UPDATED Sept. 6, 2017 to clarify comments made by Anne Clarke Ronce.
The past several weeks have included some out-of-the-ordinary activities, including some time off from work along with some medical tests and procedures. To say that me and mine got some rest may be a stretch, however.
This time frame has also generated its fair share of issues around the local area, both new and ongoing. Around these issues is the memory of someone who made a significant impact on many of the things that make the Sewickley area what it is today – things that we would certainly miss if they were not identified, called attention to, and celebrated.
I’ve written previously about Betty G.Y. Shields, who passed away in mid-July. She was a formidable presence in the Sewickley of my teenage and young adult years. If you lived in the area back then, and have fond memories of the Bicentennial celebration in 1976, or the effort to get the Sewickley Bridge replaced, you have Mrs. Shields to thank for it.
As Editor of the Sewickley Herald from 1972 to 1987, and a founding member and Executive Director of the Sewickley Valley Historical Society, “B.G.” exerted a profound influence over the way in which Sewickley and Quaker Valley area residents perceived their community back then, and as a consequence how those communities today view their past.
Mrs. Shields, along with Mrs. Margaret “Judy” Lackner at Sewickley Academy, gave me a foundation of understanding in journalism, and the opportunity to see it practically applied by people who seemed to know, and enjoyed, what they were doing.
As a student at the Academy in the mid-70’s, I also had the opportunity to write for the Senior School student newspaper, The Seventh Pillar. Unfortunately, Academy spokesperson Britnea Turner told me recently that the Pillar has not existed as a regular publication since at least 2014.
While back issues of the Pillar are relegated to personal scrapbooks and (hopefully) the school library, the handiwork of Mrs. Shields and her Herald staff at the time are readily available online via the always-fascinating digital archive, hosted by the Sewickley Public Library.
If you’re interested at all in the history of our area, and want to see an example of how formidable local print media could be in those days, check out the archive for just about anytime in the 70’s and 80’s. I think you’ll get an idea of why Mrs. Shields and her legacy are revered by those who knew her.
“Character Matters” Gains Traction in County Court, Public Consciousness
The ongoing dispute between the group “Character Matters”, Sewickley Borough, and developer Zamagias Properties, initially reported here, continues to wind its way through the Allegheny County Courts. The case is LeCornu etal vs. Sewickley Borough.
After the initial complaint filed by Sewickley residents John LeCornu and Anne Clarke Ronce was partially quashed in March, these citizens wasted little time in filing an amended complaint on March 31 through their attorney at the time, Peter Georgiades. This complaint can be viewed here.
Since that filing –
- Zamagias Properties, filing as Hoey’s Run, LLC, petitioned to intervene as a party defendant along with the borough, and was granted this status.
- Character Matters has changed attorneys. They are now represented by attorney Arthur Zamosky and others from the firm Bernstein-Burkley.
- Each side filed preliminary objections to the other’s initial assertions, and a hearing was held on August 16 before Judge Michael Della Vecchia.
According to Character Matters representative Anne Clarke Ronce, the result of that August 16 hearing was an admonishment from Judge Della Vecchia that both sides attempt to mediate their dispute before another hearing scheduled for September 8. Ms. Ronce also stated that the judge himself offered to assist with the mediation process, and that a meeting date of September 7 has been agreed upon by both parties.
Ms. Ronce also stated that the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation may also be involved in the mediation process. Contacted in late August, PHLF president Arthur Ziegler stated that his organization has offered their services. Mr. Ziegler also stated that while PHLF is not opposed to development, maintaining the “historic character of Sewickley” is a matter of interest to their organization.
Away from the courthouse, Character Matters has continued their efforts at grassroots activism and community outreach, with another full-page ad in the June 15 Herald. This ad encouraged concerned citizens to attend a community meeting held July 11 at the Library, and also to write the developer at his home address in Sewickley Heights.
