February Digest: Fickleness, Fate, Folly, and the Future

The first months of the new year have brought with them new resolve around our house – a need to renew old efforts, blaze new trails, reset and try to re-energize relationships and living arrangements that too often can grow stale and cluttered.

It’s not been easy, and it doesn’t seem to be shaping up as an ‘easy’ year, especially when considering the craziness being displayed by the new administration in Washington. As the focus here is on local activities, we’ll continue with that, with the knowledge that great achievements start with small moves.

Edgeworth Resident Wins Battle in Tree War, Doesn’t Live to See It

Since this time last year, I’ve been following the dispute between an elderly Edgeworth resident and the borough’s Shade Tree Commission over her right to remove three pin oak trees from in front of her residence on Oliver Road. After repeated denials by that commission, Dolores Bassett took her fight to Common Pleas Court, which found in her favor a little over a year ago.

Edgeworth Borough then appealed that decision to Commonwealth Court, which heard arguments last November. On January 24, the court issued a decision upholding the lower court’s finding in favor of Mrs. Bassett’s right to remove the trees.

The opinion issued by Commonwealth Court is an enlightening read for anyone interested in the historical perspectives surrounding land use, local ordinances governing it, and the intricacies of the law as they pertain to language and precedent.

Among other findings, the court ruled that the applicable section of the borough code pertaining to the removal of trees “applies only by its plain text to those situations where the (Shade Tree) Commission may ‘require the removal of any afflicted tree in the public right-of-way’”.

TheEdgeofWorthMrs. Bassett wanted to remove the trees, due in part to their continued compromise of the sidewalk that the borough required her to maintain in a safe condition. This is different from the borough requiring the tree removal.

The court stated that the borough’s attempt to apply the same section of borough code to this situation – violates the ‘fundamental rule’ enunciated by our Supreme Court ‘that an ordinance must establish a standard to operate uniformly and govern its administration and enforcement in all cases, and that an ordinance is invalid where it leaves its interpretation, administration or enforcement to the unbridled and ungoverned discretion, caprice or arbitrary action of the municipal legislative body or of administrative bodies or officials’”.

In short – how a law is worded really matters. If you need any more evidence, just look at what is happening to some poorly crafted executive orders in Washington.

Borough Councilor Greg Marlovits, who also chairs the Shade Tree Commission, was quoted by the Herald in 2015 that Mrs. Bassett’s issue was an example of the “first-world problems” that consume much of the time of Edgeworth officials. It’s both ironic and unfortunate that the universal ‘problem’ of human mortality serves as a postscript to her victory.

Mrs. Bassett, who had owned the property on Oliver Road for over 40 years, passed away on New Year’s Eve. Her obituary listed surviving relatives from outside the local area.

When asked about any plans that Mrs. Bassett’s heirs may have for her property or the trees, the law firm representing her in this dispute declined comment. Multiple voice mails left for Edgeworth Borough Manager John Schwend were not returned, either to myself or to the Sewickley Herald, which reported on this in their February 9 print edition.

The reticence of both parties likely signals that the dispute has basically ended with Mrs. Bassett’s passing. While I extend my sympathies to her family, I believe it is also important to recognize another recent triumph (see Larry Oswald) by an area landowner over municipal regulations that are ill-crafted and/or poorly administered.

Leetsdale Ordinances (New and Old) Target Renters

In August of last year, Leetsdale Borough Council passed an ordinance that establishes a new system of ticketing both property owners and tenants for violations of borough ordinances concerning code enforcement and conditions of properties, such as snow removal, excessive grass and weeds, and general upkeep.

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Excerpt from September 2016 Leetsdale Borough newsletter. 

The new law provides the borough a self-administered means of enforcing its codes and ordinances, independent of the Magisterial District Court. It also enables borough officials to cite tenants, instead of just the property owner.

This past September I approached Leetsdale Council regarding what I thought were several glaring omissions in the ordinance, related primarily to a citizen’s right to due process of law. There was no procedure defined in the ordinance for anyone who might have the “audacity” to contest a ticket, and how that appeal would be received and administered by the borough.

Last month, council approved a policy document establishing an administrative process for tickets issued under the new ordinance. It also includes a requirement that photographic evidence of violations be obtained, and requires an explanation be provided if photos are for some reason unavailable.

Full disclosure – the photo evidence requirement was my idea. Council President Wes James invited my input into the development of the process, which I provided. Not all of my ideas were incorporated into the final document, but I appreciated the opportunity to be able to contribute.

Even if Otto von Bismarck was right about laws being like sausages (“it is better not to see them being made”), local government works better when an informed and engaged citizenry take the opportunity to participate in how their communities are governed. 

While I remain unconvinced of the ordinance’s potential effectiveness, at least those impacted by enforcement will get some reasonable semblance of a fair hearing. 

Additional research into Leetsdale’s ordinances also revealed one that has been on the books for over 10 years, but whose provisions have recently fallen into disfavor due to misapplication elsewhere.

Chapter 230-3, Section F of the Leetsdale Borough Code, enacted in 2006, establishes a mechanism by which a landlord can be forced to evict a tenant after the receipt by the borough of three “disruptive conduct” reports within a calendar year.

This “three strikes” approach fell under scrutiny, and into disfavor, after the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued the Borough of Norristown in 2013 over their application of a similar ordinance that threatened a female tenant and her landlord with eviction and fines over three 9-1-1 calls made for assistance due to the woman’s boyfriend attacking her – the last time putting her in the hospital, due in part to her perceived fear of eviction if she called for help.  

This case, along with similar ordinances in other communities, led to the introduction and passage of Act 200 of 2014, which is “intended to shield residents, tenants and landlords from penalties that may be levied pursuant to enforcement of an ordinance or regulation if police or emergency services respond to a residence or tenancy to assist a victim of abuse or crime or individuals in an emergency.”

Despite the law and publicity generated by the ACLU suit, municipalities continued to attempt enforcement of these types of ordinances, according to a Post-Gazette story from 2015.

Contacted by e-mail in December, Code Enforcement Officer James Ivancik stated the following –

In the years I have been involved with this ordinance in different municipalities that I have worked, it has never been used in the context that it was used in your referenced litigation. It is in place to ensure that neighbors and other persons of reasonable sensibility can have peaceful enjoyment of their premises.

The Borough, the police department and myself are highly empathetic in the use of this ordinance and understand the effects this ordinance may have on the Borough residents.

While I applaud Mr. Ivancik and other borough officials for their stance in this regard, there is no guarantee that this approach will remain in force under future borough administrations. 

Edgeworth’s experience with the courts would seem to send a cautionary signal to governments that do not administer their laws uniformly. One also need look no further than the change of power in Washington for another example.

I hope that Leetsdale council will see these developments as an opportunity to re-evaluate laws that are no longer enforceable, and repeal or revise the ordinances involved.

A Tull Timeline – Property Procurement Becomes a Pivot Point

I’ve been following with interest the arrival of Thomas Tull and his family into the local area. From his purchase of “Muottas” and surrounding acreage in November 2015, Mr. Tull and his representatives have been busy – especially of late.

I’ve spent enough time and space detailing in narrative form the considerable, and sometimes controversial, activities surrounding Mr. Tull’s acquisition of property in the local area. Here’s a timeline of what has transpired over the last 16 months, including recent activity that has more than a few heads being scratched in either curiosity, amazement, or something else:

  • November 2015 – Thomas Tull, as the Three Rivers Trust, purchases “Muottas” and surrounding acreage in both Edgeworth and Leet from Dr. and Mrs. Harlan Giles for $5.5 Million.
  • December 2015 – Mr. Tull creates controversy by filing for a demolition permit with Edgeworth Borough to take down the historic house.
  • January 2016 – Perhaps in response to the community outcry, Mr. Tull announces his intent to move “Muottas” to another site on the property, and build his new house on the site of the old one.
  • March – May 2016 – Mr. Tull makes purchases additional properties for $1.5 Million that will connect his existing land to Camp Meeting Road.
  • June 2016 – Operations begin to clear trees and construct a roadway connecting Camp Meeting Road to the site of the proposed construction and house-moving.  
  • July 2016 – Leet Township’s Zoning Hearing Board, before a standing-room audience, conducts a hearing July 11 on the application by Mr. Tull to establish a “gentleman’s farm” on his acreage in the township. 11 days later, the application for a variance to build the farm is withdrawn, but construction of a sugaring shack and an apiary continue on a portion of the property near Walker Park.
  • August 2016 – Mr. Tull purchases “The Farm” in Robinson Township, Washington County, for $3.65 Million.
  • January 2017 – The new farm operation, re-christened Rivendale Farms, is profiled at length along with an interview with Mr. Tull in a January 8 Post-Gazette story. Mr. Tull describes the property as a “working farm”, and indicated that his family would not be residing there. The operations as described in the P-G story certainly give that impression. 

Along with that reporting was information that most, if not all construction activity has ceased at the “Muottas” site –

          “We love the Sewickley community but when it became clear that some of the things we wanted to do wouldn’t be a good fit, we pivoted out of that,” Mr. Tull said.

           A foundation was also poured for a new modern house for Mr. Tull, his wife Alba and their three children. In November, Mosites Construction Co. stopped building the house.

           “It was going to take three years to build,” Mr. Tull said. “I am out of the business of building homes.”

  • February 2017 – The P-G reported on Valentine’s Day that Mr. Tull purchased the nearly 15,000 square-foot house built by Glen Meakem in 2007 along Woodland Road in Edgeworth. This house was built on the site of the 1854 Thomas Leet Shields house and surrounding outbuildings, which were demolished for this newer construction.

Included with this reporting is information that Mr. Tull intends to place the relocated “Muottas” and surrounding acreage on the market “soon”.

This does not include the sugaring shack or apiary, which are on a separate 42 acre parcel with the owner listed as 76CHSUGAR LLC. This may refer to the reported partnership between Mr. Tull and former Steeler Chris Hoke in the operation of this facility, as well as Rivendale Farms.

The latest P-G story included recent photos of “Muottas”, moved to a new foundation but missing the large porch that adorned the house in its original location. Perhaps this will be restored in the future by whomever acquires the house.

One can hope that those in the community that remain committed to historic preservation will continue to monitor activity involving this property, and that more local governments will seek to codify the preservation of historic properties within their boundaries.

The saga of acquisition, construction, relocation, and now what amounts to abandonment is almost dizzying in both the speed and expense involved. Along with the now-postponed construction of the new house where “Muottas” once stood will likely come the cancellation of significant sewer improvements for the property and through the Lark Inn Fields subdivision of Leetsdale.

Despite all this, I wish the Tull family a warm welcome to the Sewickley Valley. Hopefully they will enjoy Mr. Meakem’s house as much as they would have enjoyed their own. Perhaps when we take in a movie at the Tull Family Theater, or enjoy a breakfast that includes locally sourced honey and pure maple syrup, we can then truly appreciate the contributions made by their arrival to this area thus far.

The Future at Work

As it happens, we actually did get to see a movie during opening weekend at the “Jethro”. As one who remembers when Sewickley lost its movie house, having one again will hopefully enhance the character of the community for years to come. I’ll have more to say next time.

img_20170208_014643.jpgAs readers of the Herald have been reminded by full-page adsimg_20170218_072940.jpg in recent weeks, “character matters“. I’ll have more to say about that as well in the weeks ahead.

Sewickley’s future is inexorably tied to its past – we all need timely reminders of this fact.

To conclude on a positive note, this corner has also followed with interest the exploits of Leet Township teenager Elise Truchan, and the saga of her treehouse.

This week’s Herald features Miss Truchan making the most of her experience, by teaching others about doing the same.

Congratulations to Elise for continuing to make lemonade out of the lemons served up by her local government. Well done.

Best wishes and Godspeed.

Posted in Community, Government, History, Justice, Local, Media, Movies, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quotations, Tribulations, and the Carol of the Bells

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Don’t quote me on that.

 

I hope that your holiday season was joyous and uneventful.

It’s been quite a while since I last posted here, and by many accounts since then our world has changed dramatically with the results of November’s election. I was upset with the outcome, more so than any election that I can remember.

Granted that we had two extremely flawed candidates, but the winner is argumentative, unqualified, and is surrounding himself with people who do not have this country’s best interests at heart. Mr. Trump can be, and will be, manipulated by these people, and we will be the worse for it in terms of our standing in a world that is increasingly shrinking.

Ironically, it was us that did the shrinking, by pioneering mass communication and computing technologies that have made the world smaller via instantaneous, almost ubiquitous global communication.

According to noted author and New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, we have also facilitated the “flattening” of the world through our development of data networks, satellite and other connectivity, and an Internet to bring it all together.

Mr. Friedman laid this out very well in his 2006 book The World is Flat, and continued with some very valid trepidations when considering the election and recent revelations about it 

My personal dread derived from the obvious fact that it’s not only the software writers and computer geeks who get empowered to collaborate on work in a flat world. It’s also al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks.

The playing field is not being leveled only in ways that draw in and superempower a whole new group of innovators. It’s being leveled in a way that draws in and superempowers a whole new group of angry, frustrated, and humiliated men and women.

serling-trump-oval-officeThose “angry, frustrated, and humiliated men and women” just leveraged the democratic process to put into power a group of people who will do serious damage to the fabric of our nation, unless they are challenged at every turn toward intolerance, warmongering, and the dissolution of human rights and civil liberties gains hard-fought for over the last 60 years.

My biggest fear? Economic conflicts with Russia, China, and others escalating into war, and the reinstatement of the draft in response to it.

