."
When Ventresca purchased the land in 2005 — adjacent to a section of Fairmount Park called Germany Hill by some neighbors — it was zoned residential and his plan for 48 houses at the site was approved by the City Planning Commission. No variances or exceptions were required to build there. Access to water and sewer lines already existed on the land.
The Ridge Park Civic Association, however, "didn't want anything to happen there because it was a considered a park," Ventresca said.
"But it's not a park," Ventresca said. "It's being used for beer parties and riding all-terrain vehicles. There are smoldering fire pits with beer cups and drug paraphernalia. To say it is a park is inaccurate."
Ventresca said he tried to meet with Jones and the Civic Association numerous times to "find a reasonable solution."
Jones would not introduce an ordinance to extend and pave Cinnaminson Street, the one street that ran to the parcel, "which is all that was needed to get the development to happen," Ventresca said.
Instead, Jones introduced an ordinance to strike Cinnaminson Street from the city map, thereby preventing access to any future development there.
Jones had no comment about his actions regarding the site because of pending litigation, according to spokespersons for his office.
In a deposition taken as part of the lawsuit, Jones testified that he introduced the ordinance to strike the street from the map in an attempt to stimulate further discussions for compromise between the developer and the community.
Ventresca said attempts to reach a compromise with the civic group and Jones were fruitless.
"The feedback we got was, 'Go away,' or no response whatsoever," he said.
Patti Brennan, president of the Ridge Park Civic Association, said there were meetings with Ventresca during which he initially proposed the housing development. There was support for the housing proposal, but mainly from residents who did not live near the site, she said.
She said the civic association "does not take a stand one way or another" on a proposal, and has approved other housing developments.
"We go with what the immediate neighbors want," Brennan explained.
As to the tract known as Germany Hill, there is "a long history of people believing the entire area was parkland," Brennan said.
"The consensus has been to keep it open space. The neighbors didn't know that part of it was privately owned," she continued. "Historically, the residents have been against [any development there] but I can't speak for the future."
Said Ventresca, "If they truly want that piece of land to be a park, [the city] will have to pay fair market value for it."
In her May ruling, Judge Ellen Ceisler agreed that Ventresca had proved that a "de facto taking of petitioners' property has occurred."
Ceisler wrote that Ventresca has proven that the city and City Council have "taken extraordinary and unique measures to suppress and interfere with the development of petitioner's private property."
The city's actions "constituted an exercise of its eminent domain power," which rendered Ventresca's property "virtually useless and has completely precluded the highest and best use of the property," according to Ceisler.
Ceisler also appointed a Board of View to assess the damages and determine "just compensation for the property in question."
The city has appealed the ruling and Ceisler will respond, probably in the fall, Twardowski said. Arguments will then be held before the court sometime in 2015.
"It's all been very frustrating," Ventresca said. "We pride ourselves on coming up with workable development solutions. We understand the need for conscientious development. But when you have a civic group and a councilman who tell you to go away and don't want to work with you, it's very frustrating."