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by Ron Davis
A citizens group has failed in its bid to prevent public tax support for a planned commercial complex in downtown South Strabane, PA.
The complex, known as Victory Centre, would eventually include a Tanger Factory Outlet Center, Bass Pro Shops, additional retail stores and a hotel and restaurants. The estimated cost of Victory Centre is $400 million, of which 93 percent will be privately financed. A type of public funding known as tax-increment financing would chip in the remaining 7 percent.
The citizens group, formed to oppose the project’s public financing as a “knowing waste of taxpayer resources,” filed six separate lawsuits against public school, county and town officials. Group members assert that the public officials made false claims that the location of Victory Centre is a blighted area that needs revival. They explained that a proposal “preconditioned on a designation of the subject property as blighted” does not make sense. That’s because, they added, town officials had only months earlier rezoned the property as commercial, identifying it as a prime location for regional shopping and entertaining.”
The group also attacked the actions of various taxing bodies that created the tax-increment financing of the project. They said the proposal is inconsistent with the town’s master plan. And, finally, they argued that the project is viable without public financing “since 93 percent of the projected $400-million cost is to be privately financed.”
A Pennsylvania county court ruled in favor of the proposals for public financing of the 7-percent of the project. The citizens group appealed.
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania upheld the lower-court ruling, explaining, “The citizens group contends that because local authorities voted to rezone the property to a commercial designation and at the same time declared the area to be a prime location for regional shopping and entertainment, it is obvious that they cannot now assert that they in good faith believed the property to be ‘blighted.’ This is a bald assertion, unsupported by any clear averments of fact to support a finding of fraud or bad faith.... It seems likely that economic investment, whether private or public, may be the catalyst that is needed to realize the full commercial potential of a piece of property.
The judges added, “That the citizens group disagrees with their elected officials as to the appropriate financing mechanism is obvious. However, it is not a legally sufficient reason for a court to set aside their actions.... It is not within the jurisdiction of this court to rule on the wisdom of legislative enactments. The judiciary may not sit as a superlegislature to judge the wisdom or desirability of legislative policy determinations made in areas that neither affect fundamental rights nor proceeds along suspect lines.” (Majur v. Trinity Area School District, 926 A.2d 1260)
Decision: August 2007
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