For now, I defer to others with more time and diligence who follow this. I will say that like many other citizens I have made a contribution to the ACLU. Before going back to the local beat, some words for my congressman, Tim Murphy – Nice job on the mental health bill. I’ll be watching your voting record very closely from now on.  

QV Begins Full Court Press on High School

The For Sale signs in front of two houses in the 700 block of Beaver Street in Leetsdale is but one tangible indicator that the Quaker Valley School District is moving in earnest to find a place to construct a new high school building.

The district has retained education planners and design consultants to gather input from the community regarding a new high school project, which according to other reporting may require upwards of 42 acres of land. The existing vacant land at the high school, such as the athletic fields, are not suitable according to the district as they are part of the 100 year floodplain.

For me, this is sounding very much like a suitable tract of land may not be available within the district’s borders, and that QV may have to consider obtaining land in a bordering municipality. There is precedent for this in at least two other Allegheny County school districts.  

I really can’t comment otherwise on the district’s efforts, because I haven’t attended any of the information sessions. I do believe that QV deserves credit for trying to communicate with citizens and garner support through information gathering, and seeking to build consensus on exactly what students need and what taxpayers can afford.

Considering the history of previous attempts to build new schools in this district, it’s not going to be an easy sell.  

More information on this effort can be found here and here.

Managing the Quotation Game

Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.                                           –  Ralph Waldo Emerson

The staff at Quaker Valley High is also taking steps to assure that last year’s yearbook controversy isn’t repeated. In a letter to students obtained via a Right To Know request, QVHS Principal Deborah Ricobelli outlined the process that seems to have as its goal a thoroughly sanitized, more politically correct publication this time around.

Ms. Ricobelli advised the students that “a representative group of senior students” assisted in the development of a system that includes a democratic process by all seniors to select submitted quotes for inclusion in the senior photo section.

In addition to this, seniors may submit a quotation and other information for a “separate senior section with information about college/work/future plans and the personal quotes…Information related to personal yearbook quotes will be relayed sometime in 2017.”  

Considering the relatively early deadlines associated with assuring that the printed yearbook is in the hands of students before the end of the school year, I’m wondering if this “separate senior section” will be a companion to – not part of – the published yearbook. This could be something that can be more easily forgotten in posterity should controversy ensue once again.  

Mentioned more than once in all this is a key admonishment – “The school reserves the right to omit any inappropriate quotes.”  Once again, “inappropriate”, like “reasonable”, is in the eye of the beholder.

Considering the gems of wisdom that left the lips of our President-Elect during the campaign, the bar of “inappropriateness” may need to be set in an entirely different fashion in the years to come.

Camp Horne Reopens, An Unstable Anniversary

Camp Horne Road reopened just before Thanksgiving. During the closure, several businesses who felt a serious impact as a result of the work made their feelings known to local media.

These complaints dovetailed with the 10th Anniversary of an event that affected traffic patterns in this area in a catastrophic manner – the huge landslide at the former Dixmont State Hospital site, which at the time was being redeveloped into a Wal-Mart. Had I noticed this anniversary approaching, I might have done a bit more research and posted something about it, as I was not living here at the time and would have loved to have learned more. Having read several other media accounts over the years, the biggest impression I got from it was a vocal community activist group saying “we told you so”.

dixmont-site

Dixmont / Wal-Mart site, circa 2014. (Google Maps)

A comprehensive 2008 report from the Pa. Legislature details the scope and impact of the slide, the response to it, and the concerns of the surrounding citizens and community in advance of it. 

The site today appears to have been completely mitigated and stabilized, as best as engineers and other experts can. It serves as a sort of quiet monument to the dangers of unbridled, ill-advised growth for growth’s sake. 

Leet, Bell Acres Make a Quiet Dispatch Transition

40 years ago I was a junior at Quaker Valley High, working after school during the holiday season at the old Select Food Market at the corner of Beaver and Division Streets in Sewickley. This space now hosts Clearview Credit Union, a dance studio, and the Sharp Edge Bistro.

I remember several interesting people who worked with me there – a classmate from school, the owner and his son, and the grocery manager, who at the time was Chief of the Fair Oaks Volunteer Fire Department in Leet Township.

There was a police scanner in his office in the back of the store, tuned to the Beaver County fire dispatch channel. Back then, every siren and pager for all county fire departments were tested at 6:00 PM – every night of the week. The succession of radio paging tones took several minutes to complete – I coined it the “carol of the bells”.

Leet Township and neighboring Bell Acres Borough were part of that “bell choir”. Despite being located wholly in Allegheny County, these two communities have utilized Beaver County dispatchers for at least the last 40 years and well before.

The reason for this was likely the historically established population centers of these two towns being focused in the Fair Oaks area of Leet, and along Big Sewickley Creek Road in Bell Acres. These areas received their telephone service from Ambridge, and today they sit (along with roughly half of Leetsdale) within the 724 area code.

As technological advances have made these divisions largely irrelevant, the arrangement with Beaver County for dispatch services was apparently becoming more unjustified from a fiscal standpoint. Dispatch services for Allegheny County municipalities are provided without cost to them by the county’s 9-1-1 center, which is funded in part by revenue from the 9-1-1 surcharge that is charged on every telephone line. These funds are administered by the Commonwealth, through the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA).

According to Leet Township Manager Wayne Hyjek, Beaver County and Allegheny County were unable to reach an agreement on the transfer of surcharge funds to compensate Beaver’s provision of these services. As a result, Allegheny County began providing 9-1-1 and dispatching services to Leet and Bell Acres on December 8.

Full Disclosure: I am employed by Allegheny County as a 9-1-1 Dispatcher.

Scanner radio listeners and hobbyists in the immediate area may notice the new locations and responder units on the Allegheny County frequencies, but aside from those changes it doesn’t seem as if anything newsworthy has come out of the transition itself, if the lack of local media coverage is any barometer of that.

The change has thus far appeared transparent to citizens, which from an operational and service provision standpoint is a good thing.

The Most Exclusive Nuisance Bar Around?  

The Edgeworth Club describes itself on its website as “a private social and recreational club set among the stately homes of historic Sewickley, Pennsylvania”.

Recent actions by Edgeworth Borough Council give the indication that the resident of at least one stately home does not share the club’s enthusiasm for its proximity.

In October, council meeting minutes stated that the General Manager of the club wrote council stating that –

..a neighbor had complained about the noise level emitting from the Edgeworth Club after 10:00 pm. The neighbor threatened to turn the Edgeworth Club in to the PA Liquor Control Board for violating LCB noise regulations which are designed for nuisance bars. (Club General Manager Brett) Ninness stated that he feared the Club may be in jeopardy of losing their liquor license if the neighbor filed unwarranted claims with the Liquor Control Board. Mr. Ninness asked for the Borough to pass a Resolution stating that Edgeworth Borough enforces its own noise ordinance as opposed to the Liquor Control Board.

TheEdgeofWorthA municipality can actually petition the LCB to have its own noise ordinance replace the nuisance provisions of the liquor code, thus enabling more local control over enforcement. 

Edgeworth Council was only too happy to accommodate the club’s request during their November meeting, unanimously passing a resolution to begin this process with the LCB –

According to Mr. Ninness the application proposed by the Edgeworth Club was being submitted as a defense mechanism for the establishment against unfounded complaints…Chief (John) English also stated that the Edgeworth Club has always been accommodating when requests regarding noise levels have been made by the Police Department in the past.

As much as this approach seems to make sense to prevent the potential misapplication of a state regulation by supplanting it with local law, I still have to wonder about the outright dismissal of the neighbor’s complaints as “unwarranted” and “unfounded”. 

Maybe the resident(s) involved will have their turn before council in the future.

Nearly Ready at the Jethro

40 years ago this past summer I was working my first real job, behind the counter at the Isaly’s in Sewickley. The store was in the space currently occupied by Bruegger’s Bagels, across the street from the old Sewickley Theatre. One of my most memorable evenings was when All The President’s Men was showing, and the crowd that let out after the early evening screening really wanted ice cream. People were lined up 3 deep, and we didn’t finish up until very late.

Before its closing in 1979, the theatre was the anchor of nightlife in “The Village”. When Leslie and I go into Sewickley, it’s usually during the day, although we did enjoy watching a Pens game recently at Sidelines Sports Bar.

In about a month, numerous years of planning, fundraising, and preparation will come to fruition as the Village Theater Company opens the Tull Family Theater complex on Walnut Street. Since my post in March on the infusion of $500,000 by the Thomas and Alba Tull Foundation, the theater company has ramped up its preparations, and brought on expert staff and creative leadership as well.

Noteworthy to me are the changes in relationships that a healthy bank account can bring. Prior to the Tull Foundation’s involvement, Village Theater Company was reportedly aligned with Pittsburgh Filmmakers, but in the wake of the cash infusion, and reported financial problems at the Filmmakers, the company instead aligned themselves with the same film programmer used by the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill. Leslie and I visited there earlier this month to see the film Loving. The Manor is an impressive facility with some excellent offerings – hopefully we can expect the same from the Tull theater.

The Pittsburgh Filmmakers do deserve much credit for their continued offerings at their various venues around town. I drive by the Regent Square Theater regularly, and got a smile from their recent week-long showing of the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life – for free, with a suggested donation of food items that took up one side of the theatre lobby.

It was one way for people to enjoy this great story, and do something for those in need, before Mr. Potter moves into the White House.

While our main source of independent film viewing is just down the street at the library, I’m anticipating that we’ll be able to take in a film at Sewickley’s much-awaited new venue. I wonder if the new Crazy Mocha across the street will be ramping up their staff in anticipation of post-movie foot traffic.


There’s plenty more to say, and perhaps a reboot of sorts is needed here in response to what is about to happen with our national government. I’m looking forward to facing the joys and challenges of life in the coming year, whatever they may be.

Have a great new year ahead.

Posted in Censorship, Community, Government, History, Local, Personal, Politics, Public Safety, Radio Hobby, Schools | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summer / Autumn Decennial Digest

The days are moderating into the familiar, blessed coolness that brings with it the anticipation of harvest festivals, apple cider, and pumpkin spice everything.

I’ve been collecting things to summarize – things that I’ve touched upon before, things that are new, people who have departed (recently and long ago), and at the last, reflecting on a decade of blogging and what’s ahead.

The minstrel in the gallery
Looked down upon the smiling faces.
He met the gazes, observed the spaces
Between the old men’s cackle.

Gentleman Farmer’s Dream Deferred

The hubbub that surrounded billionaire Thomas Tull’s attempt to develop a small working farm on his newly-acquired properties in Leet Township was fleshed out before the township’s Zoning Hearing Board, along with a packed house of residents, on July 11.

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Cars and people pack the Leet Township Municipal Building for the Zoning Hearing concerning the Tull gentlemen’s farm, July 11.

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Just 11 days later, Mr. Tull’s representatives pulled the plug on the bulk of the farm project. At that time, Leet Assistant Manager Betsy Rengers confirmed that the permit applications for the extensive fencing had also been withdrawn. Contacted again in late September, Ms. Rengers stated that no additional filings for permits or variances had been made by Mr. Tull or his representatives.

There are some improvements underway on the Edgeworth side of the property. The July meeting minutes of Edgeworth Borough Council indicated that Mr. Tull intends to build a sugaring shack for maple syrup production on the property.

Recent contact with an Edgeworth Borough representative indicated that this project is still under way, and also includes an apiary for honey production. The other aspects of the farm operation, including a small dairy, have been earmarked for another location, possibly in the Robinson area.

Mr. Tull seems to be demonstrating with this decision (along with the earlier one not to demolish the historic house that sits on his property) a continuing desire to keep from offending his neighbors as much as is practical. That’s a good thing.

So while the Tull property will likely not become the land of milk and honey, it still stands to be quite the project. Judging from the signage posted at the most conspicuous access point to his property, Mr. Tull has made it clear that local curiosity-seekers need not apply.

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Entrance to Construction Site for Tull Estate.

He brewed a song of love and hatred,
Oblique suggestions and he waited.
He polarized the pumpkin-eaters,
Static-humming panel-beaters…

 

Edgeworth Updates – Swift, Silent, and Similar

The tempest that was the Edgeworth Square Development, which first proposed a McDonald’s and then a Chipotle until disagreements between property owners created a snag in the process, was resolved and quickly approved by Edgeworth Council this past April – and there’s a reason you may not have heard about it until July, when it was reported by the Sewickley Herald. TheEdgeofWorth

The well-written story outlined the traffic control measures that would have to be made within the multi-owner commercial complex in order for the development to commence, but nothing substantive appears to be happening as yet, and Edgeworth Manager John Schwend told the Herald that he wasn’t sure if a Chipotle was still in the offing, or not.

The manner in which the development was approved was as stealthy as the manner in which the Herald reported the agreement between Esmark (Jim Bouchard) and Edgeworth Real Estate Associates (Grant Scott, Drs. Wilcox and Felix) was reached:

Edgeworth Real Estate Associates later filed a lawsuit and Esmark filed a request to intervene, which was approved Feb. 29. Both parties agreed to work out an agreement to the development to avoid having to go to court.

Edgeworth Borough Manager John Schwend said council voted in April to approve the terms of the settlement.

Nothing about the development was on April’s agenda – per the April minutes Council approved it at the end of the meeting, after returning from executive session to discuss litigation. Edgeworth resident Mike Tomana relayed these observations at the time:

They approved a settlement in executive session regarding Hazel Lane litigation that caused the development to be on hold; then came out of executive session to approve the development.   Obviously done in such a way that the residents could not have known what was happening. Very disappointing and intentional since the vote was not on the agenda.

