Elm Street, Blairsville

Elm Street has never been paved by the Borough of Blairsville.

BLAIRSVILLE — For more than a decade, a Walnut Hill woman has been disheartened by the end of municipal care for the tiny street where she lives with her retired father.

Part of a community of streets and properties laid out in the 1950s by Ralph Forsha, J. M. Turner and B. W. Goldfarb, Elm Street runs barely 100 yards and is the address for four homes.

The last house on the left is the one George Barto and his late wife, Suzanne, had built for his family after buying into the LaMantia plan decades ago. The street has never been paved and has never been formally adopted by Blairsville Borough council to be an official street maintained by tax dollars.

For years, town officials did what amounted to a favor for the residents by dumping some truck loads of gravel to assure some integrity of the driving surface.

Beth Barto, whose dad now is retired and physically limited, has waged an ongoing quest for borough officials to renew the road care tradition established in the 1980s by then-Borough Manager Larry Garner.

The favors ended in 2005 and Beth Barto has pleaded for the borough to honor its tradition.

The borough’s position was explained as recently as July, when Solicitor Patrick Dougherty and Council President John Bertolino denied the request as one that would set a costly precedent. They said council would not approve investment in streets the borough doesn’t own.

The borough already does, as Barto sees it.

Barto told the Gazette that the borough has a double standard for maintaining Walnut Hill streets.

Some members of the borough council said Monday they don’t see the discrepancy.

Beth Barto’s appeal to council in July was based on a thick folder full of deeds and other papers from the Indiana County Court House and on copies of borough council meeting minutes of years past that all went to support her argument that LaMantia gave up all the streets on his hill to the borough.

Now Barto sees it a new way. The deeds from the courthouse are inconclusive as to who owns the streets, but she cites the borough’s response to a Right to Know request as proof that the borough actually owns only Point Street, an artery through the development from which Elm Street connects.

Like Elm Street, Barto said, the documents show that Sunset, Hart, Cambria and Holland streets are not borough-owned.

Yet Sunset, Hart, Cambria and Holland are paved and well maintained, Barto said.

“No one owns anything up here, except Point Street, that’s the only one that the borough owns,” Barto said. “I have the minutes. The whole area has not been turned over.”

Councilman David Janusek, elected in 2019 to the board, said he has heard only Barto’s most recent protests but none based on the argument she now makes.

“She wants it maintained but it’s not a borough street ... and you can’t have it both ways,” he said.

“A lot of her complaints were that ‘they did it in the past and they’re not doing it now,’ but that is water over the dam. It doesn’t mean that because we did it before that it was correct.

“But her logic makes sense if it is true. But that’s the first time I’ve heard that logic. And she may be right, I don’t know.”

On the other hand, longtime councilman Ab Dettorre said the borough, through its legal advisers, Robert Bell and Dougherty, has made its case over the years that Elm Street isn’t entitled to public maintenance and that is not about to change.

“I’m not an expert but I did do some research, and I didn’t find what she found,” Dettorre said. “But I trust Pat Dougherty and Bob Bell, who went through the documentation I did and they said the same things I found out.

“I really don’t see any ground to stand on.”

Dettorre said his opinion doesn’t represent the council or borough administration but stands behind the solicitors’ opinions.

“That’s why we hire those guys to do this, and coming back with their conclusions, that’s where we rest our case.”

Barto builds her case with 1980s vintage Polaroid photos from the days when Garner was borough manager, George Sulkosky was president of council, and James Carmella was the borough’s solicitor.

Back in the day, she said, the borough readily granted her father’s requests to have gravel put on Elm Street.

“They put gravel down, clear to the edge of the woods and made it look like a street,” Beth Barto said. Before and after photos show the difference that the borough’s work made.

“I’m sure there have been things done by the borough up there to make sure there’s access for firetrucks, municipal garbage and so forth,” Dettorre said. “But that’s what they found out and that’s what I’m going to go by.”

Barto’s research on the history of the LaMantia Development dates to the 1954 petition from property owners and ordinance of the borough to annex the land from Burrell Township and make it part of Blairsville.

The collection of papers includes minutes of council meetings as long ago as 1979 when borough officials noted that the LaMantia plan streets had not been taken over by the borough.

Notes from Barto’s appeal for council to take care of the street, during the August 2012 council meeting, details Borough Manager Tim Evans’ instruction that the owners of properties on the street would be responsible to pay for paving and installing curbs along the street in order for the borough to accept and maintain it. The borough, he said, would be trespassing if a crew entered the street to spread gravel or do other work.

That transfer of the street to the borough would require a deed of dedication to be filed at the county courthouse, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection advised.

As a courtesy to Elm Street residents, borough officials said, the truck drivers would plow the street after “a significant snowfall” so they would have access to their homes, but plowing wouldn’t routinely be offered for an inch or two of snow.

The collection includes a letter from the county tax assessment office explaining that streets not owned by municipalities are considered “paper” streets or alleys, and that the property lines of the residential lots would be extended to the center of those streets, making the homeowners responsible for the condition of the roads in front of their homes.

Elm Street also is considered an “unopened street” under the Pennsylvania Borough Code, Evans told the Bartos in a March 2012 letter.

With none of those steps having been taken — paving the street by the property owners to meet state funding standards and the filing of a deed of dedication — the Bartos and Blairsville officials agree that the borough does not own Elm Street.

But Beth Barto said she finds contradiction in the borough’s responses to record requests that she filed under the Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, asking for dated copies of deeds of dedication for Point Street, Hart Avenue and Sunset Drive “and any other streets on Walnut Hill” and for copies of ordinances enacted by the borough to accept Walnut Hill streets into the borough maintenance plan.

After a monthlong search, Evans responded that the deeds of dedication do not exist, and provided a copy of Blairsville’s Ordinance No. 289, adopted Sept. 17, 1955, “adopting and ordaining Point Street as a public street.”

“He has no deeds of dedication for any other streets up here, nothing. But he demands one for Elm Street,” Barto said. “If you owned the street, you would have a deed of dedication.

“This whole area has never been turned over. They can prove they own Point Street, that’s the only one.”

Beth Barto said she has been headstrong about her pursuit of maintenance for Elm Street for the sake of her father. A retired coal miner, his mobility isn’t what it once was and he should have a level street free of mud and puddles that he can safely walk, she said.

As a taxpayer, Barto said, her father should be entitled to the same services as other borough homeowners, including a street with integrity.

They are on record with requests for drainage improvement and fresh gravel.

“We never asked for paving,” Beth Barto said. In the 1970s, she said, “they came and put a street sign up, they put the gravel down and extended it up to the woods. The only thing we didn’t get was the drainage.”

The borough owns only Point Street but maintains all the other streets on Walnut Hill, Barto contends.

“He cherry picks this one, for whatever reason. I didn’t ask for a $60,000 street to be built. I asked for two lanes of gravel to be put down and to be plowed and salted.”

Note: This story edited at 10 a.m. April 20 to correct the names of the developers of the Walnut Hill development and to correct the spelling of Suzanne Barto's name.

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.