HARRISBURG — A state appeals court has affirmed an earlier ruling splitting the ownership of two contested properties between the city of Chester and a local couple who have been operating a business on the properties for more than 60 years.
The Commonwealth Court ruled June 27 in the case of scrapyard owners Bernard and Sandra Zalman, who have operated a business on the properties since 1956. The Zalmans and the city of Chester have each been seeking full ownership of both properties, which are one block away from Talen Energy Stadium, the home of the Philadelphia Union Major League Soccer team.
The properties are on the northwest and southwest sides of the intersection of Yarnall Street and West Front Street.
The Zalmans and the city appealed a Nov. 9, 2015, trial court ruling by Judge Spiro E. Angelos from the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, which awarded ownership of the property running along West Front Street to the city, and ownership of the property adjoining the western half of Yarnall Street and stretching south from the intersection of Yarnall Street and West Front Street to the Zalmans.
What ultimately determined the decision concerned whether the properties were once opened to public use (and if so, when?), and to what extent an 1889 state law passed to differentiate between public and private land in urban settings applied.
According to that law, there is a 21-year statute of limitations for properties that have been in private possession and have not been assigned a public use by a city. Afterward, the statute of limitations expires, and a city may not claim or use the properties without compensating the private owner, unless permission is granted by the owner.
Any land that was open to public use before the passage of the Act of 1889, however, was exempt from the statute of limitations imposed in that law.
A three-judge appeals panel from the Commonwealth Court, in an opinion by Senior Judge James Gardner Colins, upheld the trial court ruling that the property running along West Front Street “was dedicated, accepted and opened to public use prior to the Act of 1889,” and therefore belonged to the city of Chester.
The panel found that the Zalmans “failed to demonstrate clear title to the subject portion of West Front Street.”
On the other hand, both the trial court and the appeals panel concluded that even though the property abutting and to the south of Yarnall Street had not been officially vacated by the city, it was subject to the 21-year statute of limitations in the Act of 1889, since it barricaded and passed an ordinance closing that part of the street to vehicular traffic on Dec. 14, 1983.
The panel ruled that this closing amounted to “a de facto vacation of the street by municipal will” after 21 years, and the property then reverted to the Zalmans’ ownership.