Looks like council pulled a “fast one” like they did with the fire department in 2011. And just like with that episode, the media was slow to get to the story and report on it.

What will be interesting to see now is whether or not anything actually gets built there.

Historic Preservation and Representative Government

The initial controversies about the Tull development, which I detailed at the beginning of this year, raised anew the 20-plus year old controversy regarding the lack of a historic preservation ordinance in Edgeworth.

The Herald also reported in July about a renewed initiative by the Sewickley Valley Historical Society to establish a historic district in Edgeworth through passage of an ordinance, similar to that proposed by the group Edgeworth Preservation in the 1990’s.

Quoting the Herald account:

Borough manager John Schwend said when people came to council to protest the potential demolition of Muottas and asked council to create a historic district, the response was: “If this is something a majority of the residents of Edgeworth are interested in, we’re more than happy to do that.”

People spearheading the protest against demolition of the Walker house were told to come up with a proposal and show it has support, Schwend said.

“You need to come up with a good proposal and see if there is a majority of support in the residents of the borough,” he said.

This is very similar to what the borough stated nearly 20 years ago – gather consensus first, then come to us. Sounds to me as if the Historical Society may need to do just that – leverage the tools of the day to elicit opinion from Edgeworth citizens, and make sure those opinions are quantified and effectively communicated to those elected representatives on council, who are charged with representing their constituency, and presumably keep track of their opinions as a matter of routine.

Then it will get interesting.

Litigation Front

The minutes of the Edgeworth Council meeting of July 19 were filled with accolades for police personnel that were retiring and/or newly promoted, and included discussions, both pro and con, about historic preservation.

Perhaps not noticed as much was a line item in the bills to be paid – a settlement payment to Scott and Ryan Fetterolf for $135,000. This stems from an altercation between these men and an Edgeworth Police officer in August 2013, near the Edgeworth Club.

The men were subsequently acquitted or had charges withdrawn, leading to one filing suit against the borough in 2015. The settlement approved in July is the apparent resolution of the matter. The involved officer no longer works for Edgeworth Borough, and was himself convicted of Aggravated Assault for an incident in Bellevue near the end of 2013.

On another continuing legal front, Edgeworth’s appeal of a Common Pleas Court decision allowing an 85-year old resident to cut down three trees damaging her sidewalk is still pending. Oral arguments are scheduled before Commonwealth Court in November.

 

He pacified the nappy-suffering, infant-bleating,
One-line jokers, T.V. documentary makers
(overfed and undertakers).

Sunday paper backgammon players
Family-scarred and women-haters.

Last Month in Personal History

Speaking of Edgeworth, a 30-year retrospective of stories from a September 2006 Herald  (Page 4) brought back a couple of difficult memories from 40 years ago last month.

My family was living on Maple Lane in Edgeworth the morning of Saturday, September 18, 1976. I was up fairly early getting ready for that afternoon’s football game as a member of the Quaker Valley High School band.

When I came outside to meet my ride, I noticed that Shields Lane was closed off at Maple, and there were police vehicles staged down the road. It wasn’t until later that day that we found out that the body of a girl had been found in a yard there.

Heidi Morningstar, age 12, had allegedly been taken from her Ambridge home the day before, was strangled, and left in the yard of what was then the Zug estate. While subjects were arrested and charged in 1979, those charges were dismissed in 1982.

The Morningstar case was featured by the Beaver County Times in an October 2015 series on cold case murders.

Earlier that same month, Eric Swenson, age 16, tried to cross Route 65 between Orchard Lane and Hazel Lane and was struck by a motorcycle. This was before there was a traffic signal at the Hazel Lane intersection. Eric was hospitalized for about a month before he died from his injuries.

Eric and I were well acquainted, but not especially close. Nevertheless, I tried to get the ball rolling for what I saw at the time as a serious deficiency for pedestrians, especially Sewickley Academy students who often crossed the highway to get to Burger King. I wrote a letter to the Herald (Page 4A)and circulated petitions in places such as my father’s beauty salon and the faculty lounge at the Academy’s Senior School.

Despite these and other entreaties from Edgeworth Borough councils at the time, it took PennDOT until 1987 to finally acquiesce to the installation of a signal at Hazel Lane. And nearly thirty years after that, we’re still talking about pedestrian and vehicle safety on Route 65.

Freshly day-glow’d factory cheaters
(salaried and collar-scrubbing).
He titillated men-of-action

Belly warming, hands still rubbing                               On the parts they never mention.

 

EpiPen Follies

When I posted almost two years ago about the political maneuvering behind legislation regarding the stocking of epinephrine injectors in schools, I did not think that the story would explode the way it did in August and September.epipen_follies

Like the price of the EpiPen, which almost doubled in that 2 year period, the fallout was ugly and nearly constant for several weeks, and continued this past week with accusations about the overcharging of government benefit plans.

In my original post, I detailed the activities of at least one quasi-Astroturf advocacy group, funded in part by the drug companies marketing epinephrine injectors, in lobbying lawmakers at the federal and state levels.

According to Reuters, Mylan also actively recruited food allergy bloggers to write about these issues, by conducting blogger “summits” that included expensive meals, editing assistance by professional PR staff, and advice on how to give interviews, etc.

In the wake of the fallout from Mylan’s actions, many bloggers feel like they were used. I don’t blame them.

The only other revelation about this whole debacle came courtesy of the Eat That Read This newsletter. Mylan CEO Heather Bresch, the target of the wrath of parents, health care advocates, and congressmen,  commutes to the company’s Southpointe headquarters from a residence in Sewickley Heights.

 

Then he called the band down to the stage
And he looked at all the friends he’d made.

They Have Gone Home

There were two noteworthy departures from this mortal coil over the summer. The first was someone I didn’t expect to meet, the second someone I worked with who accomplished much.

The Rev. John Zingaro was a Presbyterian minister, originally from Ellwood City, who traveled the world as a missionary, and was a well-loved pastor of churches in the midwest and elsewhere. He returned to the Pittsburgh area for cancer treatment, and was a part of the stated supply of the Pittsburgh Presbytery. This brought him to the pulpit of St. Andrew’s in Sewickley on multiple occasions over the last year, where he was engaging, articulate, insightful, and courageous in the face of a battle that he was losing.

Rev. Zingaro passed away in mid-July. He preached his last sermon on June 26 at Northmont Presbyterian in the North Hills. Luckily, this church records these sermons and posts them online.

Trained as a writer and journalist prior to his call to ministry, Rev. Zingaro was the Sports Information Director at his alma mater, Point Park University, officiated several different sports, and made no secret of his status as a Pirates fan. For several years he was a fixture at the Bucs’ fantasy camp.

John Zingaro was a man in full. A link to his blog remains in the sidebar of this one.

Cancer also took an energetic achiever who was highly respected in her field, and accomplished much despite daunting personal adversity. Elizabeth Wertz Evans passed away in August, and left an indelible mark on her profession and those who practiced it with her, regardless of the role they assumed.

I am privileged to have worked with Liz, and even though this was over 20 years ago, her energy and success in the face of significant loss and transition is worth some contemplation and appreciation.

Another multi-talented former colleague from those days, John Chamberlin, runs the popular local website yajagoff.com. He wrote a poignant tribute to Liz that says it better than I ever could.

Camp Horne Closure Complaints

After expanding on the closure of Camp Horne Road in late August, it wasn’t surprising to see some local businesses complaining of a loss of business as a result of the project. Several businesses have put signs out along or near Route 65 advertising that they are still open, or offering discounts. Gas prices at the BP / Seven-Eleven at the 65 / Camp Horne intersection are below those at other stations along Route 65.

Perhaps the county will coordinate better with local businesses and other stakeholders in the future, especially when it comes to identifying and posting detours. This includes the  upcoming closure of the Emsworth Bridge over Camp Horne Road.

Ten Years Gone

I began this blog in September 2006 in the midst of transition, with the specter of loss looming over the horizon of my life and the lives of my family. Since then there have been significant personal joys, tremendous loss and grief, triumphs over adversity, and disagreements approaching intransigence. In other words, life itself.

Through all of this I have strived to continue with my writing as an outlet, while at the same time questioning both my role as an observer and advocate (along with a smattering of activism), identifying perhaps with the “Minstrel in the Gallery”, the lyric of which is interspersed throughout this post.

During these 10 years, the changes in my life have resulted in a refocusing of sorts, along with re-thinking what I’m really here to do. I see near mirror images of myself 25 years ago in the course of doing my work each day, and it’s unsettling to realize that in some places people embrace change, and in others they just give it a hug while remaining steadfastly the same.

One perspective was introduced to me by my current wife, who largely avoids the news. This occasionally puts us at loggerheads, especially when I’m exploring social media and/or researching something that she (and others) may consider inconsequential, or when I could be (or should be) doing something else.

I have tried to understand her thinking, which has its roots in various places in scripture, such as the Book of Ecclesiastes. Chapter 3 may sound familiar to those with an affinity for 60’s music. As someone whose professional and personal life has been driven by history and our place in it, this is difficult to truly get a grasp on, but I do sense the value of putting the world in its place, and keeping busy with things that really matter. Like her.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton do not count among those things.

Perhaps this is a contributing factor to this blog being reduced to an average of a single post a month. Another is the fact that we have a granddaughter that we love, and care for on a regular basis. While I resist the urge to plaster her photo onto my blog repeatedly, this did not prevent the Herald from putting her on Page One a few weeks back. Nice picture.

We’ll see how things go. Best wishes for a pleasant Autumn.

The minstrel in the gallery
Looked down on the rabbit-run.
And threw away his looking-glass
Saw his face in everyone.

Jethro Tull (1975)

 

Posted in Business, Community, Faith, Government, History, Internet, Local, Media, Personal, Pittsburgh, Public Safety, Traffic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Camp Horne Closure Highlights Commuter Crunch, Other Issues

RoadCrewHumor

Construction season is one of the more vexatious components of any summer in Pennsylvania. The above-average temperatures of recent weeks have made the daily commute into town just that much more of a chore than it already is.

Since around Memorial Day, the section of Route 65 southbound from the McKees Rocks Bridge has been impacted by a major reconstruction project. In mid-July, this project actually closed those southbound lanes and shunted traffic down onto Beaver Avenue.

Commuters on Route 65 faced with construction or traffic delays typically have an easy alternate route into town, by accessing Camp Horne Road, AKA the Green Belt, in Emsworth and traveling the two miles to I-279, AKA the Parkway North.

My route, however, takes me to the much-improved Route 28, and there are no easy ways to transition onto 28 from I-279 South, especially since PennDOT closed the ramp onto 28 North from East Ohio Street in late July.

Taking the Veterans Bridge to Crosstown Boulevard, with the intent of accessing I-376 via the Boulevard of the Allies, is complicated by traffic backing up to access the construction-laden Liberty Bridge. The traffic to get to the bridge often blocks access to the Allies off-ramp.

As a result of what increasingly feels like a conspiracy of congestion, I have endured the southbound Route 65 detour to get to Route 28.  Thanks to a questionably timed construction project that began a week ago this past Monday, many commuters are having their drives complicated even further.

On August 15, Allegheny County Public Works closed Camp Horne Road about a quarter of a mile in from Route 65 for about 3 months. According to the Tribune-Review, this insult to commuter injury comes with a recommended detour of nearly 8 miles – taking motorists up I-79 and across Mount Nebo Road all the way to Lowries Run Road, where it becomes Camp Horne at the I-279 junction.

CampHorneClosure2

The Camp Horne Road closure, marked with a red X, and the recommended detour (in blue) to get around it.        Google Maps

The County’s Public Works Department has been responsive and professional when I’ve made inquiries of them in the past, and this time was no exception. My question to them was as follows:

Can you advise how much coordination is being done with PennDOT on these and other projects, so as not to negatively impact vehicle traffic on multiple routes?

This is especially noteworthy due to the current closure of Route 65 south of the McKees Rocks Bridge until sometime in the fall, and the use of Camp Horne to I-279 by many commuters as an alternate route into the city.

It would appear that commuters are running out of options due to multiple projects that affect several primary routes of travel in the same general area at the same time.

Deputy Director Michael J. Dillon replied:

We have been coordinating this project with PennDOT and they are aware this work is going on.  The detour we are posting for this closure does not conflict with any current work PennDOT is doing.  I apologize for the inconvenience this project will cause but the wall supporting Camp Horne Road is quickly detreating (sic) and if it is not replaced could collapse and result in an emergency closure of the roadway.   Thank you.

If the work needs to be done now, then that’s when it has to be done. Amidst the grudging acceptance of this fact comes frustration on several fronts related to the manner in which construction and maintenance occurs, and how it is communicated to the motoring public. Among these are:

Detours  As illustrated above, the posted detour for this closure, while chosen to accommodate all vehicles, is hideous nonetheless. Mr. Dillon explained the county’s rationale to the Trib: 

Dillon said the county likes to use either roads it owns or state roads for such detours because they’re capable of handling larger traffic loads, as well as heavy trucks.

Dillon encouraged drivers to follow the posted detour and to avoid searching for shortcuts.

“There are neighborhoods and communities in that area, and those roads aren’t designed to handle that kind of traffic,” he said.

CampHorneClosure3

An alternate route (in yellow) for passenger cars involves accessing Roosevelt Rd. from Mt. Nebo Rd., then turning left onto Crawford Rd. just past Avonworth Elementary School. Crawford connects to Camp Horne at ACORD Park.  Watch out for the speed bumps on the lower part of Crawford.                     Google Maps

As Mr. Dillon stated, the ‘official’ detour is the only one suited for all manner of vehicles. If there is any positive to be taken from this, large trucks that would normally take Route 65 to get to Camp Horne will now be on Interstate 79.

