Daniel Rubin: Told house must go, couple feel blindsided by Pa. Turnpike plan

"It's not a house. It's a home," says Jerry Davis, outside with wife Anna and their 6-year-old grandson, Jordan. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission wants to use the couple's Tredyffrin Township property for a runoff basin.
"It's not a house. It's a home," says Jerry Davis, outside with wife Anna and their 6-year-old grandson, Jordan. The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission wants to use the couple's Tredyffrin Township property for a runoff basin.
Posted: February 08, 2009

Jerry Davis knew the phone call meant trouble because his wife had motioned him to set their grandson down in front of the television and stand by her side.

A retired teacher, Anna Davis never parked 6-year-old Jordan by the TV. Tears welled in her eyes. Jerry thought the worst.

"Total acquisition?" he heard her repeat.

It wasn't a death in the family. It just felt like one.

The man from the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission was on the phone: He'd like their house.

The caller, a project manager, was inviting the retired couple to a meeting where they could see the commission's plans to widen six miles of I-76 from the Valley Forge interchange to where it passes over Route 29.

The good part is that the busiest stretch of four-lane turnpike from here to Ohio will become six lanes with a bigger, safer median.

The bad part is that the resulting storm-water runoff will require a large catch basin, and the commission wants to build it where the Davises' house sits.

"It's not a house. It's a home," Jerry says.

When you move next to a superhighway, you broker a certain peace with your neighbor. That peace didn't come at once. The first night, 25 years ago, the Davises thought trucks were rolling through their bedroom.

A few nights later they got their first good sleep. They had slept soundly ever since.

Until that Jan. 23 phone call.

Different futures

The house was supposed to be their reward. They had everything lined up perfectly.

Jerry retired last year from Sunoco, where he was chief spokesman for the region. Anna had taught special education.

They planned to spend their retirement caring for their two grandkids. Their daughter lives six minutes away, their son 10. Every weekday they provide a before- and after-school program for Jordan. Their basement looks like a kindergarten, with tiny, colorful chairs and tables, shelves stocked with children's books.

Now that's all threatened. Anna took the news by curling up into the fetal position. Jerry says he's grieving - when he's not angry. That anger comes, he says, from the way the news was delivered.

A few weeks ago when they received a postcard informing them of a meeting at the Tredyffrin Township building, they thought the meeting was to show where the Turnpike Commission would erect a sound barrier between the highway and homes. They weren't even sure they'd go.

How could the meeting have been that important, Jerry asks, if the postcard was addressed to the couple "or current resident"?

"People may remember what you tell them. They may remember what you do to them," he says, recalling a career in corporate PR. "But they will always remember how you made them feel."

A ripple effect

Turnpike people say they feel bad, too. Spokesman Carl DeFebo says acquisitions are never easy, and this project brings its own measure of pain. The plan would take houses from seven owners and claim bits of more than 90 other properties.

It made the most sense to put a basin on the land occupied by the Davises and their neighbors, the Clarks, so water can flow into a creek behind their houses.

Jerry says he doesn't understand how man can go to the moon yet not figure out how to avoid taking people's homes.

He stood up at the meeting on Jan. 27 and asked the turnpike people to look him in the eye and tell him his land was the only place the runoff could go.

Project engineer Kevin Scheurich says that's so. Township engineer Stephen Burgo asks why the water couldn't travel by pipe alongside the highway and be distributed somewhere else. "There's always another way," he says.

The turnpike plan will not be finalized for more than a year, but officials hope to finish the job by 2011. They have some work to do satisfying township officials. Says Supervisor John DiBuonaventuro, "It is for me a nonstarter."

Meanwhile, the Davis family - and six others, I'm sure - remain in limbo. The state will pay the market rate for the homes it takes. Jerry wonders what that means in a down economy, even if his development, Chesterbrook, remains desirable.

He says he is surveying his home with fresh eyes, dividing potential projects into two categories.

"You're not getting the cabinets fixed," he says. "If the roof leaks, I guess you repair it."


Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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