Bellefonte group taking effort to save Garman Theatre to state court after county judge denies injunction

mdawson@centredaily.comOctober 11, 2013 

— A Bellefonte historical group will take its fight to stop the demolition of the historic Garman Theatre to Harrisburg after a Centre County judge denied on Friday its latest last-gasp attempt to save the burned, mold-filled building.

The Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association lost a bid for an injunction to stop a State College developer from pushing forward with plans to buy and raze the theater, turning the property into an apartment complex.

The group was also denied legal standing in the case, which is guiding the proposed property transfer from the Bellefonte Area Industrial Development Authority to the developer, Ara Kervandjian.

President Judge Thomas King Kistler denied the requests after a 30-minute hearing with oral arguments from lawyers from the historical association, the developer and the industrial development authority. Kistler said in his ruling that the historical association could have attempted to intervene much earlier, and because it is not a party, the group cannot ask for an injunction.

Immediately after the hearing, historical association lawyer Bruce Manchester filed a written notice in Centre County Court that his group is appealing the decision to the state Commonwealth Court.

The Garman building was damaged in a fire that destroyed the adjoining Hotel DoDe last September.

The hearing Friday was the latest in the complex, ever-developing court battle. The fight over the Garman again has made historical building preservation a hot-button issue in the county seat, which witnessed fires destroy the Bush House and the Bellefonte Academy in the past nine years and outcry over the razing of the Brockerhoff Mansion more than 50 years ago.

The hearing brought out a robust crowd of about two dozen townspeople, many of whom are historical association members, such as Keith Koch, Nancy Noll, and Dick and Joann Knupp. Bellefonte officials were there, too, such as Manager Ralph Stewart and Borough Council President Frank Halderman.

Manchester, unafraid of letting loose a zinger or two, said the process being used to transfer the property is akin to eminent domain. He accused municipal and authority officials of using the blighted property act to nix the liens against the Garman property and the historic covenant that restricted its use and even whether it could be torn down.

“They have literally picked up their bags,” Manchester told the judge, “and they just have decided to sit and watch when it comes down.”

Manchester and the other lawyers were worlds apart on other issues, too.

Rod Beard, the lawyer for the development authority, sounded frustrated with the delays in the process the historical association’s court requests have caused.

He said the association cannot have standing in the matter because it does not have a “direct and immediate interest,” or anything to lose or gain, such as money. He said the members may lose sleep over the Garman’s demolition, but that’s not enough to qualify under the law.

“I would contest that if the BHCA wanted to petition for appointment for themselves as conservator, they don’t have a direct and immediate interest in this property,” Beard said.

Terry Williams, the lawyer for the developer, clashed with Manchester over the role of the judge. Williams said the judge is there to see if the law is followed, but Manchester disagreed, saying the judge is not limited to “rubber-stamping” the process.

Williams also said the judge already denied on Sept. 13 the historical association’s request to get legal standing in the proceeding.

You don’t get multiple bites at the apple,” Williams said. “The court has already decided this issue.”

The Garman Theatre closed in October 2008, and it was vacant and in foreclosure when it was severely damaged by the fire at the adjoining Hotel Do De.

Borough Council condemned the property earlier this year and appointed the industrial development authority as the “conservator,” or the group tasked with fixing the blighted property. To fix the blighted state of the property, the authority chose a plan from developer Ara Kervandjian, who has said he would turn the Garman site into a workforce housing apartment complex.

The historical association gave two presentations to the authority about its plans to renovate the theater into a regional arts center, but each time, the authority’s members did not choose that option.

Manchester had argued that not all provisions under the Abandoned and Blighted Properties Conservatorship Act were met because the developer does not have all of his funding in place. Kervandjian is seeking Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency tax credits to complete the project.

The group also has maintained that there is a restrictive covenant on the building, saying it should not be knocked down if it’s structurally sound and that the industrial development authority should not have been named conservator of the property.

Kervandjian is seeking a demolition permit through Bellefonte’s Historical Architecture Review Board. Earlier this week, the board delayed Kervandjian’s permit approval, saying it needed to see engineering plans and other documentation, such as how the adjoining buildings would be stabilized during the demolition process.

The next review board meeting is at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 22.

Kervandjian offered tours of the Garman last week in the hope of showing the challenges that remain if the Garman were to be restored.

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