It’s common in any recession for small, family-owned businesses to close up shop.
But in the case of William Lieberth, Sr., proprietor of Allegheny Auto Body, it seems PennDOT might do that for him.
In preparation for a long-awaited, lane widening project along Route 28, or East Ohio Street, in Troy Hill, PennDOT decided it needs to demolish Lieberth’s auto body repair shop and has begun an eminent domain process.
The two-story building where Lieberth has run his business for 34 years is one of the last structures in steady commercial use along the bustling four-lane highway that stretches north along the Allegheny River.
Sandwiched between the highway and a steep embankment that leads to Troy Hill proper, the salmon-colored building looks forgotten next to the steady stream of motorists whizzing by.
But inside, Lieberth and his few employees have steady work with space for three vehicles. His sign out front, which reads “SAVE YOUR DEDUCTIBLE / UNDERBID MOST ESTIMATES,” catches the eye of plenty of motorists, he said.
Lieberth, 53, knew that PennDOT had been eyeing the property for the last few years. But he hoped to retire before it came to this.
Now he feels his future prospects are uncertain, and he views this reality with a sense of angst.
“I may not continue,” he said, staring in awe around the shop. “If I move out of the area, I’ll lose my customer base. And I’m 53 years-old — I can’t start over.”
According to PennDOT’s District 11 press officer Jim Struzzi, the widening plan call for “adding room for a center median barrier because there are issues of safety.”
Struzzi said the barrier, as well as widened lanes, are designed to slow southbound traffic down as vehicles enter the city.
For his part, Lieberth scoffs at the construction effort.
“I could understand it if they were going to add more lanes to speed up traffic, but this project requires me to give up my shop, and in the end there still will only be four lanes,” he said, commenting on the fact that Route 28 is nearly always backed up for a mile during rush hour.
Lieberth estimates that he’s seen a 25 percent rise in traffic since the Rivers Casino opened its doors in early August.
“They could just put a guardrail in front of my shop,” he said.
PennDOT’s relationship with Lieberth got off to a rough start after Lieberth yelled at officials sent to appraise the property.
Officials later came by earlier this year and performed an exterior appraisal. They valued the building at $90,000 and the small side lot for $15,000.
Lieberth considered this appraisal was ridiculous, since his business grosses $100,000 a year. On top of that, he thinks the building’s price is more than triple the appraisal rate.
He points to the double-brick façade, 15 in. steel bridge beams and recent roof renovations as evidence of the building’s worth.
“It’s no shack, it’s been remodeled,” he adds.
But rather than negotiate a higher asking price immediately, Lieberth tried a separate route to saving his shop: its historic value.
Taking a hint from the preservation group that stopped PennDOT from demolishing the unused St. Nicholas Church down the road, Lieberth sent PennDOT a historic report he had commissioned by a local researcher.
The report shows that a German immigrant named Sebastian Haid built a brewery and tavern in the 1850s on the site of the auto body shop.
In fact, two original brewery vaults still exist in the back of the shop. The vaults travel from the shop’s back wall to about 120 ft. under Troy Hill. Before the advent of modern refrigeration, brewers used these vaults to store beer in a cool environment during the fermenting process.
The brewery passed to another owner and then was transformed into a body shop by the early 1930s.
Interestingly enough, the front part of the brewery was removed around 1920 for an earlier East Ohio Street widening project that lopped off about 16 ft.
Lieberth later showed the report to PennDOT and found out that, for all intents and purposes, his historic report was worthless.
“They said it’s not worth anything, because [I ] don’t have historic designation. I cried when I got off the phone. I hadn’t cried for ten years, since my dad died.”
Lieberth’s father Charles J. Lieberth, who consequently owned the parcel from 1977 to 1999, was Pennsylvania’s secretary of labor from 1979 to 1981. A pedestrian walkway bearing his name a few hundred yards from the shop allows Troy Hill residents to safely cross over Route 28 to the Sarah Heinz House.
After his historic preservation plan fell apart, Lieberth hired lawyer Sam Kamin, of Goldberg, Kamin and Garvin, to represent him.
Kamin said at this point, PennDOT already holds the title, because they already filed a declaration of taking on April 30. For some reason, Lieberth was not served with the declaration of taking papers until late June.
Regardless, Kamin was successful at pressuring them to perform a second appraisal.
“I told them not to do a windshield appraisal,” which is when an appraiser only views the outside of a building.
PennDOT has since agreed and sent at least two new appraisers to perform proper appraisals on the inside of the building.
As a last ditch effort, Lieberth tried to negotiate a land swap with PennDOT, who owns a gravel parking lot across Troy Hill Road from the Penn Brewery. He thought he might be able to maintain his customer base, since the shop would move just a half mile away. But he said, Bill Woods, District 11’s Right-of-Way Administrator, wouldn’t consider the offer.
Struzzi said the new appraisal will be finished shortly and that Lieberth can expect the second offer by November. At that point, he’ll have 6 to 8 weeks to accept or decline. If Lieberth declines, the offer amount will be deposited in the Court of Common Pleas. Lieberth has 90 days following the deposited money to remove himself from the premises before PennDOT can take the property by force of law.
Struzzi said it hopefully won’t come to that. “From PennDOT’s perspective, we always favor an amicable agreement.”
Kamin said that if Lieberth declines the second offer, the case will go before the board of reviews, 3-person panel made up lawyers and real estate personnel. The board will judge whether or not the offer is acceptable. Kamin said until he sees the new appraisal, he won’t know whether or not he’s going to court.
Lieberth doesn’t like the idea of going to court, but he said he’s ready for a fight if the second appraisal doesn’t take into consideration the value of his building, its historical nature and the success of his business.
“I think [PennDOT]’s so corrupt. To get a fair shake, you have to go before a jury.”