This should not, however, preclude the identification of suitable alternate routes for passenger vehicles, some of which are illustrated above and below.

CampHorneClosure7

Another alternate route from Route 65 is to make a left onto Hazelwood Ave. in Emsworth at the traffic signal by The Dog Stop. Make the next right onto Center Ave. and follow to a left turn on Locust St. at the Emsworth Municipal Building. Make a left at the end of Locust onto Roosevelt Rd. and follow it to Crawford Rd., as illustrated in the previous photo.     Google Maps

Some alternate routes are NOT suitable for a lot of traffic – they are just too narrow and steep. Examples are Toms Run Road, which connects Route 65 with Roosevelt Road from just south of the Glenfield Viaduct, and Eicher Road, which connects Roosevelt Road with Camp Horne just past the actual construction site. Eicher is so narrow at the bottom that it is a one way road down to Camp Horne.

It’s been reported that the Ohio Township Police have been stepping up patrols along Roosevelt Road to keep speeding and wrong-way vehicles in check. Safe, legal driving along unfamiliar, potentially over-used roadways is always a good idea.

Notification / Coordination – Allegheny County did themselves one better by closing Blackburn Road in Sewickley Heights between Thawmont Dr. and Country Club Road, on the same day as they closed Camp Horne.

The official detour for this closure is up Nevin Avenue in Sewickley – a densely populated residential neighborhood – to county-owned Waterworks Road, instead of the less developed but equally direct Glen Mitchell Road, which ends basically in the same spot in the Heights.

BlackburnDetours

The closure of Blackburn Road in Sewickley Heights (Red X), with the county recommended detour along Nevin Ave. and Waterworks Rd. (in blue), and an alternate using Glen Mitchell Rd. (in yellow).              Google Maps

Generally, citizens and the media get about a one week or less advance notice of work being done by PennDOT or the county. While the logistical requirements related to contractors, etc. may be contributing factors to this, I can’t see any other reason to withhold information until such a short window exists, other than to prevent an organized outcry via mainstream and social media, or via outright protest.

PennDOT does deserve credit for their comprehensive 511PA website and mobile app, which provides information for state maintained roadways. Allegheny County provides visual and other project information via the robust County GIS website, which is comprehensive, current, and really useful.

As I’ve written about previously, what local jurisdictions do is very much hit or miss, and it hasn’t changed much in the nearly 4 years since my original post. Several weeks ago, I complained to PennDOT about an unannounced single lane closure of Route 65 south at the Haysville Light, where crews were replacing a traffic signal post.

A PennDOT representative replied that the work was being performed by a contractor for a local municipality, and they had NOT been notified of the work. They stated that the municipality would be reminded about their responsibility to communicate with PennDOT when doing work that impacts a state roadway.

Information and Advocacy – As much as the Internet has given numerous public and private entities the ability to receive, leverage, and distribute information about traffic disruptions in real-time, there really isn’t a comprehensive source that encompasses impacts on traffic by all of these entities – including utilities, tree service companies, and municipal authorities.

For me, the public roadways are critical infrastructure just like buried utility pipes or overhead power and telecommunications lines. As these deliver vital resources such as water, natural gas, and the Internet, and move waste products safely for treatment, our roadways move human and material resources to work, school, leisure, and the marketplace.

Any construction plans near buried utility lines requires a call beforehand to 8-1-1, the designated N-1-1 number for utility location services. Why shouldn’t any disruption to the normal flow of traffic require notification to a similar, publicly accessible information clearinghouse?

There are a few resources out there to help – one is the interactive, user-enabled traffic app Waze. I’ve been using this for several weeks now, and appreciate the timely updates from fellow motorists (and the ability to contribute myself), construction and delay information from PennDOT (which is an active participant), and accurate directions and drive times.

In other metro areas, apps like Waze are despised by residents in many neighborhoods for the ease in which shortcuts to avoid traffic and construction can be located – often through residential areas. I get the impression that these apps haven’t taken hold in Pittsburgh as much as elsewhere, but perhaps the frequent admonitions from PennDOT and others to stick to the posted detours is an indication that technology is giving commuters a viable tool in the battle against congestion.

There are, however, reasons for congestion that have roots in other issues than just the number of cars, and the inadequacy of many of our local road systems. It can be reasonably argued that roads like Camp Horne and Route 910 (through the greater Wexford metropolitan area) were not designed to handle the traffic associated with development activity that many consider excessive.

The inadequacy and expense of mass transit also contributes to the amount of vehicles on the roadways. I can take the bus to work – it takes 3 times as long, requires 2 transfers, and costs more than driving, as I can park for free. I feel for those who have to navigate this area without access to a vehicle.

I’m personally surprised that given the amount of time we spend commuting, and the expense involved in purchasing, maintaining, and insuring our vehicles, that an individual or group hasn’t stepped up to establish a regional platform for commuter information and grassroots advocacy.

One group that seems to come close to footing the bill is the National Motorists Association, which has been featured in the sidebar of this blog for several years. A brief statement about their history seems to sum it up very well:

The National Motorists Association was founded in 1982. We began by combating the 55-mph National Maximum Speed Limit and we continue to support efforts to retain motorists’ freedoms and rights. We support traffic laws based on sound engineering principles and public consensus — not political agendas.

The organization with which many are most familiar, the American Automobile Association, has a very robust exchange website that addresses numerous topics related to driver safety, along with encouraging government and industry to enhance the same. Their approach seems much different from that of the NMA, which paints many government efforts to improve safety as political affronts to both highway efficiency and individual liberty.

AAA wants to encourage motorists to obey posted speed limits and share the roadway with bicycles and other types of vehicles. NMA seems to support the same, but wants speed limits revised to the 85th percentile of prevailing speed as obtained via traffic studies – which means the limits may very well go up. NMA also opposes traffic calming, including the so-called Vision Zero initiative, which has in its toolbox something that has vexed Pittsburgh motorists in recent years – dedicated bike lanes.

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Over this past weekend, PennDOT quietly opened a relief valve for some congestion with the resumption of normal traffic on Route 51 between the West End Circle and McKees Rocks after a three-year reconstruction project. This will likely take a lot of pressure off of northbound Route 65, which has often seen lengthy backups with commuters using it and the McKees Rocks Bridge as a detour.

That is, until the next construction project rolls around.

Contact information for PennDOT District 11, which covers Allegheny, Beaver, and Lawrence Counties, is available here. Allegheny County Public Works contact info is available here.

It’s also a good idea to keep in regular contact with your own municipality, to see when activities such as paving, utility work, and tree trimming are taking place. Ask them what efforts they are making to inform the community, and area motorists, in advance.

School’s Open – Drive Carefully.

Have a great month ahead.

Posted in Government, Local, Personal, Pittsburgh, Traffic, Transportation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Development Update – Billionaire Farmer, Treehouse Karma

It’s time to re-visit some of the topics I’ve written about concerning recent development and land use efforts in our local area. Some are still newsworthy, and are starting to generate more activity on the local government front. Others are continuing to serve as reminders of how government should be designed to serve We The People..or not.

Tull Estate Expands     

A few weeks ago while Leslie and I were walking the dog, a construction pickup pulled to a stop on Ferry Street in Leetsdale. The driver flagged through a flatbed semi carrying a large bulldozer, which then made the right onto Beaver and the left up Camp Meeting Road.

After seeing this, I got online and made a phone call or two, to confirm something that I had speculated about in a post from the beginning of this year.

Allegheny County property records show that two residences along Camp Meeting Road in Leet Township, along with some adjacent parcels of land, were sold in March and May of this year for just under $1.5 Million.

Three Rivers Trust is now the listed owner of 200 and 210 Camp Meeting – this is the same owner as the former Walker Estate, “Muottas”, purchased by Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull in November 2015.

These purchases now link Mr. Tull’s existing property to Camp Meeting Road, and he has wasted little time in getting things moving..literally.

“Muottas” Gets Ready To Move

210CampMeetingAccessRoad

Earth-moving equipment transforms the driveway of 210 Camp Meeting Road into an access road back to the former Walker estate “Muottas”, and its new location on the property.

As I wrote previously, the access to Mr. Tull’s property from the Edgeworth side is extremely narrow and somewhat steep, unsuited for heavy construction equipment.

After driving past the above-pictured location and seeing the work in progress, I spoke with Leet Township Assistant Manager Betsy Rengers, who confirmed that permits have been obtained to grade a new access road from 210 Camp Meeting back to the site where the old house will be relocated to (which is in Leet), as well as building permits to prepare the site for the eventual move of the old house. Heavy equipment belonging to a house moving company has been seen traveling up and down Camp Meeting Road as well.

MuottasDriveway

Driveway leading onto Tull property from Little Sewickley Creek Road side in Edgeworth, now gated off.

Leet Has Growing Pains

Along with the roadway creation and site preparation, Mr. Tull and his representatives are also moving quickly to secure the appropriate government approvals for other aspects of the construction project, such as water and sewer connections. A Leetsdale Borough official stated last week that sewer pipes from the new construction will eventually run under a roadway that goes through the Lark Inn Fields subdivision.

Infrastructure notwithstanding, there are additional development aspects of the project that are curious, and are drawing a curious response from some area residents.

This Monday, the Leet Township Zoning Hearing Board will hold what could be the first of several hearings on Mr. Tull’s request to obtain zoning variances to establish a “gentleman’s farm” on approximately 90 acres of his existing property in Leet.

According to Wikipedia

A gentleman’s farm is a largely historic term for a property, of varying size, that is owned by a farmer traditionally know as a gentleman farmer…the largely historic term used to describe a country gentleman who has a farm as part of his estate and farms mainly for pleasure rather than for profit.  His acreage may farm any number of types of grains, poultry or other livestock. The estate can vary from under ten to hundreds of acres.

MuottasFencing

New fence going up along the property line for the Tull estate on the Edgeworth side.

Mr. Tull has also requested a variance to erect a fence completely surrounding the farm property.  As illustrated above, fencing appears to already be going up on the Edgeworth side of the property, which will presumably connect to the Leet side if approved – possibly resulting in the fencing off of the entire estate.

News about this proposal and the hearing was distributed to Leet residents, including those in the nearby Quaker Heights subdivision. I first caught wind of it through the neighborhood-based social media site nextdoor.com.

A June 28 post to the Quaker Heights neighborhood on that site included the following:

You should have received a yellow paper from the Zoning Board about a meeting on July 11 and I urge everyone up in Leet Twp to attend! On the right side of Camp meeting coming up the hill there is a large Farm that is trying to be developed which could affect all of us on top of the hill across from it and it beside us . We might end up losing a large plot of land for taxable income along with a lot of other issues from this so called farm that will affect all of us in Quaker Heights, (Buhlmont) Drive and Sewickley Highlands that none of us were aware of until now. PLEASE attend this hearing and tell your neighbors to attend as they plan on running chain link fence along Camp meeting to block the deer out which means our deer population will soar and we are losing valuable tax income from this property becoming a farm.

This type of community information or alert is almost expected when land use issues arise that may impact the perceived quality of life of a particular area or neighborhood. What makes this one different is that the person posting this “alert” is using the name Susann Hyjek – wife of Leet Township Manager Wayne Hyjek.

This is not to say that Mrs. Hyjek isn’t entitled to her own opinion, independent of her husband or his employer – but combined with the distribution of a meeting notice it does seem to expose an irony in comparison to other recent land use issues of note.

‘Equal Protection of the Laws’

Speaking of those issues, it was heartening to read the front page of last week’s Sewickley Herald and see Elise Truchan bringing her treehouse back to life in a place where the tender sensibilities of at least one neighbor, and the intransigence of Leet Township and its codes, aren’t as offended.

To try and put Mr. Tull and his proposals into proper perspective – they ain’t no 8th grader’s school project. Ample evidence of this is contained within the proposals listed in the Zoning Hearing Board notice, specifically the last one:

(3) If the variances are not granted, a challenge to the validity of the Township’s Zoning Ordinance adopted by the Leet Township Commissioners, on the grounds that the Ordinance allegedly does not properly address agricultural uses within the Township.

From the tone of this request, it sounds as if Mr. Tull is prepared to challenge any disapproval, possibly with legal action, for which it would appear he can very easily afford.

In short – Give me what I want, or I may very well litigate you into submission.

I anticipate that there will indeed be a healthy crowd when the Zoning Hearing Board convenes on Monday evening. The fact that they may muster a quorum, which they couldn’t bother to do when the Truchans paid for a hearing, may also show that they are taking this proposal seriously – which is entirely appropriate and proper for ALL citizens, not just the ones with deep pockets.

To add even more irony, July 9 marks the 148th anniversary of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which includes the following:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

It is the responsibility of Leet Township to give these proposals a fair hearing and review in accordance with existing law and regulations. Mr. Tull’s representatives, and those citizens present, will no doubt demand nothing less. It’s just a shame that those same due process requirements were at best given limited shrift in at least one previous case.

I hope that the township and its citizens come out of the process feeling better about it than the Truchan family did. If not, there will be some serious self-evaluation in order – probably around election time.

The outcome of that may be directly proportional to the amount of residential landscape vegetation consumed by displaced, migrating deer.

