GRACETON — Embattled township Supervisor John Bertolino has no plan to tear down a garage built two years ago on the alley behind his home, and wants a court to decide on the controversy surrounding the structure.
Monday is the deadline set by a Center Township ordinance enforcement officer for Bertolino to dismantle the combination garage/office that officials say was built without a construction permit and in violation of a rule that requires at least 5 feet of space between a building and the property line. A survey found that the garage extends more than 14 feet across the rear boundary of Bertolino’s property onto Cherry Alley.
“We’ll let the township take the next step,” Bertolino said Thursday following the board of supervisors’ biweekly public business meeting. “We’re ready to present our case when we go to the magistrate, because that will be the next thing. But I’ll wait until they make the next move.”
Bertolino and his colleagues on the board, supervisors David “Butch” Smyers and James Gatskie, have been at odds over whether the structure violates the setback rule.
It first went up in 2016 as a carport, open on three sides, intended as shelter for a boat. Bertolino said his son later sold the boat and paid the cost to enclose the structure as a winter storage for his car.
Smyers and Gatskie investigated after township residents James Elliott Sr., of Red Barn, and James Elliott Jr., of Lucernemines, claimed that Bertolino built it on a public right of way.
Bertolino has maintained that Cherry Alley, although shown on the housing development site plans as a street, actually has never been adopted and maintained by Center Township. Therefore, he said, as privately held land, the alley is open for neighboring property owners to use as they see fit.
As the Elliotts repeated their protests last year, the supervisors requested and Bertolino filed applications for a building permit and a variance on the setback requirement. Smyers and Gatskie in February formally denied both.
For several months and again Thursday, Bertolino has declined to say more in defense of the garage, on the advice of an attorney, who he would not identify.
While the garage has generated discord, the Elliotts also protested Bertolino’s use of township workers and supplies to install a drainage system along Cherry Avenue to redirect stormwater runoff away from several neighboring homes.
The Elliotts filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission charging that Bertolino used township resources to his own benefit.
On Friday, Executive Director Robert Caruso ruled that he found insufficient evidence to uphold a charge of an ethics violation.
Thursday, Bertolino reiterated that the drainage work served three properties across Cherry Avenue from his own property, did not benefit him, had no impact on the site where he built the garage, and followed a longtime township precedent of making improvements on private land to serve local home owners.
“At least 12 years, for as long as I’ve been on the board,” Bertolino said. “When I met with the guys from the Ethics Commission, I had eight photographs of eight different projects that were done in the township where we actually had to dig on private property to disperse water.”
One of the projects, performed in Lucernemines, benefited Elliott Jr.’s property, he said.
Neither Smyers nor Gatskie mentioned the impending deadline during the meeting, but the nature of the ongoing debate over the garage came up after the supervisors approved the payroll and bills, the only order of official business on the agenda.
The Elliotts asked the supervisors to censure a township resident who they said disparaged them in comments during the board’s town hall meeting on Monday.
The shouting matches and heated exchanges the Elliotts and Bertolino have had since early 2018 have never been disrespectful, the younger Elliott said, but being called “losers” by a township resident was a sign of disrespect that deserved the supervisors’ response.
“When I say something wrong, (you) correct me, but when she says something wrong, you guys don’t say (expletive) about it.”
Smyers said he didn’t hear the remark that Elliott described, but agreed that tempers need to be controlled.
“These meetings are getting too … and something has to be done,” Smyers said, competing to be heard over Elliott Sr. shouting at the same time.
Elliott Jr. threatened to sue the resident for slander.
“We do need to calm these meetings down. … I’ve seen a lot of disrespect at these meetings, and I’m fed up with it,” Smyers said. “We’re going to settle these down.”