The fate of the troubled Headquarters Road bridge — closed now for well over 10 years — remains a highly contentious and litigious thorn in the side of Tinicum Township residents.
Member Eleanor Breslin announced the potential for additional delays of up to five to six years. “Given that, what is best for the Community? It seems clear PennDOT will not agree to rehabilitate the existing bridge structure,” which is now in a serious state of decay. “The bottom line is we can sit on the sidelines or we can work to open up this road.”
Chairman Richard Rosamilia called for a new fact-finding meeting between the Board of Supervisors, PennDOT, a consulting engineer and several residents with a next step goal of submitting a preliminary bridge plan to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
More immediate concerns were voiced about delays in fire department and ambulance responses because forced detours on treacherous roads. One resident complained, “we should not be politicizing a public safety issue.”
It was made painfully clear throughout the evening's fervent discussions that Tinicum Township residents hold severe frustration as their common thread. They want a functioning bridge put in place after too many years of empty promises.
A protracted, privately-funded suit via the ‘Delaware Riverkeepers’ (a 40-year-old nonprofit working to protect the Delaware River Watershed) has failed and is now being appealed to the state level regarding DEP permits.
The potential for the Township to take on ownership of the bridge, at a projected cost of $2 million-$4 million, was floated. Some said it may well be the only expedited choice, as PennDOT has indicated it may be amenable to an ownership option.
Rosamilia again brought up the need for a DEP design plan, to enroll them in the process and to see where they stand on a viable solution. “Before we engage in ownership conversations and the fundraising efforts involved, we first need to better understand if there is a process for rehabilitation.”
Vice Chair Helms stated, “We also must better understand the permitting process by enrolling a design firm for preliminaries.” Rosamilia stated that “we have not told PennDOT to stop info-gathering,” reiterating his feeling that the next step is to submit a preliminary plan to the DEP.
Breslin then raised another option. “We have on our radar some competitive Federal grant money for cost-share bridge improvements that is made available annually. That could make the $2 million-$4 million bridge purchase option less daunting,” even though the grant would not cover annual bridge maintenance.
As the application submission process is highly complex, “for 2023, we could submit a highly competitive grant proposal.” Township Manger Teri Lewis has been in touch with a grant coordinator in Washington DC. and will further inquire about the process.
The conversation around the bridge took a hostile turn when several Tinicum residents rose to make comments.
Tinicum resident Steve Gidumal spoke at length of several fresh lawsuits he has filed on the local and state level.
He said it is unclear whether PennDOT can prove ownership of this bridge. He has filed a claim of fraudulence because of PennDOT’s failure to record the easement on his deed within 120 days after he closed on his property. “If there is no owner, it is abandoned property, substantially situated on my land, and I own it. I will rehabilitate it as a one-lane bridge.... We will sue every one of the entities who have acted fraudulently. The only one who has clean hands in this is me.”
Rosamilia responded, “You may win, you may not. We have heard your position on the matter.”
Gidumal’s references to the comments of “hill people” living in the area did not sit well with many residents. The conversation heated up when one resident stated, “ I am shocked that a Township can be held hostage by just one resident. Why do we have to accept that Steve Gidumal can file one lawsuit after another?”
Another resident then quipped to the Board that he deeply resented Gidumal’s moving to Tinicum and that “he just needs to slither away.” This comment forced a near-physical confrontation in the audience with both men angrily standing face to face. Additional comments became heated enough that a police officer arrived later and remained in the back of the meeting room.
Gidumal responded, “Until a judge has a hearing, no one has the right to take this situation to the next level. That’s why it takes so long. With appeals, time adds up.”
Among others, community member Cindi Gasparre expressed her concern that “not once, but twice” she sat in close proximity to the threat of violence. “I felt like the Board allowed this to spiral out of control. Before the police arrived, it felt as if the growing provocation was allowed to fester.”
Vice Chair Helms attempted to refocus the debate. “Our only option is to try to find something other than the courts to solve this issue.”
Rosamilia reminded the attendees that there was a promising temporary bridge solution that had been promisingly presented to PennDOT back in 2014. But, stated Rosamilia, "they applied a ridiculous burden” to any quick relief. Member Breslin also recalled ”…in 2014, PennDOT had promised a resolution within 60 days…”
At the end of the contentious debate, Resident Damon Ahearn suggested, in light of the additional 5- to 6-year delay, that “we return to the original plan for a safe, temporary bridge with a five-ton weight limit and restricted access. We know PennDOT will not go for a rehabilitated bridge, as they have always wanted a new two-lane bridge. But, there is latitude here if the Township will step up.”
In other business, protocols used to create recommendations for a Sherman Road speed limit came under scrutiny. Some residents took issue with the findings of an LTAP report on the road, saying “we don’t know what they submitted.” (LTAP is PennDOT’s Local Technical Assistance Program, created “to share transportation knowledge, improve road maintenance and safety skills, and put research and technology into practice at the municipal level”.)
Rosamilia questioned whether LTAP even has the authority to do this type of study. “We need a consultant to make an initial study and an engineer to confirm it.”
At issue, as a township road, is whether Sherman Road qualifies as a residential district. If so, the Township can set a speed limit without the need for a study.
After having spent time researching present roads through a different set of criteria, resident Luke Sorenson stated he had submitted his own report which challenges the LTAP.
“These roads were designed well before the advent of automobiles. We are not designing a new road here, but if we did we would take what is currently safe into consideration — a common sense approach.”
Potential violations of zoning ordinance regulations at Tretton Farmstead raised the possibility of the Board filing an injunction against the facility.
The Board of Supervisors had been informed Tretton Farmstead would be holding a wedding party for a family friend on Aug. 27, a non-commercial event. However, many questions remain around the proper use of the property.
Member Breslin stated “we cannot tolerate a residence or a commercial business operating without a Certificate of Occupancy! We need to ensure there is full compliance with all requirements of the Land Development Planning Commission, that proper inspections are completed and documented, and, enforcing strict adherence to building capacity.”
Township Solicitor Steve Harris commented,” The zoning position with Tretton Farmstead has been fraught throughout this process. We may need to see if the Board of Supervisor’s agreement is null and void. I am anxious to see what a review of ordinance compliance reveals.”