Jenkintown Council and the Big Lie of property boundaries

Jenkintown Council, property boundaries, and the dangers of assumptions

Who owns what? No one knows.

That’s the question we keep coming back to in our ongoing campaign to change the sidewalk ordinance. As we have found at the outset of this campaign, the Borough, and especially Rick Bunker, Sean Kilkenny, and Michael Golden continue to believe that the current ordinance is completely justified because the homeowner also owns the land underneath the sidewalk.

Borough Solicitor Sean Kilkenny, at the Council meeting where we first brought this up, stated quite confidently that “It’s an easement.”

Council Vice-President Rick Bunker replied to an earlier posting saying that according to a lawyer friend of his, our property lines are determined by the markers.

In a one-on-one discussion, Michael Golden stated in a matter-of-fact manner, “But the Borough doesn’t own that land.”

The fact is, none of our public servants really know. Everyone keeps repeating some misinformation they received from those that preceded them or from those they assume should know.

The fact is this: The county does not archive residential site plans. Your deed does indeed have coordinates that a surveyor will use to determine your exact property boundaries, but it’s likely you have never employed one. Despite the fact that your bank will loan you hundreds of thousands of dollars for your home purchase, it will not require a site plan as part of the transaction. You may not own what you think you own. Surveyors all have a story that attests to this.

In an effort to get to the truth, I filed a Right to Know request with both the borough and the county, asking for any documentation that proves Mr. Kilkenny’s assertion. The Borough said they had no such documentation, and the county directed me to their public records website. I had already researched this site and paid a visit to their office where I found only tax maps that show the borough considered three feet of my front yard beyond the sidewalk as a public right of way. Why Mr. Kilkenny thinks there’s an easement, we don’t know. Please show us the proof.

Our property is indeed delineated by markers placed just on my side of the sidewalk. Beyond those markers, we assume belongs to the borough.

We bring this up again, because at public hearings, we’ve heard Mr. Bunker repeat what sounds now like a Big Lie. At the corner of Walnut and Runnymede, PennDOT has replaced or repaired a traffic signal which required work done to the sidewalk. In the discussion about its status, Mr. Bunker asserted that the owner owns that sidewalk, after all. How does he know that?

We appreciate the fact that a re-survey of every residential parcels in this or any town would prove prohibitively expensive, but it would cost nothing for our public officials to stop spreading misinformation.

Lock Haven provides for hardship

It’s still bad policy, but at least the City of Lock Haven makes provisions for hardship within their sidewalk maintenance ordinances. In Jenkintown Borough, it’s pay up or go to jail.

Grants for sidewalk  repairs are available to qualifying low income single family, owner-occupied homeowners funded the city’s Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program.  Should the cost of the sidewalk repair exceed the grant amount, the homeowner may be eligible to receive a city-funded loan.  More info (click here).

Source: Sidewalk Replacement Program – City of Lock Haven, PA

Easement or Appeasement?

At Monday’s Borough Council meeting, the board respectfully listened to me read my statement, and at the end of it, I received a great deal of sympathy, but as I expected, I received no relief. I’d be a fool to think otherwise.

property marker
Property marker I uncovered that lies just before the edge of the sidewalk.

Unfortunately, I also received some interesting misinformation. I don’t believe that anyone came out and lied to me, but I do believe that because no one has actually challenged this policy in living memory, that our volunteer governing board, our borough solicitor, and borough manager find comfort in their own inertia.

First of all, Councilor Bunker informed me that he believed a local realtor had established a fund to help people in my situation. This realtor, Andrew Smith, informed me that he knew that councilors were spreading this information, but that it was false. Mr. Smith established the fund to help spruce up distressed properties adjacent to those he hoped to sell in order to improve prospects for sale and increase its value.

property markings
The green lines were added for clarity. This image does not show my property, but it is nearby. The markings along the entire length of my street are consistent with what is depicted here.

Secondly, after much discussion and expressions of sympathy for my plight, borough solicitor Sean Kilkenny insisted that the sidewalks were indeed my property (an assertion agreed upon by several councilors), and that the sidewalks were easements. This belies the existence of the property marker I uncovered one inch before the edge of the sidewalk (top), and the map issued by Montgomery County (above).

So which is it? Not that this necessarily has any legal bearing over my responsibilities, but if our own officials have no clue how this works, how much can we trust them with other important matters that affect our town?

Finally, my councilor Laurie Durkin explained that everything the borough does is consistent with the “international code of …” As I wasn’t taking notes, I didn’t remember what she said, but on Wednesday I wrote her asking if she could clarify. I continue to await a response.

By the way, Ms. Durkin and Councilor Justin Mixon both apologized for not responding to my original letters. Despite the fact that they come to the borough office at least twice a month, no one saw fit to inform them that they had actual mail from one of their constituents nor did they seem to ask.

Pennsylvania law and its sidewalks: It’s all about the liability

I would like to thank the mayor of Jenkintown Ed Foley for sending me a document that pertains to this commonwealth’s policy on sidewalk repair.

Make no mistake folks: This goes back decades, and it does seem to have everything to do with shifting liability from municipalities to its citizens property owners. You trip over a crack on the walkway in front of my house, I have to pay your hospital bills. This isn’t how it goes in my home state of Massachusetts. As I understand it, if I do not properly clear my walkway after, say, a snow storm, or I leave something in the path, I assume the liability. The property owner is responsible for keeping the pathway clear. However, if the walkway crumbles, and you step in a hole, the city is liable. And what do you know? The same principle applies to the roads.

But not in Pennsylvania.

See the following passage in this document:

Screenshot 2015-05-05 17.49.27

As I preface many conversations, I’m not a lawyer, but this law seems to allow towns to place responsibility upon property owners, but it does not require it. If Jenkintown wants to pay for its sidewalks, I’m not yet seeing anything that precludes it from doing so.

Can anyone confirm or correct me?