School Squabbles – Another Summer Of Discontent

UPDATED  8/24/21 to include information on CRT dark money campaigns and additional information on masking requirements in local public schools – JL

 

The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.

James Baldwin

If you follow local print, online and/or social media, you know that there are decisions being considered that will affect the long-term conduct of secondary education in the Quaker Valley School District.

Those decisions will have ripple effects on the future condition of surrounding residential properties and the public roadways that convey residents, employees, students, and commercial vehicle traffic. The value of those surrounding properties, and the tax base of multiple municipalities, will also be impacted. Let’s not forget everyone’s property tax bill down the road.

Double full-page ad from Citizens for a Great School (CGS), published in the June 24 Sewickley Herald. Click image to enlarge.

As the process continues to unfold, there is considerable disagreement on the essential components of the entire plan. Multiple sources of information, both in print and online, both extol and dispute the plans being implemented.

The websites that concern themselves with the high school project are comprehensive in the scope and specificity of the information used to bolster their respective viewpoints. The QV Strong website does a good job of distilling these facts into bullet points and graphics, while linking to the more specific reports for those interested. The same goes for the school district’s Blueprint QV site.

Along with the information resources, the organizations behind these sites have apparently committed to transparency in both their identities and intentions. Both QV Strong and Citizens for a Great School (CGS) list their steering committee members on their respective websites.

The commitment of CGS was also evidenced by statements in the ad pictured above, indicating their intent to pursue legal action until the Board authorizes a referendum on the project, as well as to “legally oppose the issuance of any more debt” due to their perceived assertion that the Board is engaging in creative financing in order to circumvent the state law that would require a citizen vote on the project.

Along with the district awarding a contract for the design of the new campus, attention now appears to be focused on the Leet Township Zoning Hearing Board, which began hearings on June 28 regarding the request for special exception to build the high school on what is known as the “hilltop site”. The township website home page includes the next scheduled date and time, along with a link to remote participation via Zoom. The hearing was scheduled to resume today, with no additional dates as of this writing.

It is worth noting that these hearings are being conducted during the business day. Reports received from those who have been there gave attendance estimates at over 100, with the audience comprised of “mostly lawyers“. This scheduling may also help local media such as the Sewickley Herald and the Allegheny Times to cover the proceedings. One can only hope…

At this point I’m not going to go further into the specific arguments for and against the project – the involved parties have already done most of that. I remain interested in the deliberations of the Leet Zoning Board as they pertain to the necessary approvals, as well as the upcoming municipal general election and how much the project plays into any campaign maneuvering by the various candidates for Leet Commissioner and/or the Quaker Valley School Board.

I also believe that the school district is prepared to appeal in court any zoning outcome that does not suit their liking. Lawyers, along with concerned, informed citizens, will be kept busy.

 

Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices – just recognize them.

Edward R. Murrow

In the midst of the high school project debate, another local effort has begun to discredit and outright ban the instruction of Critical Race Theory (CRT), defined by Wikipedia as –

..a body of legal scholarship and an academic movement of civil rights scholars and activists in the United States that seeks to critically examine U.S. law as it intersects with issues of race in the U.S….CRT examines social, cultural, and legal issues primarily as they relate to race and racism in the United States.

Reading further into the Wikipedia entry, it seems that the practice of CRT relates more to the pursuit of academic and legal research than the development of K-12 school curricula.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette appears to be the most active local media outlet reporting on how the issue is impacting Pittsburgh area schools, including two in the immediate area that are detailed below.

WESA reported Tuesday on an amendment passed by the Mars Area school board that attempts to restrict several concepts from classroom discussion under the guise of “patriotism”. Even considering that this district sits squarely in Daryl Metcalfe territory, this decision is disturbing in the land of the free.

The best explanation of the origins and recent history of CRT that I’ve found has come from the New York Times. Author Jacey Fortin wrote –

Critical race theorists reject the philosophy of “colorblindness.” They acknowledge the stark racial disparities that have persisted in the United States despite decades of civil rights reforms, and they raise structural questions about how racist hierarchies are enforced, even among people with good intentions. (emphasis mine)

She also quoted the law professor credited with coining the name “Critical Race Theory” –

“It’s only prompted interest now that the conservative right wing has claimed it as a subversive set of ideas”.