Have a good week ahead.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Community, Government, Growth, Local, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Our Hockey Year

I’ve gotten away from writing about things that myself and my wife enjoy together, or other aspects of our life as a couple – as parents, grandparents, and so on. The only exception to this is when our lives as individuals dovetail with something that is topical or newsworthy.

So it has been with the exploits of this year’s edition of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

As those of you who have been reading this blog over the years are perhaps painfully aware, my affinity for the Pens has been long-standing and well documented. Hockey is also something that my wife Leslie has been a fan of, since the days of her favorite player, Wayne Gretzky.

Since we’ve been following the Pens together, Leslie has focused on goaltenders, in particular Marc-Andre Fleury.  More about him later.

Over the past year, Leslie and I have done some interesting things related to our interest in the game, all without attending any actual games. We’ve talked about going to watch other local hockey teams like Robert Morris or the Wheeling Nailers, but couldn’t make any of them owing to all of those things that keep working grandparents running around.

For the second consecutive season, we didn’t make any Pens games either – owing to the cost of the games themselves as well as the associated trappings and logistics of a trip to Consol. We did find quite the suitable alternative for the season’s last game, however.

HHOF 060115_2Our interesting year began last June. We made our second trip into Canada together, going up to Toronto for a day-long exploration of the Hockey Hall of Fame. The presence of the Stanley Cup is but one of the numerous educational, historical, and entertainment features of the hall, well worth a visit if you’re so inclined.

In September, the Pens offered tickets to lucky e-mail entrants to atPens_Cranberrytend the first days of training camp at their new facility in Cranberry. Leslie and I got to take in the new facility and a couple of practice sessions.

While getting ready to leave, we ran into a fellow Quaker Valley alumnus, who was working security. He directed us to an area outside the building near the players’ parking lot. Fans were lined up near the driveway leading from the lot, in hopes that players would pull over and sign autographs.

One of those plaLeslie_Fleuryyers was Marc-Andre Fleury. Leslie was fortunate enough to be in position when Mr. Fleury pulled up in his cream-colored Maserati, and signed things for a few people, including Leslie’s number 29 jersey.

While we found this to be an exciting and unique experience, we were both put off by some of the fans, and some of the players as well. There were some players who were truly genuine and outgoing – most notably Pascal Dupuis and Ben Lovejoy. The Pens will miss them both.

As this past season got underway in earnest, it appeared that Mr. Fleury was settling into a very familiar role, that of helping to keep the team competitive, through offensive droughts and defensive lapses, and at least somewhere near a playoff spot.

While GM Jim Rutherford was working his first piece of magic in replacing Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan, Leslie and I were keeping an eye on other teams in the NHL, with particular interest in Western Conference teams and their goaltenders. We did this in part with my Christmas present from Leslie – a subscription to NHL Center Ice.

We got to watch several games involving our second favorite team, the Los Angeles Kings, and other games with teams you almost never see unless the Pens are playing them – such as the Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets, and my stepdaughter’s favorite team, the Ottawa Senators.

The Center Ice package also allows you to see how Canadian TV networks cover the NHL. This coverage has some noticeable differences from what we’re used to in the US. Most noteworthy for me was the amount that Canadian TV focuses on fans in the stands, such as the green men of Vancouver and other oddities.

As Rutherford and Sullivan began to work their magic on the ice and in the front office, players that we had grown to admire over the years departed for other places. Notable on this list is Rob Scuderi, traded to Chicago last December for Trevor Daley. I also miss Bobby Farnham, AKA “Mayhem”, who was picked up on waivers by New Jersey and wound up scoring at least twice on his old team afterward.

As the regular season proceeded toward its end, the increasing emphasis on youth and
speed, with veterans who could fit the bill interspersed with energetic rookies, coalesced into the well-oiled hockey machine that went the distance this year.

Pens50logo3cups

Uh, make that 4 Cups now.

In February, the Pens unveiled the logo design for their 50th season. This coincided with the 50th anniversary of Pittsburgh being granted an NHL franchise, and the design incorporated the then-three Stanley Cup championships the team had won.

I had initially wondered out loud if the Pens’ management and ownership had essentially given up on the 2015-16 season as a chance to bring home another Cup.

From the looks of it, the logo will need to be redesigned – a chore I’m betting that no one is complaining about.

The end of the regular season had almost a surreal quality to it – with the injury to Fleury in late March, the arrival and subsequent injury to Matt Murray, and starting the playoff run with Jeff Zatkoff in goal, backed by Tristan Jarry.

Leslie and I watched most of the playoff games apart, owing to work schedules. Those games we did get to see together were watched mostly at home. Like so many other fans, we ventured out for Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, and found all of the local sports-oriented watering holes to be packed to capacity. We then settled on a nice meal while watching the game amidst a very limited crowd at our favorite Chinese restaurant.

While we were crestfallen when the Pens didn’t clinch at home, I thought that the Pens having Bill Mazeroski on hand was a nice touch – just in case.

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With that Game 5 loss came the Game 6 clincher in San Jose, on a Sunday night, one that I usually have off. When the Pens announced that they would host a watch party inside Consol Energy Center, we found ourselves inside a very cold arena with an awful lot of fellow fans watching a big TV.IMG_20160612_225659

The watch party experience was unique and somewhat enjoyable. We parked our car on the North Shore and took the T to Steel Plaza for the short walk to Consol. After the game, while the celebrations were getting under way across the city, thanks to the T we were back at our car in 30 minutes and home 20 minutes after that.

GulfBldg061216

In the midst of the celebrations, we couldn’t help but notice Marc-Andre Fleury’s turn with the Stanley Cup. He was the 4th to hoist it, after Sidney Crosby, Trevor Daley, and Pascal Dupuis.

Fleury handled it a total of 10 seconds, if that – he made a few half-hearted turns, with the chalice only half-raised, before handing it off. Something was clearly amiss – perhaps it’s because he is likely more acutely aware of his situation than anyone else.

It’s clear that Matt Murray has cemented his position on the big club, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that he is completely ready for prime time. Murray has some problem areas that teams tried to exploit during the playoffs – most notably above the glove hand. That swarming defense that helped to insulate him from shots during the playoffs isn’t necessarily going to be there as much during the regular season, either.

The disturbing speculation about Fleury’s future on the team, accelerated by his over $5 Million salary and its impact on the team’s salary cap, has been a cause for consternation among many who realize this oft-overlooked truth – Without Fleury’s consistent play during the first half of this season, the Pens wouldn’t have had a chance to celebrate like this

CrosbyParade061516

Sidney Crosby hoists the Stanley Cup to an appreciative crowd during the championship parade, June 15, 2016.

And with this, the unlikely saga of the Penguins’ spectacular season melts into the collective consciousness of the fans like soft serve ice cream in the summer heat. The maneuvers to create the 50th edition of this team for next season are already under way – let’s hope that the same combination of business acumen, solid management strategies, and excellent coaching and team-building will produce similar results.

As much as we wear our collective hearts on our sleeve with regard to certain players, we have to understand as well that the Penguins are not a philanthropic enterprise. To those who may disagree with decisions ranging from certain personnel moves to their handling of the development of the lower Hill District, those like myself, who have been following the team for over 40 of their 49 seasons, remember the bankruptcies, the incompetence, the uncertainty, and the unlikely rescue of the team by its greatest player ever.

The noise from the numerous, privately operated “fanboy” sites is something that we have largely ignored, if only because we don’t have the time to sift out all of the subtle nuances of hockey insight from what feels like Soap Opera Digest for a professional sports team. If I want that, I’ll have some fun and re-watch Slap Shot..for something like the 50th time.

There’s an irony about that movie that also plays into this hockey year. Johnstown, PA and its iconic War Memorial Arena (which served as home ice for the fictitious Charlestown Chiefs in the film) won the Kraft Hockeyville competition last year, with part of the prize being an NHL pre-season game in the refurbished arena.

 

In late September of last year the Pens took on the Lightning in Johnstown. As part of the festivities, lots of tie-ins to the movie were put forth – from Evgeni Malkin and others wearing Hanson Brothers glasses during warm-ups to Marc-Andre Fleury and Dan Potash from ROOT Sports recreating the opening scene of the film.

There’s an awful lot of irony to the fact that 10 months later, after a Stanley Cup-winning season, some of us can see Fleury in another scene from that movie – one not nearly as nice.

The Pens will be OK, and we will continue to follow them – and Fleury – wherever fate and finances may take them.

See you in September.

Posted in Local, Media, Personal, Pittsburgh, Sports | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Quaker Valley: A Great Year Ends with Crash, Thuds

Carlin_Kids_Read

 

Quaker Valley High School held their commencement a week ago this past Monday. The district’s got a lot to celebrate, and a lot to be proud of. I could spend a lot of words highlighting many of the student and teacher achievements over the last school year, but the district has a full-time person who does that very well.

Among the things that impressed me this year were the ranking by US News and World Report, the refurbishing of the police car for the School Resource Officer, and the coverage the district received as part of a story on schools addressing the needs of transgender students.

Fortunately, the chemical spill at the High School this past Thursday wasn’t something that will have a long-term effect on the school or its operations. Unfortunately, other recent issues threaten to overshadow many of the above accomplishments in the eyes of students, parents, teachers, and the rest of the taxpaying public.

 

QV Yearbook Joker

A long time before there were Internet memes, there were quotations. As vague and incomplete as both can often be, quotations can also be taken out of context or otherwise manipulated to serve the intended purpose or point of view of the ‘quoter’.

So it was with how Quaker Valley attracted national media attention in late May.

The local print media seemed to go in two different directions with their coverage. The Tribune-Review / Sewickley Herald provided a straightforward report of the incident, bolstered by interviews with both a student who selected one of the quotes to accompany his picture, and another who expressed dismay as a result.

The Trib then followed with an editorial chastising those involved in oversight for being “asleep at the switch“, while calling into question the High School history curriculum.

The Post-Gazette coverage from May 28 explored how deep concerns about the incident appeared to run with the parent and student population. The P-G reporter seemed to add a dash of snark to his reporting as well:

 (Communications Director Angela) Yingling was unable (to) say how these “offensive quotes” — as the school district’s email described them — made it past the editing process, nor could she say how the district will monitor the yearbook in the future.

It should be noted that the instructions given to seniors by yearbook staff, in the form of a letter found on the district website, offered little advance guidance relative to content:

Please submit one quote to be placed next to your senior picture in the yearbook. This quote must come from a respectable source (book, authoritative website, etc.) and cannot be your own nor your peers (absolutely no profanity). You also MUST cite the author.

No explicit prohibitions were made as to the author of a particular quotation, although I’m wondering what is meant here by “respectable“. The definition implies for me an attempt to steer students away from controversy, which is really not surprising.

Despite one student’s description of his actions as a joke, there are deeper lessons to be learned here, especially in this particular election year. Can we learn something from the seemingly harmless proclamations of those who were, and are, considered enemies of human rights, freedom, and dignity? How do the lessons of history translate to the choices we are being asked to make in a nation, and a world, increasingly connected, divided, and volatile – all at the same time?

My primary focus remains freedom of expression, within limits – and I don’t think those limits were exceeded in such a way as to sully QV’s reputation – at least not in a way they should be overly concerned about.

Similar sentiments were echoed by numerous QV alumni on social media pages such as Quaker Valley High School Friends and Memories of Growing Up in Sewickley.  A few of the comments started with the words “Much ado about nothing” – one alumnus went as far as to suggest that QV administration, through their response, exacerbated and perhaps invited the extra media attention.

I can’t speak for the current state of the history curriculum, but I do recall the history teachers during my time at QVHS. One of the interesting annual projects put together by the late Mr. Charles Hinds and his students was a display of covers and information about those designated as Time Magazine Man (now Person) of the Year.

The magazine’s criteria for this recognition is “a person, group, idea or object that ‘for better or for worse (emphasis mine)…has done the most to influence the events of the year'”.

Adolf Hitler received this recognition in 1938, Josef Stalin in 1939 and 1942.

I wonder what Mr. Hinds might have thought had he been approached by school administrators about excluding the above years from his display.

The response of the district to this year’s “joke”, along with whatever plans are afoot to reduce the possibility of a re-occurrence in future years, deserve careful scrutiny by those students (and those who advocate for them) whose history may be sanitized for the sake of reputation.

One person’s “reasonable” may be another’s revisionist.

 

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

        – H.L. Mencken

A pair of Herald reports detailed at least one family’s experience with head lice at Osborne Elementary, and presented evidence of all manner of misunderstandings – between parents and school leadership, between administration and the school board, and between those charged with monitoring student health and everyone else who perceives lice as a “serious” health issue.

The first report, dated May 24, appeared to originate from the assertions of a parent as relayed through school board member Gianni Floro. The district’s initial response to the possible scope of the problem was to state that it “doesn’t keep data ‘because lice is not something the district is required to report’ to any agency or department. 

Data that isn’t required for reporting purposes isn’t kept? Really? I wonder if that could be considered a form of plausible deniability.

For the story, QV Assistant Superintendent Andrew Surloff stated that the school environment is not the only one where head lice may be transmitted between children – an assertion dismissed by Mr. Floro. It was interesting/surprising/refreshing to see a board member and a district administrator disagree in a public forum.

Where Mr. Floro got his numbers to dispute Mr. Surloff’s assertion could be a matter for further discussion. Maybe that also explains why he took this issue public, considering the district’s initial response to his claims. I can’t believe that he didn’t try to address this first internally – the debate with Mr. Surloff on the pages of the Herald is uncharacteristic of the rarefied atmosphere that normally defines how QV operates.