Per Ms. Ronce, this meeting was attended by just under 30 concerned citizens, including Elizabeth Zamagias, wife of the developer, Michael Zamagias. Ms. Ronce stated she was heartened by the show of support, which included contributions to defray the group’s legal expenses, as well as offers of legal expertise and facilitating contact with other stakeholders with a potential interest in the effort.
Absent from the meeting (myself included) was anyone from the Herald. Ms. Ronce stated that up to that point no one from the editorial side of the paper had been in contact with the group in any way. I made additional attempts to contact Herald Editor Bobby Cherry as the meeting date approached, but did not receive any reply.
In early August I spoke with Jeff Domenick, Managing Editor for the weekly newspapers of Trib Total Media, regarding the lack of coverage of this issue by the Herald. After an e-mail as follow-up to our conversation, the August 10 Herald print edition contained a short article about the lawsuit and August 16 hearing. The story appeared on Page 14.
An updated version of the story was posted online on August 15. No additional reporting about the results of the hearing as detailed above has appeared in the Herald as of August 31.
I’m wondering what Mrs. Shields would have thought about the manner in which the Herald has reported on this issue.
Character Matters may very well fail in their challenge to what was a questionable approval process for this development. After the amazing one-man Zoning Board, or the raucous public hearing that now shapes the core of their case against the borough’s actions, Ms. Ronce stated –
We believe that the “quorum of one” zoning decision is unfortunately legal in PA. We do not believe the conditions of the Nov 21st meeting were legal – just that they may be “normal” in some people’s minds.
We believe that the ILLEGAL conditions of that meeting are the grounds for a decision overturning the results of that meeting — which is why we are persisting.
Despite this, Character Matters has won a victory against what appears to be the initial legal strategy of the borough and Hoey’s Run LLC – to challenge the legitimacy of the group’s claims on the basis of technicalities, such as the length of time between the approval of the project and the filing of their complaint. The court has found that the arguments raised by Character Matters have standing.
Judge Della Vecchia’s insistence that both parties attempt to mediate a settlement also serves to essentially level the playing field. For such an effort to have a chance at success, the borough and the developer must now recognize Character Matters’ arguments as legitimate concerns.
Considering some of the on-site signage that the developer has used to advertise the project, there seems to be a visible disagreement as to what constitutes “character”. The developer has also taken some interesting steps to shield the vacant construction site from scrutiny by its neighbors, including a black sheath over solid plywood fencing, and several security cameras placed over the sidewalk around the site.
Is subterfuge and security, along with legal and political legerdemain, part of how a community defines its “character”?
How big of a role should effective community discourse, responsive and transparent representative government, and an active and involved local news media play in this process?
These questions hang in the balance as the two parties get together later this week.
Rise of the Silver Sneakers – OR – They Tried to Take Away My Rehab, But I Said No, No, No…
Despite their lack of reporting on the condominium dispute, it’s also important to note when the Herald grabs onto an issue and brings it to the forefront.
Such was the case in June, when several older residents reached out to the paper about the abrupt cancellation of a popular exercise program conducted in partnership with the Heritage Valley Health System, in space it leases at the Edgeworth Square complex for a rehabilitation center. Along with a story, the Herald also printed several letters to the Editor about the reported closure.
The Herald story detailed a June 19 meeting between several of these participants and the CEO of Heritage Valley, Norm Mitry. The turnout for the meeting, estimated at around 65 people, seemed to explain Mr. Mitry’s presence – an attempt to minimize the impact of the significant outcry by a key demographic of the system’s potential customer base. As a result, the Silver Sneakers program has a reprieve at the Edgeworth Square site until at least the end of this month.
The first question I asked myself when reading about this was why Heritage Valley would seek to “repurpose” the space at Edgeworth Square, given the popularity of the classes held at this location.
This appeared to me to be evidenced by the large number of cars that park in the lots near that building, including the lot designated as an “overflow” lot, in which the owners of Edgeworth Square have borough approval to develop into a food service / retail venue. This was last reported to include a Chipotle restaurant.
I made some calls to investigate whether it was possible that the Silver Sneakers were being moved out to make that parking lot available to build the Chipotle. Edgeworth Borough Manager John Schwend stated that the borough’s approval for the project was good for 5 years, so there wasn’t any time pressure there.