Yale University historian Timothy Snyder expanded upon this in an excellent essay in the New York Times Magazine from late June. He argues that recent efforts to legislate away the mention of CRT and related topics, what he terms “memory laws”, are reminiscent of the tactics of the Stalinist USSR and other totalitarian regimes –

Democracy requires individual responsibility, which is impossible without critical history. It thrives in a spirit of self-awareness and self-correction. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is infantilizing: We should not have to feel any negative emotions; difficult subjects should be kept from us. Our memory laws amount to therapy, a talking cure. In the laws’ portrayal of the world, the words of white people have the magic power to dissolve the historical consequences of slavery, lynchings and voter suppression. Racism is over when white people say so.

With all of that in mind, it’s kind of surprising when things like this start popping up around town –

Flyer posted on the community bulletin board at Safran’s Supermarket, Sewickley, June 2021. Click image to enlarge.

At the bottom of the above flyer is a link to the website for Parents Defending Education, which describes itself as “a national grassroots organization working to reclaim our schools from activists imposing harmful agendas“.

According to at least one education blogger, Parents Defending Education functions more like an Astroturf group, defined as “masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.”

Other reporting has found similar disputes around the country tied to a national attempt to weaponize the CRT controversy for targeted political gain, using Astroturf groups and other strategies. A report in The Nation in mid-August also linked this activity to what they termed “the network of radical free-market capitalist think tanks and action groups supported by billionaire businessman Charles Koch and his late brother David.”

Mobile screen capture of the qvparents.org home page, from July 15, 2021. Click image to enlarge.

The local debate has included several letters to the editor in the Herald over the last few months. Two of the letters came from area resident Charles E. “Ed” Wolfe III, who has also touted a new website, ostensibly titled qvparents.org.

Both the site and Mr. Wolfe’s second Herald letter call out several QV officials for comments allegedly made at the school board meeting of June 15, for which published minutes are not available as of this writing. Mr. Wolfe writes –

In recent communications with the Quaker Valley school board, the board president stated that the board has “not adopted policies in the past 65 years since the founding of Quaker Valley that ban” materials and “and will not do so at this time.”
They further explained, “that a decision not to ban an idea does not indicate an endorsement of that idea or topic.”
Oh, I beg to differ. The board is responsible for the curriculum they allow by virtue of their vote or lack thereof.

It’s hard for me to see how one thing has to do with the other. I’m sure the Board does not endorse the foundational thinking behind Communism, Fascism, and Ethnic Cleansing, nor Manifest Destiny and the resulting decimation of Native American culture. Yet we educate our children about them – among other reasons, it’s important not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The website also takes issue with several textbooks and other media for alleged inaccuracies, and/or the manner in which information is presented that could allow for the introduction of allegedly nefarious CRT principles.

One example cited is Move This World, which describes itself providing social emotional learning (SEL) training with the use of interactive videos, movement, and creative expression to help students, educators, and families develop emotional intelligence skills for long-term wellbeing”. Per Mr. Wolfe’s analysis, Quaker Valley currently utilizes this resource in grades K-6.

He includes the following in his narrative –

With respect (sic) the verbiage in the videos, they do not teach CRT; however, being it is only a set of prompts that are facilitated by the teacher, it leaves plenty of room for CRT-inspired discussion. Additionally, the curriculum progressively adds CRT-suggestive prompts as the grade level increases…The more troubling aspect of this curriculum is the apparent direction it is intended to go.

The founder, Sara LaHayne does not hide her support of CRT. On the curriculum website there are a few articles that show-case Mrs. LaHayne’s racism and anti-American comments.

In this instance Mr. Wolfe’s objections are not specific to any curriculum content, but instead with the opinions expressed by Ms. LaHayne. Some of these include –

The United States of America would not be what it is today without enslaving millions of people of color.

White inhabitants of this nation would not have the same opportunity, the same privilege, without Jim Crow laws, redlining, or mass incarceration.

These are uncomfortable truths for many Americans, but it is the truth. Whether we like it or not, our shared history shapes the context of today.

We have a responsibility to confront our history, not to protect the icons of a shameful era.

