Harrisburg appeals board upholds condemnation notice against McFarland building

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HARRISBURG, Pa. - An appeals board upheld a condemnation order against the McFarland building, which was impacted by two collapses of a wall adjacent to the Mulberry Street bridge.

Attorneys for the building and the city argued before the Building and Housing Code Board of Appeals for about an hour Thursday, but it maybe took a few minutes of deliberation by that board to unanimously uphold the order by a 4-0 vote.

Undeterred by the ruling, attorneys for the McFarland acknowledged this is the first step in what is expected to be a long process to figure out who is ultimately liable for clean-up at the site.

"The board had a very limited mandate tonight to decide whether or not the condemnation order was properly issued," Adam Klein, the lead attorney for the property owners, said. "We disagree that this is something that's in danger to the health and public safety, but the board made their decision and we'll certainly respect that."

Much of the hearing was narrative testimony from assistant codes administrator Art Emerick, who rehashed all of the events dealing with this situation since the wall collapsed the first time on May 5th.

One intriguing exchange happened during cross-examination of Emerick by Klein, who asked Emerick point blank if he thought PennDOT, which completed work on the bridge and the wall in 2015, was to blame for the collapse. City Solicitor Neal Grover objected and the board sustained the objection, keeping Emerick from answering the question. It tipped the hand of who McFarland believes should be ultimately held liable.

"After PennDOT's massive work on the wall, removing lateral supports, jackhammering, curing concrete, thousands of gallons of water, all of a sudden it collapses, we believe that once we get the appropriate time to do more formal investigation, it'll be clear that PennDOT is responsible for this collapse," Klein said after the hearing.

PennDOT has repeatedly denied any liability in the matter, citing an internal investigation that claims the department committed no wrongdoing.

Howard Henry, the tire shop owner who was forced to shut down his business earlier this month in the aftermath of the wall collapse, says he has unsuccessfully attempted to bring all the involved parties to the table.

"Everybody's run [sic] from the wall, but nobody's come to the table to say hey, what does that mean?" Henry said. "We have multiple parties involved, but no one is saying let's just sit down and talk about what does it mean that the wall fell?"

Klein stated in the hearing that no clean-up activity at the site has happened because the property owners are concerned that would affect the outcome of an insurance claim made by the owners, and it is unlikely any clean-up activity will take place anytime soon.

"We just don't have the funds to do that," Klein said. "We just don't have the funds to clean up this project, which is going to be a multi-million dollar cleanup."

Klein said he would not commit to appealing the order further, but it is believed the property owners will take this to Dauphin County court in the next few days.

The appeals board will present its findings in writing to the McFarland owners within 30 days and from that point, the owners would have a set amount of time to comply with the condemnation notice unless they appeal.