This all apparently led to the district’s attempt at clarification and damage control, published in the Herald of June 2. Other QV administrators, including Superintendent Heidi Ondek, provided approximate numbers of recent lice cases and detailed the status of preventative efforts. These consist mostly of making parental notification, and providing information on seeking treatment that school personnel are not presently allowed to distribute or administer.

The story also attempted to establish from multiple sources the public health consensus that lice, while uncomfortable, contagious, and inconvenient, does not constitute enough of a problem to have kids miss school because of it.

Getting some parents on board with this line of thinking may be problematic.

 

A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.

 – Mohandas K. Gandhi

Convincing local parents of some things has indeed been a challenge – most notoriously to stop dropping their kids off in front of the high school. It’s been over four years since the school district purchased two homes adjacent the building with the intent of creating a parking and drop-off area – a move met with ire and distrust by other neighboring property owners who felt they had not been adequately communicated with, and whose concerns were addressed harshly by the then-President of the school board. I wrote about this as it was happening, alongside another local land use controversy that by most accounts seems to have been amicably resolved.

According to another Herald story this past week, it appears that those concerns about safety and land use may be resurfacing, owing to the continued intransigence of parents and students to respect the rules of the road, combined with a perceived indifference on the part of the school district.

The current school board President, seemingly more comfortable with addressing what students put in the yearbook than their ignorance of traffic and safety requirements, seemed to shrug the whole issue off:

“Until those students and families take ownership of the safety issue, nothing’s going to change.”

The Leetsdale councilor that lives nearby, and has witnessed numerous near-misses, lamented, “I just think it’s going to be a matter of time and we’re all going to say we should have done something.”

With summer break now upon us, perhaps it’s time to re-think the approach of any community-based effort. First and foremost, the real concerns of residents need to be defined. Is this about safety in the area, or the potential loss of real estate to a future high school expansion?

Depending upon the answer, instead of posting a yellow sign in the yard I would be willing to don a yellow safety vest and monitor the front of the school in the morning or afternoon. I would document pedestrian and traffic violations, along with the license plate numbers of violators, and provide that information to those in authority, who would hopefully take the necessary corrective action.

Perhaps a consistently visible citizen presence, combined with a commitment from both school and borough to enforce what laws they can, may be enough to persuade our fellow citizens to drop and pick up their charges where it’s legal and safe to do so.

Our school district faces numerous challenges with a decent track record in recent years. Its reputation as a place to obtain an excellent public education enables a lot of good things to happen in our community, such as providing a foundation for strong communities to sustain themselves – and hey, real estate agents need to make a living, too.

With these recent hiccups, the potential exists for a more contentious relationship to develop between the school district and those well-educated alumni who are populating, and in many cases running, the communities making up the Quaker Valley. The specter of a tax increase doesn’t help.

The QV board, and the administration they employ to oversee district operations, would do well to remember who oversees them, and that a continued commitment to transparency, accountability, and meaningful, respectful dialogue is essential to gaining community buy-in for any future plans at the high school and other facilities.

 

The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.

Edward R. Murrow

With that admonition, have a great summer.

 

 

Posted in Civil Liberties, Government, History, Local, Media, Schools, Security, Traffic | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

April / May Digest – A, B, C, D, E, and QV

Last month my excellent local dentist gave me the bad news that I needed a root canal where decay had crept in under an old filling.

The involved tooth, while containing nerves and blood vessels, is also nourished by the tissues that surround it. The root canal procedure is often needed to protect the soft tissue inside from inflammation and/or infection.

Even though the nerves have been removed, the successful procedure helps to assure that the tooth may continue to function without additional discomfort, and may be preserved for as long as possible.

This reminded me of our current political and social climate. So many of us seem distracted by an everyday life that is too crowded with activity, or by the glow of the smartphone as the management of our virtual existence too often takes priority over the flesh and blood around us.

This has the effect of de-sensitizing us to those things that should be commanding the lion’s share of our attention – things such as relationships with our loved ones and children, how we interact with others in our community, and how we interact with our government.

Our nerve has been sealed off, while the ancient structure is battered, shored up, but appears to be holding…for now.

Election Observations

Owing to the arcane nature of Pennsylvania party politics, I changed my voter registration to Democratic so that I could vote for Bernie Sanders. For me, Bernie’s candidacy offers an opportunity to get important social and economic issues into the Democratic agenda. He may not win the nomination, but I believe that his continued resonance with many voter groups will require the party to pay heed to some of these key considerations.

I believe that it takes more human energy to sustain negativity and hatefulness than it does to be positive. This is one reason why the Republican message loses traction in the long haul and on the national stage, and also why I believe that Donald Trump, who adds questionable character and qualifications to a message rooted in this negativity, will not help their cause.

One of the two most interesting races for me was for the Democratic nominee for US Senate. I voted for Joe Sestak because I felt he had the greatest amount of practical experience, as well as a reputation as a maverick that apparently didn’t sit well with the party establishment. Sounds a little like..Bernie Sanders.

Alas, the Democrats are now stuck with Katie McGinty to try and unseat Pat Toomey, and I fear it will not work out for her..or us.

I did not vote for John Fetterman for Senate, because I believe that his extraordinary track record as a local public official and community organizer would go to waste trying to do good in Washington.

Like Bernie Sanders, Mr. Fetterman describes himself as a Democratic Socialist – perhaps akin to a younger Sanders when he was Mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

Mr. Fetterman’s best work remains to be done..at the local level. Assuring that he has some succession planning under way in Braddock would also be a positive thing, should he continue his political aspirations over the long haul. He needs supporters there to effectively continue his legacy.

The most interesting local race involved (not surprisingly) write-in votes. According to the Beaver County Times (paywalled), Leetsdale resident Chris Beichner, CEO of the Sewickley-based Allegheny Land Trust, ran a “quiet but well-orchestrated write-in campaign” that netted him the Republican nomination for the 16th Legislative District Representative race, against incumbent Democrat Rob Matzie.

The Times report also stated: 

Beichner did not publicize his campaign, but did send out at least two mailers targeting Republican-heavy areas, such as certain precincts in Economy (Borough, Beaver County)…Besides explaining to Republicans how to write in his name, the mailers introduced Beichner to voters, saying he had never run for office before, would not make being a legislator a “lifetime appointment,” and was committed to “stopping the constant government raid on taxpayer pockets.”

These are interesting talking points, but absent from them is whether Mr. Beichner is even a registered Republican. Considering his profession – land conservationist, environmental advocate – I have a hard time imagining him toeing a GOP party line (especially with regard to energy development), or sharing cloakroom buddy time with the likes of Jim Christiana or Daryl Metcalfe.

Mr. Beichner sounds like a RINO – which is not necessarily a bad thing. We citizens of the 16th District may have an interesting choice in the fall.

The Politics of ‘Concussion’ 

Leslie and I finally managed to watch the movie Concussion last month. This film touches on a part of recent Pittsburgh history with which I am largely unfamiliar, as the bulk of it happened while I was out west.

The most striking thing for me was not how the NFL reacted to the scientific quantification of what had been rumored for years, but how Dr. Bennet Omalu was essentially chased away from this region, despite having likely facilitated a better long-term quality of life for those engaged in football and other contact sports. Clichés about good intentions and shooting the messenger were coming to mind.

The fallout from Dr. Omalu’s discovery continues to resonate at all levels of athletics, from the news last month that the NFL’s settlement fund agreement for players with CTE had been affirmed by an appeals court, across the spectrum of age and experience where football is played.

There is an interesting, informative website that specializes in separating fiction from fact in those films that are “based on true events”. The Concussion page on History vs Hollywood doesn’t disappoint. The 1996 climbing disaster on Mt. Everest, 20 years ago this week, is also featured on a similar page.

An excellent Post-Gazette story in April detailed how competing, non-complementary methods of testing for concussion symptoms is muddying the quest for developing a standard for diagnosis and treatment, while adding fuel to the continuing, counterproductive feud between UPMC and Highmark.

While all this is going on, Dr. Omalu continues to speak his truth – quietly, clearly, and authoritatively. Just up the river from us, reality TV is showcasing the drama that surrounds youth football in Beaver County.

The truth for these parents and their kids seems quite different – even in the face of significant rule changes by Pop Warner football aimed at reducing the number of acute and chronic head injuries to its youngest players.

The Casualties of Bullying 

Another potentially toxic tradition of growing up in America is being bullied, especially if you are different. I covered this territory two years ago, amidst a couple of high-profile local incidents that alluded to bullying as a contributing factor.

On the surface, it appears that precious little progress has been made over that time frame to change hearts and minds in some of our communities and their schools. P-G columnist Tony Norman excoriated the Penn Hills school system in a February column that targeted not only the ignorance of the students involved in the harassment of a disabled classmate, but also the ineffectiveness of “hapless, jargon-spouting” Penn Hills officials.

To the opposite extreme, attempts by another local district to educate students in dealing with the aggressive, intolerant manifestations of bullies were the subject of parental concern in the West Allegheny school district, with many complaints about inappropriate questions being asked of the students participating.

Despite those efforts, the suicide death of a 12 year old boy who attended West Allegheny Middle School appeared to have the community reeling, and the school district struggling for answers.

One possible exception to this is the child’s parents. Not more than three weeks after laying their son to rest, they consented to a Post-Gazette interview, displaying the kind of courage, resolve and candor that if leveraged properly can help to bring about significant changes. One of their concerns had a familiar ring to it:

“There seemed to be a disconnect from what the mental health community and what the school was telling us. One of the things I would like to see changed is better integration between the two,” (the father) said.

This dovetails with concerns I’ve expressed previously about schools using privacy laws to stifle attempts at securing the kind of transparency and accountability expected of any governmental entity.

West Allegheny’s situation is not unique locally. The Pine-Richland School District is trying to make sense of an unusually high number of student suicides over the last five years. The community at large is also trying to assist the district’s efforts.

In other places, a lack of understanding not only involves a failure at the parental level to instill proper values for respect of those who are different, but also to censor attempts to achieve understanding of the differences inherent in the human experience through literature. Ample evidence of this is available from the most recent list of frequently challenged books as compiled by the American Library Association.  

Included on this list is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. This mystery novel, whose protagonist is living with an autism spectrum disorder, has won numerous awards, and been adapted into a Tony-award winning Broadway play.

While this book was not challenged locally, the same concerns that I expressed last year still apply.

Boundary Street Update

The concerns I expressed about Route 65 traffic in last month’s post were also reported as part of an April 21 Sewickley Herald story regarding PennDOT recommendations to improve traffic safety in this area. These  include the elimination of left turns from southbound Route 65 onto Boundary Street.

In response to a request in the story for input from residents and commuters, I sent an email to Sewickley Manager Kevin Flannery and Glen Osborne Secretary Diane Vierling that included the following:

Should Sewickley move to prohibit left turns from southbound 65 onto Boundary, is Glen Osborne prepared to remove the existing left turn restriction at McKown (Lane)? If not, how will patients of health providers at Critmore (Professional Building) be directed to access that facility?

Has there been any discussion with PennDOT, Critmore management, or other stakeholders regarding additional signage along Route 65 to indicate the location and correct access route for facilities such as Critmore, QV Middle School, and/or Osborne Elementary?

What agreements are in place between your municipalities to assure that traffic management on the respective sides of these intersections is conducted in a comprehensive and complementary manner?

Mr. Flannery replied to me by simply stating that my comments would be provided to Sewickley Council, to be reviewed at their Committee of the Whole meeting of May 10th. It is probably a sure bet that council’s discussion included mention of the fatal accident at this intersection earlier in the week.

I received no reply from Ms. Vierling with regard to Glen Osborne’s plans.

Departures

There were some noteworthy departures over the last month. Two were individuals that had a lasting impact on their community as businessmen, community leaders, and parents. Another was an event that had an impact on many of us growing up.

Robert Murrer

As part of the real estate company Murrer and Phillips, Bob Murrer was instrumental in the development of real estate in the Sewickley area, including the area’s first planned subdivision, Quaker Heights. According to the Sewickley Herald of October 22, 1959, “this is the first time that sewers and city water have been made available to the heights overlooking the Ohio River“.

Mr. Murrer continued to make his mark as the head of Murrer and Company, which today also includes RealStats. This company provides detailed information on real estate sales and housing trends to many different agencies and stakeholders across the Pittsburgh region. Family members continue to carry on Bob’s legacy of expertise and service.

Mr. Murrer and his late wife, Maria, raised 5 children in the Sewickley area – several of whom it has been my privilege to know from high school to the present day.

John M. Herbst, Jr.

Jack Herbst took over from his father one of the fixtures of Sewickley Village – the auto service center at the corner of Thorn and Walnut, which his family continues to operate.

pic_jackherbst

 – Cochran Hose Company

Mr. Herbst was a colorful, ebullient, if sometimes curmudgeonly figure in Sewickley when I was growing up. I also had the pleasure of attending school and interacting with a few of his seven children, some of whom also followed their father into service with Sewickley’s Cochran Hose Company – where Jack served for 51 years, the last 5 as Chief.

After moving back to the area, I ran into Jack at a tire store in Ambridge, and found him to be even more of an engaging, mostly pleasant individual that I had remembered from before.

Perhaps I’ll be fortunate enough to have someone say that about me someday.

Ambridge Nationality Days

Depending upon who you believe, last year’s Nationality Days was the 50th annual celebration, although the Ambridge Memories history blog has found ample evidence to indicate that 1966 was the first year of the celebration.

Regardless of when it started, it appears to have ended. As Ambridge Connection and the Beaver County Times (paywalled) reported late last month, the disbanding of the Ambridge Area Chamber of Commerce and the formation of its “Regional” replacement has resulted in the lack of a primary sponsor for the event.