I frankly cannot see where the above can be construed as “racist” and/or “anti-American“. The irony of using these types of tactics to attack an alleged political agenda is hard for me to shake off, but is also somewhat familiar…

American anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s, specifically addressing the entertainment industry – Wikipedia

Contacted in mid-July, School Board President Jon Kuzma stated that he was having difficulty ascertaining exactly what Mr. Wolfe and his group were trying to accomplish, as QV does not presently teach CRT at any grade level and has no plans to.

I mentioned the concerns about curriculum – in response, he detailed the process in which teachers, administrators, and the Board evaluate, recommend, and approve curriculum changes over the course of several years.

When contacted a few days later, Mr. Wolfe stated that he is the author of both the local flyer and the QV Parents website. Along with concerns about curriculum, Mr. Wolfe acknowledged that while CRT is not a typical subject in the K-12 environment, teachers could insert CRT principles into classroom instruction.

Mr. Wolfe asserted that CRT has its roots in Critical Theory, which he claimed comes from Marxism, and that teachers cannot be allowed to teach, or even personally espouse, anything that approaches this.

Critical Theory is defined by Wikipedia as “an approach to social philosophy that focuses on reflective assessment and critique of society and culture in order to reveal and challenge power structures“. This theory has its roots in the Frankfurt School, a German school of social theory that has stated their works derive from the writings of Karl Marx, but also those of Sigmund Freud, Immanuel Kant, Georg Friedrich Hegel, and several others. Wikipedia also describes the school’s approach as “critical of capitalism and of Marxism–Leninism as philosophically inflexible systems of social organization”.

If this also sounds a bit advanced to be batting about when discussing the K-12 public schools, don’t feel bad – you’re not alone.

When I pointed out to Mr. Wolfe that any concept or ideology could be attacked in the same manner as he has attacked CRT, he replied that there is a difference between teaching and indoctrination, and that “kids don’t see race unless they are taught to see race“.

I believe that children learn about race and identity in a more holistic manner – much like anything else they experience as part of their environment. Mari Matsuda, a CRT researcher and law professor at the University of Hawaii, stated something similar as part of Jacey Fortin’s Times story –

I see it like global warming. We have a serious problem that requires big, structural changes; otherwise, we are dooming future generations to catastrophe. Our inability to think structurally, with a sense of mutual care, is dooming us — whether the problem is racism, or climate disaster, or world peace.

This reminds me of a lovely poem – Children Learn What They Live – but it shouldn’t take a poem to understand this.

We proclaim ourselves as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

Edward R. Murrow

It’s difficult for me to avoid comparing the assertions of QV Parents and Mr. Wolfe to McCarthyism of the mid-20th Century. Their rhetoric appears to call for the elimination of so-called political speech in both curriculum and classroom, and advocates for political litmus tests of those who author teaching materials and/or who may teach from those materials.

Aside from the obvious First Amendment concerns, there is Supreme Court precedent that addresses the unconstitutional nature of such activity in public educational institutions.

As a citizen who highly values the liberties granted by our Constitution, and the sacrifices made by those to both protect those liberties and strive for their application to all Americans, I object to any attempt to ban a concept or course of study, or restrict the exploration of our history.

When asked about any future plans, Mr. Wolfe stated he is awaiting the scheduled school board meeting on August 30, when he expects QV Superintendent Tammy Andreyko to introduce an initiative for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, possibly modeled after a similar program at Kent State University. This is apparently based on a quote attributed to Dr. Andreyko that is featured on the QV Parents home page.

Full-page ad in the June 24 Sewickley Herald. Click image to enlarge.

If Quaker Valley is considering such an initiative, they would do well to investigate the efforts of Sewickley Academy, and the school’s actions in the wake of backlash similar in tone to Mr. Wolfe’s efforts.

After the above ad hit Page 3 of the June 24 Herald, I visited the Sewickley Parents website and looked around for substantive information about exactly what their concerns were. After reading their mission statement and a small blurb about the Learning for Justice program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, what struck me most significantly was what the site lacked – a listing of the leadership and/or those who had joined the group.

