Once-rural road becomes highway at widow's door


PHILADELPHIA - A half-century ago, Elizabeth Harrington was newly wed and living in a little brick house in East Brandywine, Chester County.

In other words, the far side of nowhere.

Twenty feet from her porch was Horseshoe Pike, a lazy country road traveled by farm carts and bulbous sedans ambling past at 20 mph.

Harrington never moved. But the rest of the world did.

Today, when she reminisces about the good times, the 71-year-old widow must raise her voice over the thunder of traffic from the road out front. It is now Route 322 - and just 5 feet from her door.

Major widening and resurfacing projects since the late 1950s have practically put Harrington's house on the shoulder of the state highway. The work raised the road surface and banked it toward her property.

When it rains, grimy water floods her lawn. When it snows, plows send chunks of ice hurtling through her windows. Even clement days are bad, with an average of 11 cars and trucks zooming by each minute, spewing fumes and rattling her knickknacks.

'I'm sick of this'

"I'm sick of this," Harrington says. She wants to move. But the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, she contends, has rendered her house, appraised at $50,000, unsalable.

A year ago, she went to court to try to force the state to buy her out under eminent domain. Last March, Chester County Court Judge Juan R. Sanchez ruled in her favor, terming her situation "a persistent and relentless nightmare" that was "a direct result of PennDot's actions."

The Transportation Department is appealing the decision in Commonwealth Court. Harrington, the Transportation Department maintains in legal papers, has not "suffered damages of any kind" on its account.

Declining to comment specifically on the case, spokesman Gene Blaum said the Transportation Department "only takes a house when absolutely necessary." And the definition of "necessary" varies, project by project.

In this battle against the state, not to mention the elements, Harrington is alone.

Other homes and businesses line this stretch of Route 322 between Route 30 and Hopewell Road northwest of Downingtown, but none hugs the highway like hers.

Neighbor Valerie Cassanto worries about Harrington. The last time one of Harrington's windows was shattered by flying ice, during a wicked storm in late January, it was Cassanto whom she called.

Smashed glass is almost routine for Harrington, who says she has lost at least a dozen windows in the last 20 years.

Still, Cassanto said, "Libby was really shaken up."

Days later, Harrington sat at the table in her kitchen, where she had retreated to escape the frigid gusts coming through the broken glass in the foyer. A slight woman with a stock-straight back, she had carefully brushed every steel-gray hair into place.

She had thought about just packing up, she said, and moving in with her two grown daughters, who also live in Chester County. But then, "I thought, no! I'll hold out. I started this lawsuit, and I'm going to see this lawsuit through."

As Harrington thumbs through her old photos - snapshots of children in sun-suits on the front lawn, shade trees all around - she recalls life as it was for almost a decade after she and her husband, Ralph, settled in the house in 1948.

Changes in 1957

It wasn't until 1957 that the state widened Horseshoe Pike to 42 feet from 22.

The Harringtons lost about 15 feet of their front yard and one favorite tree, whose roots were paved over.

The couple considered moving, but the tiny box of a house held them. It had been Ralph's boyhood home, built by his parents, and now they were raising their own girls there.

Besides, the traffic still was sparse. Drivers heading for Philadelphia, she said, preferred the luxury of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

As for storm runoff, the 8-foot-wide gravel shoulder absorbed it nicely.

Over the years, though, the cars got faster and multiplied. In 1966, an estimated 4,100 vehicles traveled that stretch - a number that has quadrupled to about 16,000 today.

"The traffic got so bad that I could no longer open my windows," Harrington said. "I could no longer use the yard for my wash."

She began keeping notes, in slanted script on a yellow legal pad.

From the 1970 log: "We had to leave the house and go to our neighbor's. A car hit the pole on the east side of our property. The transformer caught fire. The car was demolished. Miss - was nearly killed."

From 1978: "John came down the back driveway, went over the wall and landed on the roof of the Jeep at the front door. He damaged the wall hedge steps. Left a large oil and gas spill. He was nearly killed."

But the trouble hadn't even started.

In 1998, the Transporation Department resurfaced the road, raising and tilting it and blacktopping the shoulders.

Afterward, every storm sent a torrent down her drive, often into the garage, sometimes into the foyer.

Harrington, by then a widow, complained to the Transportation Department, which installed drainage pipes to route the runoff away from her house. Crews also delivered 30- to 40-pound sand bags. She kept them in her garage and lugged them out during downpours.

From her notes that year: "The storm hit at about 2:30 p.m. Water rolled in off the highway I quickly got all the throw rugs I could get my hands on and put them across the driveway."

And later: "They put more sand bags down. I am unable to get the car out of the garage."

Harrington protested to township officials, legislators, whomever she could think of, and wrote so many letters that she lost track.

Finally, she hired a lawyer.

Kenneth R. Werner said the appellate court probably will not hear her case until later this year.

When it does, he said, he will argue, as before, that his client has suffered "such an ongoing, permanent kind of damage that it effectively amounts to the taking of her property."

Harrington said all she knows is that "I can no longer live here and feel safe. It is going to be very difficult for me to leave. There have been good times here, you know."

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