I visited Nationality Days regularly as a child growing up. Ambridge in its heyday was the most ethnically and religiously diverse town that I had seen. Perhaps an event that recognizes what Ambridge is trying to become, rather than what it once was, will serve to re-energize the community again for at least one week of the year.

The Citizen at 40

When I lived in Avalon Borough in the early 1990’s, The Citizen was the go-to local source for those kinds of things that make a community newspaper tick – detailed local government news, public safety coverage, community event information, and forceful editorial content, including ample space for letters to the editor.

Fast-forward to the present day, and the paper is still doing all of those things, through challenges that have decimated similar area publications. Quoting Editor and Publisher Connie Rankin from an editorial celebrating the paper’s 40th anniversary:

Perhaps The Citizen remains because there has never been a corporate office to tell us that continuing to publish was a really bad idea. A combination of pure stubbornness and unwavering commitment to the North Boroughs keeps us going, at least for now.Citizen04222016

My father, Earl Rankin, started this newspaper primarily because he, like me, was fundamentally incapable of working for someone else. He wanted to be the one calling the shots, doing things his own way.

Technology has had the biggest impact on the mechanics of The Citizen over the last 40 years, but the newspaper’s success, I believe, can be attributed to things that have never changed in all of these 40 years — loyalty, committed relationships, and dedication to the people of the North Boroughs.

As it would happen, Ms. Rankin marked her paper’s anniversary by having to cover one of the area’s most tragic recent events – a Bellevue fire in mid-April that claimed the lives of an entire family of 5. Ms. Rankin commented on the difficulties inherent in documenting a tragedy of this nature in an April 18 blog post.

The Citizen doesn’t update its website right away, so you really have to secure a copy of the print edition to truly appreciate the photography and other reporting that goes into what is an endangered species in the Internet age. The paper is available at many restaurants, convenience stores, and other businesses in the North Boroughs area.

Congratulations to Ms. Rankin and her staff.

QVHS #1 #6 

Quaker Valley High School recently received the number 6 ranking for high schools in Pennsylvania on the annual US News and World Report rankings of US High Schools.

QVHS received the highest ranking of any high school in southwestern Pennsylvania, which an April 20 press release tried to spin as a “#1 ranking” for the region. Congratulations are in order, especially when considering that QV finished ahead of much larger area schools in terms of enrollment, many with larger and newer facilities.

I’m proud to be a QV alumnus, and it’s a great thing to have that level of quality in our educational system for so long, given the myriad challenges of doing so. Education is likely the most valuable community asset we have – it helps to assure that our community remains the good place that it is. The return on our community’s investment is invaluable.

We should be proud of our students, their parents, teachers, and administrators. We should at the same time be maintaining due diligence as citizens to insist upon transparency and accountability in district operations.

As great a job as they are doing at Quaker Valley, they remain accountable to the people.

“New” QV Police CarIMG_20160507_070955

One example of fiscal stewardship and community cooperation, along with finding educational opportunities in unlikely places, was highlighted by another QV press release on April 22.

Several QV students, including those that attend Parkway West Career and Technology Center, restored and detailed a former Sewickley Police cruiser for use by QV’s School Resource Officer (SRO). The project was also featured in a national 9-1-1 trade publication.

I got a close-up look at the car in the high school parking lot recently, and noticed there were no radios installed. According to QV’s SRO Aaron Vanatta, “I have a portable radio that is registered with the 911 center and have access to both the District’s system and the County 911 system. We do not need a radio in the car, my portable is suffice since we are not out patrolling all day.”

Perhaps these new capabilities, along with the prominent DIAL 911 decals present on the “new” patrol car, will facilitate an improved relationship with both local public safety agencies and the dispatchers who serve as the access and coordination point for these critical resources.

This begins with consistent use of the 9-1-1 system.

Have a great month ahead.

Acknowledgements – Sewickley Herald Digital Archive

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March / April Digest: Arrivals, Departures, Returns

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A makeshift memorial (see adjacent close-up) is established at the intersection of Ferry Street and First Street in Leetsdale, adjacent to the Norfolk Southern tracks where 54 year old Carolyn Mayhugh of McKees Rocks was struck and killed by a passing train on the evening of March 8.

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It’s been an interesting month (and more) without a portable electronic device.

Aside from the complications of lacking a mobile phone in the age of constant connectivity, I have come to miss other things even more than the instantaneous ability to access the Internet from anywhere – an activity that often generated a less than favorable response on the home front.

I’ve also taken time to notice the impact on interpersonal communications that these devices have on those like myself who can become sidetracked by the immediate access to information that smartphones provide. It’s disturbing, especially from the standpoint of parenting.

I like having the capability to take photographs and video and share them with family or on social media. E-mail and Internet have their place as well, but not the place that they once enjoyed.

Over the last month there were numerous arrivals and departures of note in our area, some of which I’ve tried to expand upon above and below.

Stephen King is coming to Sewickley

The announcement that novelist Stephen King will include Sewickley on his whirlwind, 12-city-in-12-day tour in support of his new novel was interesting in that a fair amount of logistical items, like the venue, didn’t accompany the initial announcement.

Those details, when announced by Sewickley’s Penguin Bookshop, raised a few questions in my mind about how this event is happening, and some of the rhetoric surrounding iend_of_watch_rev_lrt.

The choice of Rea Auditorium at Sewickley Academy isn’t a bad one – I’m very familiar with it from my school days, including the not-so-public spaces around its ample stage. In the 70’s I got to see the likes of Tony Randall, William Windom and Lionel Hampton there.

On the surface, it seems to make sense to host Mr. King there – it keeps the event in the immediate Sewickley area, and the Academy’s facilities may be available to the Penguin on a more congenial basis – Penguin owner Susan Hans O’Connor is married to the Academy’s Head of School.

Mr. King’s popularity creates something else entirely, however – and from the sound of the Penguin’s e-mail blast of March 30, the organizers seem to have an idea of the challenges involved:

For all of you who are coming to Sewickley for the Sunday, April 17 in-store ticket sale, we ask that you are considerate while waiting in line outside the store, that you do NOT save spaces for friends/family, that you respect the community, and that you are patient and kind to all those concerned with the ticket sales at the Penguin Bookshop.

Because we were committed to keeping this event local — in keeping with the spirit of Stephen King’s tour and his focus on smaller, independent bookstores — we were limited with our venue choices.  This means that we have approximately 600 tickets available, far fewer than many of the other wonderful stores on Stephen’s tour. We know that Stephen King’s fans far outnumber what we can accommodate, and for that we apologize in advance.  For those of you lucky enough to attend, it will be an intimate event, a special evening indeed.

Seen through my emergency planning glass, this sounds like, uh, “fun”. What’s a few hundred more cars in the Village on a Sunday afternoon, not to mention a line of people limited to 2 tickets each? Sounds like Starbucks may be doing some historic business that day.

For the event on June 8, it’s been plainly stated that because the Academy will still be holding classes, no one attending the event will be permitted on campus before 6 PM, when the event starts at 7.

So there will likely be logistical issues related to parking, traffic, and crowd management, involving 2 separate municipalities, as Academy Avenue also serves as the border between Sewickley and Edgeworth.

In my mind there’s only one other facility that would be able to fit the bill in terms of seating, parking, and proximity to the Sewickley area – that’s the Sewall Center at Robert Morris University, which is also set up for online ticket sales.

Quaker Valley High School will hold its commencement there, two days before Stephen King hits town.

Station 176 – A Questionable Farewell

 I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generations.

                                                         – George Bernard Shaw

Last night, Ingram Borough council took a page from the Edgeworth playbook, ending an over 100 year relationship with its volunteer fire department in favor of an agreement for service with a neighboring community for fire protection.

The circumstances of this transition has some similarities to Edgeworth’s actions in 2011  – Ingram and its elected officials appear to have quietly made overtures to other departments for proposals without any expression of concern to Ingram VFD about the quality of their service provision. According to the latest Post-Gazette reporting, they are actually refusing to elaborate on their specific concerns.

There are two big differences, however – the process in Ingram has been very public, owing to much reporting in the P-G and other media outlets, as well as a very active social media presence. Secondly, the borough stands ready to join Wilkinsburg as the second county municipality outside of Pittsburgh to receive services from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire.

According to a presentation by the Ingram Fire Department posted to the borough website:

 Is this personal? Maybe. The Proposal from Pittsburgh was prepared for Ingram Borough Council on October 30, 2015, however Ingram Council told the Ingram Fire Department and you, the Ingram citizens on December 14, 2015 they didn’t know who went to the city and there were no proposals at that time.

Is it because we declined to further talk about consolidation when we felt it was not feasibly economic for Ingram Borough? Possibly.

Are there complaints? Council said no.

Considering the community backlash, this is a politically difficult but courageous decision by Ingram council. Now comes the bigger question – Why does Ingram continue to exist as a borough? HowIngramVFD much taxpayer money could be saved, and all services improved, through consolidation with a neighboring municipality?

The issues then become larger as well – eliminating jobs, some of which may be protected by union contracts – not just a bunch of pesky volunteers (citizens, voters?) to shoo away.

There is a website, Crafton-Ingram Thrive, detailing efforts by both communities and a local consulting firm to find common ground, and establish coordinated efforts in several operational areas. It appears, however, that the concept of pooling municipal resources, or even the words consolidation or merger, are conspicuously absent from the site.

This probably has something to do with the fact that Crafton and Ingram are each part of different school districts (Carlynton and Montour respectively), among other separations in service and governance as well as political obligations that may create what is perceived as insurmountable obstacles to a more efficient operating posture.

At least one local resident decried last night’s decision as a “first step toward regionalism“. If that’s the case, then it’s probably the only real positive coming out of this action. Many of our area’s archaic, inefficient mass of municipal entities that are in denial about the future may eventually be forced out of existence, instead of being able to unify from a position of stability into more responsive and efficient government entities .

If the volunteers at the former Ingram VFD were truly dedicated to both their community and the realities of the business in which they were engaged, they should have also been cognizant of economies of scale, along with the increasing demands of the fire service that volunteer departments with stagnant or dwindling memberships are hard pressed to meet.

Their own words indicate that they rejected the possibility of consolidation. Perhaps they should have been more open-minded and realistic.

There are citizens that have accused Ingram council of ‘destroying our community’ through these actions. The quotation from Shaw above illustrates to me why some (but not enough) citizens make the significant contributions of time and effort to become what is often the first level of emergency response for their communities.

It’s also not hard to see why so many feel that part of their community has been irreparably damaged by council’s action. Groups such as volunteer fire departments often form the locus by which a community perceives themselves as unified. More value seems to be placed on this when more and more residents find themselves working outside of the community itself.

In defense of that obviously passionate corps of volunteers and the community that supports them, if “council had never received complaints about public safety or response times” (according to the P-G ), then it is incumbent upon council and the Mayor to state, publicly and in writing, any and all of their concerns about the services provided by the volunteer department – well in advance of any action to obtain services elsewhere.

The absence of this gives the impression that the volunteers were thrown under the bus by council – and that’s just bad form, no matter what the circumstances or the type of organizations involved.

I get the feeling that these council members will pay for their decision come the next municipal election, and if Pennsylvanians had the ability to petition for recall, that process would have begun today.

Marty McDaniel Departs with Dignity

Speaking of things Edgeworth, the recent retirement of their long-time Manager Martin McDaniel is noteworthy in that his career is varied in both professions and influence, especially with managing two local towns which accounted for 23 years of his working life. Upon reading the Herald story listing his career highlights, I had to wTheEdgeofWorthonder out loud if it was his experience teaching middle school that best prepared for him to deal with some citizens and elected officials – myself included.

From his days as Sewickley’s Manager in the late 70’s to mid 80’s to the present day, Mr. McDaniel went about his work in a highly competent manner. This does not mean that he, and the governments he served, didn’t piss off their fair share of people in the process. This includes a dispute over a sign ordinance violation involving my family, and the aforementioned firing of the Edgeworth Volunteer Fire Department.

In a position like that, you can’t please everyone.

Marty McDaniel provided credible and professional service to those who hired him. Even though I disagree with some of the actions taken by his administrations over the years, he has my thanks for a job well done.

I for one would love to see someone with Marty’s skill set and dedication serving the citizens of Leetsdale. It’s needed.

Wendy Bell Departs – Badly

Regardless of anyone’s opinion about what Wendy Bell posted to her personal Facebook page, there’s no doubt that she exercised her First Amendment rights to free expression. Unfortunately, she also made her continued employment with WTAE untenable for several reasons – not the least of which was compromising her own credibility as a journalist through those public statements.

Ms. Bell’s on-camera decorum has also at times created what could be described as a confrontational atmosphere that is unnecessary or even misguided – witness her grilling of the Director of PEMA over the Turnpike snowstorm fiasco earlier this year. This official has no authority over the operation of the Turnpike itself. It’s almost like saying that the gridlock was President Obama’s fault.

Add in the fact that WTAE is physically located in Wilkinsburg, literally blocks from the scene of the shooting Ms. Bell chose to comment on. The Wilkinsburg community seemed less than pleased with Ms. Bell’s comments, and WTAE responded. Many citizens are nonetheless calling for a boycott of the station’s news broadcasts, similar to when the station angered many viewers over its investigative series on Fire departments last year.

