Road Warriors Traveling Street Leads To Schuylkill Township Discontent

Posted: May 01, 1988

A squabble over a road in Schuylkill Township has all the nasty ingredients of a suburban tale gone sour: anxious township officials, quarreling neighbors and lawyers talking about lawsuits.

Alvin and Barbara Clemens moved to Schuylkill Township in the late 1960s. They were like many other young couples - interested in raising a family away

from the daunting problems of the city, living life their own way, at their own pace.

The only thing not average about the Clemenses was the fact that, relatively speaking, they were very secure financially. So much so that when they moved into their home on Graham Road in 1968 and realized that the roadbed suffered from severe deterioration, they were able to take the initiative to draft new plans and hire an engineer to upgrade and - imagine this - move it.

"When we moved in, there were no neighbors around us, just open space. The original Graham Road had a lot of potholes, and it ran right in front of our steps. You could walk right out of the house, onto the road," said Barbara Clemens.

The idea to build their own road came after they had attended township meetings to petition the Board of Supervisors to improve what was then a public road. When several months went by and there was no response, the Clemenses decided to take the matter into their own hands.

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The Schuylkill supervisors had a laid-back attitude when the Clemenses offered to move Graham Road and privately maintain it. With just a handshake and a verbal promise, Alvin Clemens was allowed to go in and move the road, with the stipulation that he give easements to the owners of four neighboring lots to ensure their access to the roadway.

With the township's blessing, Clemens hired a contractor and paid about $10,000 to have the straight road remade into a winding S-shaped, 12-foot-wide lane. In the next five years, Clemens bought several adjoining lots in addition to his original tract, where he had a home and a small stable.

The quarter-mile-long road, which is off Tinkerhill Road near the Schuylkill border with Charlestown, dead-ends one house away from the Clemens property.

"At that time, we bought all the lots around us. After we decided to move the road, my husband went to the supervisors with a picture of the new road. Then we were told to get the permission of the surrounding property owners. We did that, and everything was fine for years," said Barbara Clemens.

In 1979, Bill and Karen Flagg moved into the township, seeking their own piece of the good life. They bought a 100-acre farm and 40 head of cattle, started a family and began making friends in the community. Soon after they purchased two more lots totaling five acres on Graham Road, they found that their neighbors, the Clemenses, had moved the roadway. But it wasn't until the Flaggs heard that the Clemenses' 18-acre property was up for sale that they became alarmed enough about the matter to decide to do something.

In early 1987, Bill Flagg hired an attorney and started attending township meetings. Fearing a loss of control, Flagg asked the supervisors to move Graham Road to its old position. He gave two reasons: one, fear that the next owner of the Clemens tract would not honor the informal easements made years ago and, two, to cement the legal position of his own lots, which he feared were somehow illegal since they had frontage on what could be considered someone's driveway.

"I had been down Graham Road in the past, and I just assumed it was a public road," said Supervisor G. Edward Heit. "Then, all of a sudden, Bill Flagg comes into a township meeting last February (1987) and shows us how the road had been changed from the official deed."

What ensued were months of negotiations as the supervisors told the Clemenses that they had to work out some agreement with their neighbors - Angie Libertore, Helen Schaetzle and the Flaggs.

By last winter, all the parties agreed to let the S-shaped road stay as it was. The Flaggs got the Clemenses to agree to three concessions: ask the township to take the road over as a public accessway, relinquish an easement that had allowed access over one of the Flaggs' lots and draft a right of first refusal on the lots that the Clemenses owned along Graham Road. That last concession would allow the Flaggs, who are weary of development, the chance to match the offer of any future buyer. The estate of Schaetzle, who died in January, received a perpetual easement in case her estate ever wanted access rights onto the road. Libertore asked for no concessions.

But at a Planning Commission meeting on April 20, the issue appeared to be far from over.

"This is ridiculous - someone arbitrarily moving a public road," said

commission member Earlen Snyder, staring at the plan in front of him.

"I don't want to insult the intelligence of anyone on this commission, but we're actually being asked to review a plan with a 12-foot (wide) road - I don't even approve 30-foot-wide roads."

With four of the five supervisors informally in attendance, Snyder angrily confronted them - and received four solemn affirmatives. The supervisors indeed had voted 5-0 at their April 6 meeting to accept Graham Road, winding though it has become and narrow as it is.

With their vote, the supervisors had tossed the ball into the Planning

Commission's court with instructions that the commission members review the road and subdivision plans, offer a recommendation and then send the plan back to the supervisors for a final vote.

It became apparent at the late April meeting that the Clemenses' road had created zoning problems. The road's new location has caused two lots - one owned by the Clemenses, the other by the Flaggs - to fall short of the township's 200-foot frontage requirement, a fact that did not sit well with several commission members and supervisors.

"I feel a little misled," Heit said after the meeting. "I voted for the road earlier this month under the assumption that all the lots were to be redesigned to meet zoning requirements."

"As I understand it, all you're supposed to do tonight is give your recommendation on the subdivision, being that the road is a given," James R. Freeman, the Flaggs' attorney, told the commission.

The commission voted 4-0 to have the township engineer, SMC Martin, review the subdivision plans. The commission is being asked to give the plans de facto approval, since the roadway was built about 18 years ago.

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