West Newton in a bind over sale of historic Plumer House
West Newton officials said Wednesday they will consider their options for resolving a dilemma over the borough’s failure to get state approval in 2011 before selling a historic 19th century house bought in 1968 with a state grant that was to be used for historic preservation purposes.
To resolve the problem of the borough’s unauthorized sale of the John C. Plumer House to the Mon Valley Initiative, officials of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources offered the borough the option of repaying the $1,250 state grant plus interest; finding another site for recreation or historic value; or establishing a recreation fund similar to the value of the Plumer House.
The borough ran afoul of deed restrictions on the property because the Mon Valley Initiative, a Homestead-based economic development organization, was not eligible to benefit from the Project 70 grant the borough received in 1968, according to Ashley D. Rebert, chief of the department’s land conservation and stewardship section.
Council President George Molovich said he had not decided what is the best option for the borough, but wanted to meet with the Mon Valley Initiative to discuss the matter. Councilman David Tamasy said that the economic development group also wants that discussion.
The Mon Valley Initiative does not have a clear title to the property because of the deed restrictions, said Charles Wade, borough solicitor.
“They should have known it from the beginning” of the sale process, Wade said. The borough sold the property for a token $1.
The borough could “swap” a piece of property that had similar historic, conservation or recreational value for the Plumer House, which would clear the way for the sale to the Mon Valley Initiative. That option, would require approval from the state General Assembly, Rebert said.
State and borough officials toured the former West Newton High School gym on Vine Street as property that might be eligible for the swap. If that is used in a swap, its purpose would be restricted to recreation.
But looking at the tin ceiling of the old gymnasium, Wade cautioned that the borough could be getting into more expense, because the town would be required to maintain the building if it is swapped for the Plumer House.
Although the refurbished Simeral Square on North Water Street is used for recreation, it would not be eligible because state funds were used in the development of that site.
The borough purchased the Plumer House from the Historical Society of West Newton in February 1968 and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Borough officials said they do not know the value of the vacant house.
West Newton could regain ownership of the house by repaying the state the $1,250 grant, plus 47 years worth of interest since February 1968. The interest alone might raise the price by $18,000, state officials have informed the borough. The interest continues to be compounded quarterly during the past 47 years at a rate of 8 to 10 percent, said Steve Squibb, a state consultant.
West Newton could have the building appraised and then create a “recreational fund” equal to the appraised value of the Plumer House, which sits on four acres overlooking the Youghiogheny River. That would pave the way for the sale of the building, while requiring the money from the fund to be spent only for recreation.
The state would permit West Newton to build that recreational fund over a period of years to the level of the appraised value of the Plumer House.
The state agency became involved in the issue in January 2012 when a property title insurance company working for Mon Valley Initiative asked the state about the restrictions on the sale of the property.
Rebert said following the one-hour meeting she was pleased with the progress that was made in discussing the options available to the borough. The state had notified the borough in an April 16 letter that it wanted the borough to develop a plan within two months on how to resolve the problem.
“We want to help them through this,” Rebert said.
Patrick Shattuck, senior real estate development director for the Mon Valley Initiative, did not attend the meeting, but said the organization’s position has not changed. Shattuck said last month the organization had offered to pay $18,000 for the building, plus the value of its remodeling and renovations, which had been estimated at close to $30,000.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or [email protected]. Bill Zirkle is a Trib Total Media editor. He can he reached at 724-872-6800 or [email protected]