By Elizabeth Perry
Robinson Business owner James Esposito has notched a win in his eminent domain dispute with Robinson Township.
The Commonwealth Court overruled a previous 2022 decision by the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas which favored Robinson Township, reversing a ruling that said the private property the municipality seized in 2018 was lawful.
“The law requires more than a scintilla [of evidence] creating a mere suspicion” that township’s condemnation of E&R Property (Esposito’s company) was for a public purpose,” according to the opinion of Commonwealth Judge Stacey Wallace released April 24.
Michael Dunn owned an undeveloped plot next to Esposito’s realty office located at the intersection of Tidball and Steubenville Pike. Dunn, through his company, Five D Development LLC asked Esposito in 2015 about building a joint driveway connecting both lots to the main road, according to court documents. Esposito declined and Robinson Township got involved.
“They should’ve never gotten involved in negotiations between two private individuals,” Esposito said. “The government is supposed to be for the people. The government is not supposed to be against the people.”
In 2017, Robinson officials began considering the idea of taking a portion of Esposito’s property through eminent domain. Esposito said the action was taken to benefit Dunn who was then on the Robinson Township Planning Commission. Commissioners Ken Kisow, Sam Abatta and James Mancini said in court they were relying solely on the expert opinion of their engineers to make the decision. Engineer Michael Myers testified he believed the condemnation of the intersection came from PennDOT.
PennDOT engineer Jason Molinero testified, “He did not suggest condemnation to township and “[does] not know enough about eminent domain to ever suggest it in a conversation.”
Robinson Planning Director Rick Urbano said in testimony the intersection was “most definitely” unsafe, but then was “unable to articulate any further basis for his contention that the intersection was not safe,” as he had not sought police reports, could not verify a number accidents at the intersection and hadn’t heard complaints from the public.
Robinson Solicitor Jack Cambest said via email the township would either file an application for reargument to the full court based on the Judge’s dissenting opinion, or the board could vote to file an appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. At a May 1 meeting, Cambest said the board had yet to decide next steps.
As previously reported in Gazette 2.0, Esposito also filed a civil suit seeking $35,000 in damages as well as court costs claiming he was the victim of “malicious prosecution” for which he has sustained “significant damage.”
Esposito’s filing claimed the township issued a string of fabricated violation letters in an attempt to stall his business operations. This case has gone to Federal Court. Cambest said there have been no court decisions awarding damages at this time.
Esposito appealed one of the citations prompting Commonwealth Court Judge Fizzano Cannon to issue an opinion faulting the township’s solicitor for issuing two violation letters that failed to meet the requirements of Pennsylvania’s municipal codes. The same opinion exonerated Esposito.
During a phone interview, Esposito said the ongoing legal turmoil has been “difficult.” His business has been closed since the eminent domain dispute began.
“I worked my whole life to build a business and the township single-handedly destroyed me,” Esposito said.
He didn’t wish to discuss his court costs. Officials in Robinson Township declined to say how much the ongoing litigation has cost.
“In regard to the eminent domain case, it has been going on since 2017. I cannot provide that at this time,” Cambest said via email.
Esposito said he has no plans to relent, despite the township’s appeal.
“I’m gonna fight. I did nothing wrong and the court recognized that,” Esposito said.