I then started looking at the Academy’s website for additional information. What I found was extensive – the school’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice (DEISJ) initiative, announced in April of this year. There is access to considerable detail concerning the strategic plan and standards that support this effort – too much to explore in this forum, but nonetheless there (for now) and available for review.

Excerpt from June 1, 2021 anonymous letter. Click image to expand.

When the initial story broke at the beginning of July that Head of School Kolia O’Connor had been replaced – after an anonymous letter had been sent to parents on June 1, and one day after the Herald ad was published – I sought out comment from both the school and the Sewickley Parents group.

Contacted on July 2, Academy spokesperson Kaitlin Busch would not comment beyond the contents of a June 30 press release. Sewickley Parents did not respond to an email request for contact.

This reticence was shaken after the July 21 dismissal of four additional administrators and a teacher, including the DEISJ Coordinator. The media feeding frenzy that followed was impressive and somewhat surprising.

The Post-Gazette report from July 22 also included comment from the first identified representative of Sewickley Parents, Rob Frazzini of McCandless.

Mr. Frazzini describes himself on LinkedIn as “a disruptor that love (sic) a challenge“, and adds, “I believe our current educational processes are broken and that they need significant disruption”.

Additional media outlets reported on the beginnings of push-back against the approach taken by the Academy’s Board of Trustees. KDKA-TV Investigator Andy Sheehan highlighted objections raised by another parent group.

The July 27 Post-Gazette embellished this further by putting a name to those objections, and also elicited comment from the organization that accredits the Academy and over 100 other private schools statewide.

Mr. Sheehan also did a followup report, labeling the Academy community a “hotbed of division“. This included an interview with Dominic Odom of Concerned Sewickley Parents, which in very short order has established an online presence with a comprehensive website of its own.

Most recently, this group issued a statement following their July 30 meeting with Interim Head of School Ashley Birtwell and the current Board of Trustees. Among other revelations, this statement provided the news that two African-American trustees have resigned, and also outlined what the group is requesting of the Board in the near term.

Sewickley Parents also posted a statement to their website that, while undated, makes reference to rumor control, media coverage, and the recent administrative changes. The document also provides a brief historical overview of the group’s activities, and attempts to defend their collective anonymity.

They also attempted to reinforce their commitment to diversity and inclusion, while pointedly omitting the words “social justice“. This is defined by Wikipedia as “the relation of balance between individuals and society measured by comparing distribution of wealth differences, from personal liberties to fair privilege opportunities.” Concerned Sewickley Parents has objected to the removal of the words by the Academy in several documents and web references.

The Academy Board also faces a racial discrimination lawsuit from one of the fired administrators. The Pennsylvania NAACP released a response to the firings and resulting litigation. The organization’s Coraopolis branch also issued a statement that is worth taking the time to read.

At about the same time, Ms. Birtwell released a comprehensive letter to the school community, which was also reported on by the Herald. Ms. Birtwell stated that after several meetings with various stakeholders, she had decided to “share the bare facts” about the challenges being faced and the rationale behind the actions taken.

The letter states in part that the changes made by the Trustees were primarily in response to declining enrollment of over 1/3 since 2002, but also cited surveys conducted in 2016 of faculty and staff that identified “toxic” components within the culture of their working environment.

The letter is worth reading, but what I thought noteworthy is what it did not mention – what role, if any, the anonymous letter, public advertisement, and subsequent meetings with Sewickley Parents had on the timing of the staffing changes.

If they played a role in those decisions, the trustees come across as overly sensitive to criticism and the airing of a private school’s dirty laundry. If they didn’t, then with 20 years of enrollment data and five-year-old survey results, what took them so long?

It would appear that Mr. Frazzini and his group got the “disruption” they were looking for. With an equally vocal and committed opposition now mobilized in response, it’s unclear what Sewickley Academy, and as a consequence its students, stands to gain or lose from all of this.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

from the Declaration of Independence

When I attended Sewickley Academy in the mid-1970s, the above words were prominently displayed on the façade of the Senior School.

The two disputes detailed above share some important commonalities – a backlash at the national level against a perceived attempt to attack American history, and the seeming emergence of a single individual as the point person for a consensus of the anonymous.

I get the impression that the genesis of both QV Parents and Sewickley Parents was driven by the efforts of one individual or a small group, and then introduced to attract followers via the actual and virtual marketplaces of ideas.