An excellent analysis of the entire affair came from Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman, who asserted in his column of April 1 (and no, I don’t think he was fooling) that the station had motives other than indignation and embarrassment to relieve themselves of Ms. Bell’s services:

 I will say that I strongly suspect that WTAE has been looking for an opportunity to unload a popular, but expensive female anchor who has been around for nearly two decades without looking like a bunch of heartless villains.

I will continue to watch WTAE when I want to find out about stuff going on in the eastern suburbs. Their reporters make a point of focusing much of their time on stories occurring in this area, and perhaps take their relationship with this segment of the Pittsburgh community very seriously.

This is not only their right as a privately owned business, but also their responsibility, as they have a government mandate via their FCC license to serve the public interest.

Ms. Bell seemed taken with inserting her own opinions and indignation, often to the detriment of what I as a viewer look for when seeking out information. It’s difficult enough to separate the wheat from the chaff of what the broadcast media seem to be willing to pawn off as news these days. Quoting Tony Norman again:

What I bemoan most about l’affaire Wendy Bell is that it has become yet another opportunity for blacks and whites in this town to talk past one another from a position of hurt and victimization. There’s a lack of empathy here that is palpable and sad. We don’t trust each enough to talk honestly and make mistakes without fear. That’s why whoever replaces Wendy Bell will be the blandest, least offensive person they can find for the money. We will not necessarily be better off for it.

P-G columnist Brian O’Neill also weighed in on Sunday regarding Ms. Bell’s firing, while suggesting that there are greater priorities to keep at the forefront – such as catching the killers. Good point.

Arriving at Your Destination in One Piece…

On an unrelated issue, Mr. O’Neill listed, in his columns of March 30 and March 31, some of the responses he received to his request for readers’ biggest traffic pet peeves in the city of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas.

I’m sure all of us have seen places in our travels around here that just don’t make sense from a traffic standpoint. Common complaints listed were the preponderance of “No Turn on Red” signs at signaled intersections, and the lack of proper coordination of traffic signals along a busy roadway.

In the immediate Sewickley area, we don’t seem to have those problems – most of our traffic signals are along Route 65, and are synchronized to work together (such as at the Sewickley Bridge), or respond to demand from drivers in left hand turn lanes or side streets.

There are a couple of choice locations that I can think of, however. One is the intersection of Route 65 and Hazel Lane, which has already been covered here in sufficient detail.

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The intersection of Boundary Street as seen from southbound Route 65, at the Sewickley / Glen Osborne border. The nearly-invisible Critmore Building is behind the trees to the left, with signage for it approaching the next intersection, McKown Lane – where a left turn is illegal.

The other consists of the Route 65 intersections with Graham Street and Boundary Street in Sewickley, and with McKown Lane in Glen Osborne. The road here is apparently not wide enough to accommodate a center turn lane. This makes for some interesting traffic tie-ups when people are attempting left turns from 65 onto Graham for Quaker Valley Middle School, or onto Boundary to access the Critmore Medical Offices.

The turns for Critmore seem to generate the greatest amount of potential problems, as the drivers seem to often be elderly and/or unfamiliar. Further complicating matters is that left turns from Route 65 onto McKown, at Critmore’s main entrance, are prohibited.

There is no directional signage oCherylLagman-eca502166an Route 65 for Critmore or the Middle School – perhaps this is something that could be addressed by funds raised from the auction of hand-painted adirondack chairs at next weekend’s Sewickley Gallery and Art Walk.

Some of the chairs, like the one at left, are extraordinary.

Let’s hope that Explore Sewickley and others see the value of directing visitors to not only the business district, but other essential venues in the area – like Rea Auditorium, where Stephen King will arrive in June.

 

Jazz Returns to the Pittsburgh Airwaves

Nearly three years ago, I wrote about efforts to return jazz music to the regular broadcast airwaves in the Pittsburgh region following the sale of WDUQ by Duquesne University, and its rebranding as an NPR news station, WESA.

Last month, Pittsburgh Public Media announced the acquisition of another Pittsburgh station, WZUM. At 1550 on the AM dial, this station was one of my favorites for its almost non-stop, automated R&B playlist. Now there’s jazz on the radio that I can tune in on the way home from work.

Along with this, PPM has also been able to procure an additional FM license for the region that they are seeking funding assistance to construct.

Congratulations to this organization for their diligent work in returning a dedicated jazz music station to the public airwaves. Maybe their signal will help to soothe the pain of completing my tax returns.

Enjoy the transition of seasons.

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February / March Digest: Blessed are the Peacemakers…

Come, labor on!
No time for rest, till glows the western sky,
Till the long shadows o’er our pathway lie,
And a glad sound comes with the setting sun,
Well done, well done!

Jane L. Borthwick, 1859, 1863.

It’s been a busy month or so.

The middle weeks of February were difficult for those in public safety around the country, particularly in law enforcement. Among the casualties of a particularly deadly week was one that hit close to home.

Deputy-Geer

Deputy Derek Geer, 1975-2016.

On February 8th, Deputy Derek Geer of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Grand Junction, Colorado was shot and mortally wounded while investigating a report of a male carrying a gun in a residential neighborhood. A 17-year-old male suspect is in custody. Deputy Geer’s death is the first in the line of duty fatality in over 100 years at the MCSO.

I was privileged to know Deputy Geer and his wife Kate, who worked for a time as a dispatcher in the 9-1-1 center where I was a supervisor. Our paths had crossed infrequently since then – though it’s been a good 10 years since I spoke with them, any public safety community is a close-knit one – even if the boundaries of that community span time and miles.

The safety community in that part of Colorado is well-coordinated and highly efficient in responding to critical incidents, and their aftermath. News accounts that included online scanner audio testified to both the level of cooperation of local agencies, and the difficulty of facing something like this head-on.

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Roadside Memorial.

Mesa County’s excellent Joint Information Center leveraged its considerable resources in the public information arena to manage a massive turnout for Deputy Geer’s memorial service – this included arranging for several remote locations to view the service via video. Local TV stations also interrupted scheduled programming to air the service live, and/or stream it online. I watched most of it.

Pastor Kirk Yamaguchi stated in his eulogy that one of Deputy Geer’s favorite scripture verses was Matthew 5:9, from the Sermon on the MountBlessed are the peacemakers…By many accounts that’s exactly what Derek Geer sought – to apply his love of family and dedication to his profession toward achieving.

Derek Geer was my kind of cop – one whose approach to his work was an extension of his values as a husband, father, and military veteran. Service above self was how he seemed to live every day, all the way to the end. He’ll be dearly missed.

Hello, Columbus

In late February, Leslie and I traveled to Columbus, Ohio for the annual Midwest Veterinary Conference. This conference attracts around 6,000 attendees for each of 4 days, and is held annually in the state capital of Ohio, and their relatively new convention center complex. The conference offered a large exhibit area and a comprehensive selection of continuing education courses. It was interesting enough for someone like me who has been to my share of these things, even if the subject matter was largely over my head.

At an adjacent exhibit hall, a cheerleading and dance competition was being held. Visions of a new reality show – “Cheer Moms vs. Veterinarians” – danced in my head. This past weekend was the annual Arnold (yes, THAT Ah-nold) Sports Festival, bringing bodybuilders from everywhere.

We really didn’t have a lot of time to check out attractions such as the ZooScience Center, or the Blue Jackets, whose tickets are a lot cheaper than the Penguins’ are. What we did see, we found interesting. Some examples:

The city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau produces and widely distributes a comprehensive transportation guide that lists all options for getting around the area, be it bus, taxi, rideshare, or renting a Smart car. Imagine that – seeing Uber listed next to cab companies.

These transportation options include a free public transit circulator bus through the downtown area.

Columbus is largely a professional and educational city – the presence of all facets of state government, along with large corporations such as Nationwide Insurance and L Brands, and the ominous presence of THE Ohio State University, with its gaggle of students who have a penchant to cross the main drag, High Street, without regard for oncoming traffic. Dodging the future leaders of this country as they scurried to class was one of the most “exciting” parts of our visit.

“Most” importantly, Columbus also hosts the corporate headquarters of White Castle. There are at least three “castles” in the immediate Downtown area. Slider heaven…

Food was about the only real discovery we were able to make between lecture sessions and other convention activities. What we did find was impressive:

North Market, a historic public marketplace with numerous food choices, both prepared and for cooking at home. Most notable here was Hubert’s Polish Kitchen, with scratch delicacies like handmade pierogi and a huge stuffed cabbage roll.

North of town in nearby Worthington is Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza and Live Music. Inventive, ample recipes with fresh ingredients prepared expertly by friendly staff, all at a reasonable price.

Double Comfort, in the heart of the convention center district, serves southern style cooking and a healthy dose of social responsibility – a portion of profits is dedicated to support local food pantries, to the equivalent of 61,000 meals as of February of this year.

For dessert, a Graeter’s Ice Cream neighborhood shop in Upper Arlington was a most excellent treat.

One thing that did strike us was the number of homeless that navigate the streets during the day and evening hours. There is an active Homeless Coalition that includes among their advocacy efforts the publication of a newspaper, as well as a compendium of information on available services for those in need – the Streetcard.

Columbus markets itself as a business friendly environment, but also shows intelligence and compassion as a community, along with the demonstrated ability to coordinate resources toward common goals. At the conference, we heard a talk from one of the executives of Pelotonia, a bicycle ride event each August that generates a tremendous amount of money for cancer research at Ohio State.

The streets are clean, the inhabitants mostly friendly, and it’s an easy 3 to 4 hour drive from the Burgh, even if you meander along the more scenic byways such as US-22 or US-40, AKA the National Road. If you want an interesting, exciting, and proximal urban getaway, this is a good start.

We’ll be back…

Profligate Police and the Under-Served Mentally Ill

Sunday’s Post-Gazette featured a comprehensive report on the ability of local police to obtain training in Crisis Intervention when responding to reports of a mentally ill person, and the ability to mobilize trained officers when needed. The P-G followed up with an editorial published today, calling in part for mental health training to be as important as training with a gun for all police officers.

The mentally ill are under-served on so many levels in our nation that I think it’s a bad idea to try to include local police in any scapegoating exercise. I also believe that police handcuff themselves from more efficient operating postures when there are so many individual departments – offshoots of the inefficient manner in which local government attempts to function in our Commonwealth, and in particular Allegheny County.

When our 130 municipalities, and over 100 police and 200 fire departments realize – or are forced to realize – that their independence may no longer be fiscally responsible or even viable – and that consolidation and coordination of resources will eventually be a foregone conclusion – only then will things begin to move in a positive fashion. Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

As far as overall mental health response, the story also didn’t go far enough in assessing the availability of mental health crisis teams, from contracted providers such as the Resolve Crisis Network. Once law enforcement has mitigated any potential threat presented by someone in mental health crisis, the availability of these teams to respond, assess, and transport on a timely basis is something that needs to be evaluated as well.

Ambulance Angst and the Diva of Debt

In late February, news of a private ambulance company shutting its doors in the Pittsburgh area raised eyebrows in the public safety community.

The closure of TransCare, a Brooklyn, New York-based company with local offices in Monroeville, raised speculation among some local EMS personnel about who will assume the contract for transports for the Pittsburgh VA Health System.

It’s also noteworthy that Transcare was owned by Patriarch Partners and their high-profile, somewhat controversial CEO, Lynn Tilton. Ms. Tilton’s company has made a specialty of purchasing distressed companies and attempting to turn them around. Her holdings include the Spiegel catalog, Rand McNally, and Hussey Copper in Leetsdale.

Ms. Tilton and her group apparently ran out of luck with TransCare, which was trying to survive in an environment where reimbursement rates are being cut by insurers, to an extent that even major area EMS providers are sending out distress signals. Insurance reimbursement to EMS agencies from carriers such as Highmark has been a bone of contention for several years in Pennsylvania.

While TransCare did not provide “first due” emergency response to any Allegheny County municipality, there are EMS agencies out there who balance the provision of Non-Emergency Transports, or NETs, with mission readiness for the immediate needs of the communities they serve.

This is something to keep an eye on, lest more area providers that live by the NET find themselves dying by it as well.

Thomas Tull Courts the Sewickley Valley

The Village Theater Company, developers of what was to be called the Vanguard Theater in Sewickley, announced in a press release today that Thomas Tull, CEO of Legendary Pictures and recent purchaser of the Walker estate “Muottas”, has with his wife and their foundation agreed to donate $500,000 to the theater effort. In recognition of this, the theater will be re-named the Tull Family Theater.

Executive Director Carolina Pais-Barreto Beyers was quoted in the release as stating “The Tulls’ participation is rocket fuel. Our initiative is now stronger and poised to make a more powerful impact in the region.

I think it’s great that the current and perhaps future stability of the theater project may be truly assured by such a contribution, especially from someone whose fortune was made in the motion picture industry. There’s something about rocket fuel, though – it’s volatile, and can react badly if mishandled.

Mr. Tull deserves credit for making significant contributions toward the promotion of the arts in the Pittsburgh area. His foundation also contributed a similar amount to the salvage of the August Wilson Center from foreclosure.

And as much as I appreciate the reasons for the re-naming, I can’t help but think of a tongue-in-cheek approach to a new name for the theater – Let’s call it the Jethro.

Somewhere in Heaven, Bill Wheat is riding his bicycle and smiling.

Looking Forward

I turned 56 yesterday, and at the end of this week Leslie and I will celebrate 5 years as a married couple. I’ve also gone almost two weeks without my smartphone, owing to a faulty USB charging port.

The world as we know it continues to function, and as much as I would like a return to the convenience and allure of instant information gratification, something tells me that just having talk and text will somehow be enough. We’ll see.

Have a great month ahead.

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