I then contacted attorney W. Grant Scott, who along with Drs. Wilcox and Felix owns the Edgeworth Square building and adjacent parking lots. Mr. Scott stated that there are “no immediate plans” to develop the parking lot, and that Heritage Valley “has 3-4 years left on its lease” in their building.
As of last week, however, there is heavy equipment doing some earth-moving at one of the entrances to the parking lot from Route 65. As of the date of this writing, the entire parking lot is closed off for this work.
Aside from the above, it appears that not much is happening which would force Heritage Valley to move its rehab operations, and presumably Silver Sneakers, out of this conveniently accessible location.
If it wasn’t the specter of flavorful burritos that had them itching to relocate, what was it?
We found out in mid-July, when Heritage Valley announced its partnership with HealthSouth to construct a new 55-bed rehabilitation hospital to replace the current 44-bed facility in Leet Township, at the site of the former D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children.
There are a lot of questions regarding this new project, most notably for me how the new construction will impact the existing structure, which has historic significance as the site of some of the first human tests of the Salk Polio Vaccine in the 1950’s.
Other questions involve Heritage Valley’s plans for the existing rehab facility, their leased space in Edgeworth Square (which includes the Staunton Clinic), and for the Silver Sneakers program after the end of September.
Contacted in late July, HVHS Director of Marketing and Communications Suzanne Sakson stated that after reaching out internally, she was “unable to comment on the specific details of these operational decisions at this time”. This response was not unexpected, especially in the wake of the biggest story involving Heritage Valley this summer – the global hacking attacks in late June that disabled much of their information management systems.
I’ll have more to report on these developments, and the history behind them, in a future post.
Quaker Valley Controversy Calls Out Interfering Parents
The departure of Quaker Valley High School Dean of Students and Head Football Coach John Tortorea in early August surprised many, including, apparently, his players. What initially intrigued me the most about this seemingly abrupt departure was the nature of the media reporting on it.
The first story I saw was in the Post-Gazette, in which Mr. Tortorea spoke frankly to reporter Mike White about the parental interference that became intolerable. Mr. Tortorea had nothing but praise for Athletic Director Mike Mastroianni and his staff, as well as district administration, who apparently did their best despite being unable to shield Mr. Tortorea from the parental meddling.
In a passionate August 14 column, P-G sports columnist Ron Cook referenced this incident, while lamenting the loss to retirement of a generation of great football coaches in what has become a much more attention-intensive enterprise. Mr. Cook also made mention of parents that were also school board members, or who were well-connected to a board member, as a source of interference in some districts that could not be mitigated.
Mr. Tortorea became much more reticent in subsequent reports to the Trib / Herald and KDKA, stating that for the good of the program he would not comment further, while being hopeful that “the parents involved will have some time of introspection”.
I would certainly hope so.
I would think that as Dean of Students, also reported as “Dean of Student Discipline”, Mr. Tortorea may have also been under the gun from parents not only for his gridiron responsibilities, but for any disciplinary issue within the high school. It could have been worse, however – he could have worked at Woodland Hills.
To the credit of Coach Jerry Veshio and his staff, the Quakers are 2-0 after roughing up both Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic and McGuffey. They have yet to begin conference play, however, which includes some heavy-duty Beaver County competition.
If their success continues, perhaps all will be forgotten. Should it be?
I can only speak to my own experience as a parent. My son did not play sports in school. He did play youth soccer and organized roller hockey, and I made sure I was involved as a referee or assistant in some capacity. I did not have any preconceived notions of athletic glory for him, focusing instead on being involved enough in his life that I could recognize his gifts, and encourage him to explore what gave him the most satisfaction. Today he is very active as a snowboarder, skier, rafter, and general outdoor enthusiast – things that in large measure he found for himself.
I am happy enough to have given him the opportunity, and to see him leverage that into making his own life – his own happiness.
I wish Mr. Tortorea the best in his career ahead.
Until next time.