This isn’t really Astroturf, but it’s not grassroots either. Maybe it’s just a single square patch of sod in an otherwise unremarkable dirt lot.

There appear to be other legal and historical precedents that show the potential danger of this activity to our benchmark civil liberties. These are enshrined in our Constitution and bolstered by judicial precedent and public opinion, as expressed by the consent of the governed at the ballot box.

While a private school isn’t necessarily bound by some of those laws and precedents, let’s hope that the Academy recognizes them as part of their developing operational culture.

 

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

Nelson Mandela

We have a granddaughter who will start Kindergarten next week at Edgeworth Elementary. While her mother and grandmother have been wading through the paperwork associated with that, I’ve been trying to follow developments within the QV District as it relates to their federally mandated Health and Safety Plan.

Initially approved by the Board on July 27, a decision was made to revisit the plan, possibly in the wake of increased cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant in Allegheny County.

This process has been difficult for area school districts in the absence of a statewide mask mandate as was the case last year. Adding to the difficulties are the objections of parents to masking requirements, resulting in acrimonious exchanges across the country between parents, staff, and board members. One glaring local example last week that drew national media attention disrupted the otherwise rarefied decorum of a Fox Chapel Area school board meeting.

North Allegheny schools announced the reversal of a previous policy allowing for parental choice in masking indoors, and then met on Wednesday evening to a full house and over 400 attendees via a live stream. The Board wound up reversing the reversal, and stripped the Superintendent from policy-making authority in this area. Several parents and students quickly responded with a federal lawsuit, which resulted in a court order reversing the policy yet again.

The aforementioned Mars Area school board met on Tuesday and will keep masks optional, despite respectful but spirited comments from parents and board members. The board in neighboring Seneca Valley elected to require masks in the face of vocal opposition, reportedly becoming the first school district in Butler County to do so.

Quaker Valley Masking Framework, from the 2021-22 Health and Safety Plan. Click to enlarge.

The Quaker Valley board also met on Tuesday to discuss and decide upon the proposed plan revision. I was able to listen in for a short while via Zoom, and caught some of the public comment and board deliberations.

The citizens in the audience echoed many similar concerns as those expressed elsewhere – parental rights, individual liberty, mental health of children, differing views on the overall efficacy of masks and/or vaccination. Others pointed out the lack of masks required for students participating in athletic events.

For its part, the Board was equal measures of concern and resolve in doing what was necessary to keep from shutting down once they got going. Board member Geoff Barnes stated his desire to “do everything to keep students in the buildings“, a reference to missed days and online or hybrid classes.

Board member Sarah Heres added that co-curricular activities are equally critical and important, and that masking will “protect during the day” while increasing the possibility that these activities, including team sports, can take place.

The board’s decision, on a 6-2 vote, requires masks be worn inside all schools and indoor events when the risk of transmission is determined by the appropriate health authorities to be Substantial or High. Using the framework pictured above, the mask requirements are scalable based upon changes in that risk level, as determined by those authorities.

The board’s decision is commendable, as is the district administration’s level of preparedness and situational awareness.

In a letter sent via e-mail late Tuesday night, the district also stated –

We empathize with the frustration of what has become a long period of inconvenience during this historical pandemic. We do not make these decisions lightly nor in haste. However, we believe that universal masking in our schools is the most responsible decision we can make at this time. This approach will allow us to keep students in schools and give us the ability to offer oncampus instruction to all our students.

There are many who disagree with the decision, and they largely maintained their decorum while expressing their opinions. I would like them to consider their position from a historical standpoint.

Nearly 70 years ago, parents in our area were asked to volunteer their children for participation in some of the first human testing of the Salk polio vaccine. This was a voluntary program, conducted in cooperation with local pediatricians and the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children.

The late Sewickley pediatrician Dr. Robert D. Nix was quoted by the Herald in 1985 –

Granted that this was polio – a disease with an often tragic cause-and-effect relationship with infection. Nevertheless I’m wondering how the Salk trials might have progressed if the parents objecting to masks today – some of whom may be descendants of those parents in 1953 – declined to participate using some of the reasons expressed this week.

