Not in my front yard

Property owner weighs in on bridge project

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 5/5/21

MILANVILLE, PA — Steve Ircha has a passion for his community and its past. As the current owner of the Milton Skinner House, a historic building overlooking the Delaware River and the old …

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Not in my front yard

Property owner weighs in on bridge project

Posted

MILANVILLE, PA — Steve Ircha has a passion for his community and its past. As the current owner of the Milton Skinner House, a historic building overlooking the Delaware River and the old Skinners Falls bridge, he can hardly help extending an invitation—and offering a tour—to whoever’s walking by. On a recent brisk, sunny afternoon, Ircha spots a neighbor with his mother taking their dogs on a walk along the road. He calls from the front porch, “Hey! Has your mother seen the house?” She hasn’t, but she’s tired from the walk. “Oh come on, not too tired to see the house!”

As the guests walk up the stone steps toward the front door, Ircha has a more pressing topic to address before commencing his tour guide duties. He points down at the century-and-change-old bridge that connects Wayne County, PA to Sullivan County, NY.

“You hear what they want to do to our bridge? They want to rip it out and put in some modern, two-lane monstrosity instead.”

The neighbor takes one look down the hill and back, “I’ll tell you right now: That’s not happening.”

Ircha hopes he’s right.

Legal argument

The Skinner Falls Bridge was closed to vehicle traffic in October 2019, after PennDOT found deteriorating truss bracing as well as missing and cracked timber deck running boards. Since then, PennDOT, consultants, local officials and the public have been weighing their options. Essentially: rehabilitate or replace? 

As the owner of the property surrounding the bridge on the Pennsylvania side, “a few years back,” Ircha met with PennDOT and consultants from a corporation called AECOM. He said he was assured that the bridge was going to be rehabbed and that the original structure—first built in 1901—would be maintained.

“They said that they were planning a total rehabilitation, and we had several meetings, and I was okay with the rehabilitation and that’s what they promised,” he said. “They said they would keep me in the loop as the project progresses... and I never heard from them again.”

Ircha attended the recent public meeting about the future of the bridge and was “deeply disappointed” that the presenters from AECOM seemed to be pushing for replacing the structure with a new two-lane bridge rather than rehabbing the bridge like previously discussed, as he wrote in an email to Susan Williams, the PennDOT project manager.

In his email to Williams, he also argued that a 1991 deed granting his ownership of the property precludes PennDOT from replacing the bridge.

“The above described premises are to be used by the grantees only for the purpose of an entrance to the Milanville Bridge... and for the purpose of erecting, maintaining and repairing said bridge, and for no other purpose whatever,” is the specific line from the deed he cites.

“As such, I do not grant you my permission to build a two-lane bridge at this location... There is no right to store equipment there, no right to replace the bridge, there is no right to build a causeway on my property, no right to do anything other than maintain the existing bridge,” he wrote to Williams. “If you choose to do anything else, you will be in violation of the covenant in my deed and you lose access to this property 100 percent. If you take that bridge down... we will have to litigate this matter.”

PennDOT has not yet responded to Ircha regarding his legal argument, nor commented to River Reporter about how Ircha’s position could affect the project moving forward.

Effect on community

The stakeholders who argue for replacing the old structure with a new bridge—specifically one that can handle legal loads (40 tons)—commonly reference the need for an emergency vehicle crossing as justification. Ircha has his doubts, however.

“We’ve owned the house since 1991 and I’ve never seen a fire truck on [the bridge] in all my years; maybe once or twice an ambulance all these years,” Ircha said.

He suspects that there’s an economic motivation rather than one in the interest of safety.

“The real goal, in my mind, is to build a two-lane bridge, and then get more engineering fees to then make new approaches to the bridge in anticipation of a big highway from Beach Lake to Milanville,” Ircha said. “If that happens, you can kiss the flavor of the area goodbye, because once you do that, all the beautiful farmhouses and barns and stonewalls along the road would have to be discarded to enlarge the road.”

From there, Ircha envisions a domino effect in which the quaint, country road he grew up on is turned into a more economically developed stretch of chain stores and gas stations.

“Some people may say it would be great to have another Dollar General on that road, or it would be great to have convenience stores with beer signs and cigarette signs hanging outside,” he said. “I don’t particularly care for that kind of economic development.”

Community input

To bring local residents into the discussion of this project, PennDOT has a survey posted on its website; due to “outstanding public response,” the deadline to complete the survey has been extended until Tuesday, June 1. PennDOT’s website said the survey “was developed to capture public feedback on transportation needs,” but Ircha considers the survey biased toward replacement over rehabilitation. In certain multiple choice questions, he thinks options were left out. For example, the survey asks, “How has the bridge closure affected you?” And provides answers like, “I am less apt to shop locally” and “Traffic as increased near my home,” Ircha said there should be an option to answer, “It has not affected me at all.”

He further thinks that the survey is missing other important questions completely, like asking residents point blank, do you want the current bridge rehabilitated, replaced with a one-lane bridge or replaced with a two-lane bridge?

Even with changes to the questionnaire, Ircha says it doesn’t suffice, pining for a more transparent process.

“What you really need is an online forum,” he said. “I’d like to see what my neighbors are saying, I’d like for my neighbors to see what I’m saying... right now, we’re precluded from doing that.”

For more information about the Skinners Falls bridge and to take PennDOT’s survey, residents can visit www.bit.ly/SkinnersFallsBridgeProject

Click here for more River Reporter coverage of the Skinners Falls Bridge.

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