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Pa. legislators back stiffer arson penalties

HARRISBURG Legislation to curb arson that threatens lives and causes irreparable harm to historic resources could be on Gov. Corbett's desk by the end of January.

HARRISBURG Legislation to curb arson that threatens lives and causes irreparable harm to historic resources could be on Gov. Corbett's desk by the end of January.

The bill approved by the House last week would establish the offense of "aggravated arson." It is in response to the fires that swept through Coatesville in 2008 and 2009, killing an 83-year-old woman, causing millions of dollars in damage, and displacing scores of residents.

The felony would apply in cases involving residential buildings and fires set when residents would likely be home, said the bill's sponsor, Sen. John Rafferty (R., Montgomery).

"It was pure hell for those people in Coatesville," said Rafferty, whose three-county district until recently included the Coatesville area. "The sun would go down, and people would be wondering if it would happen again."

The bill would also give judges more leeway in imposing stiffer sentences on arsonists.

Rafferty's bill received a surprise last-minute amendment on the House floor last week.

Rep. Paul Clymer (R., Bucks) called the arson bill the perfect vehicle to move forward his stalled bill to protect historic resources from arson, and the measure passed overwhelmingly without debate.

Under the Clymer amendment, anyone who sets fire to structures that are 100 years old or more, or are listed on either the National Register of Historic Places or Pennsylvania Register of Historic Places, would face a mandatory one-year minimum jail sentence.

His bill grew out of community concern about protecting historic covered bridges in Bucks County following a 2004 fire that destroyed the 1874 Mood's Bridge in East Rockhill Township.

John Cressman, chairman of the Bucks County Covered Bridge Association, said he watched from his bedroom window as the wood bridge burned ferociously from the gasoline poured on it, then collapsed into the creek.

Six area teenagers were convicted of arson in connection with the fire and spent three weeks in jail.

Mood's Bridge was rebuilt, but only one of those convicted in its destruction paid back his share of the $405,000 restitution that was ordered, Cressman said.

"This hurt the community, and these boys never lived up to the sentence," said Cressman, whose group was founded after the crime.

Clymer said the individuals who committed the act clearly had "no respect for the history or legacy" of the structures that draw hikers and bikers, painters and photographers.

"We shouldn't allow people to abuse and destroy these so willingly," Clymer said. "These are great testaments to the history of Bucks County and all counties."

Bucks County has 13 of the nearly 200 remaining covered bridges in Pennsylvania, which is believed to have more surviving bridges than any other state.

At one time the state had 1,500 covered bridges, including one believed to be the nation's first, built in Philadelphia over the Schuylkill in 1800. But decay, flooding, and demolition have taken their toll over the last century.

Rafferty said he had no problem with Clymer's amendment, although other members might object to the mandatory minimum sentence it carries because of efforts aimed at reducing prison populations.

Nevertheless, he said that even if the bill is amended again, he expects it to receive quick passage in the Senate and to be sent to Corbett before February.