We’re hoping for a safe, productive, and healthy school year for Violett and the rest of the class of 2035, as well as all students, teachers, and staff starting another year with the pandemic and politics still in their midst.

I’m hoping that both conditions will be tempered to a manageable level in the months ahead.

Have a good rest of the summer.

Posted in Censorship, Civil Liberties, Government, History, Local, Media, Politics, Schools | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Loose Ends For a Better Year, Part 3 – Nothing New Under the Sun

All things are wearisome,
    more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
    nor the ear its fill of hearing.
 What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
    and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
    by those who follow them.

 – Ecclesiastes 1:8-11 (NIV)

Happy June.

My wife has a tremendous gift for distilling things down to lowest terms. As I’ve written previously, she’s in the process of trying to clean house, which is a really good idea. She’s got a full plate and then some.

In discussing the turbulence brought about by the ongoing pandemic, changes at home and at work, and the general political and social climate, she referenced the above scripture.

She really didn’t need to say much more than that, and it made all the more sense to get these miscellaneous items “up and out” – if they will stay that way.

Council Changes Course on COG, Code Enforcement

The makeup of Sewickley Council changed a little in 2020, with the departure of Hendrik Van der Vaart last August and the appointment of Ed Green to the Ward 2 seat.

Council’s position on certain changes made in borough operations over the last few years shifted dramatically as well. Most noteworthy of these was the decision in January to rejoin the Quaker Valley Council of Governments (QVCOG).

According to the meeting minutes and the meeting audio, several councilors made note of the advantages of QVCOG membership over any perceived disadvantages. Most vocal was councilor Thomas Rostek, who stated he was “baffled” by the borough’s absence from the COG. Councilor Cynthia Mullins cited specific advantages with the borough’s Act 537 (Sewer Facilities) Plan update to send sewage to Leetsdale for treatment, and an upcoming renewal of the refuse and recycling contract at the end of this year.

Both councilors also cited “general interest in our neighbors” and “cooperation with sister communities” as other positive benefits of COG membership. Council voted 7-2 to rejoin the COG, with annual membership dues at $3600. Jeff Neff and Larry Rice were the lone dissenters. 

As I stated when I wrote about Sewickley’s departure from the COG in 2018 –

The business of local government appears to be more complex and challenging than ever before. While prudence in the management of resources is a positive long-term strategy, the same can’t be said of stepping away from opportunities for collaboration to assure that citizens being represented can share in a common good – irrespective of those pesky imaginary lines that we divide ourselves with.

It’s good to see a majority of Sewickley Council see past whatever disagreements may exist regarding the COG and its operations, and also see the value of working cooperatively on issues that will require our fragmented municipal governments to behave more like a single entity to properly resolve.

As for the QVCOG itself, their operations are in transition on multiple fronts, with the announcement of a new Executive Director with local experience, and the decision by the COG board in February to relocate their headquarters to the Kilbuck Township municipal building. This building also houses the local office of Building Inspection Underwriters (BIU), which provides contract code enforcement and building inspection services to many of the COG’s 15 member municipalities

Sewickley is also in the process of a Code Enforcement change, after advertising for a full-time Code Enforcement  / Zoning Officer in January of this year. Borough Manager Marla Marcinko stated at that time via e-mail –

The Borough has determined that it would be in the best interests of the community to have these functions provided by an in-house staff person. We are hopeful that, if we can find the right candidate, we will be more responsive and may actually realize a cost savings for the provision of these services. 

Since April 2019, the borough has contracted with Harshman CE for the provision of these services, and per Ms. Marcinko will continue to do so at least until a suitable candidate is found. The position remains posted on the borough website as of this writing. Reached in May via email, Ms. Marcinko stated “we interviewed two candidates and did not have unanimous support on the recommended candidate“. 

Harshman’s tagline on their website is “Keep it simple – Do it right – Get it done“, but their relationship with both citizens and borough administration has not been without its bumps –

  • As previously detailed, giving the green light on the construction of a garage in a historic district without the required referral to the Historic Review Commission.
  • Elected and appointed officials have both expressed concern over difficulties in communication between Harshman and borough personnel. One example was detailed in the minutes of the August 2020 meeting of the Sewickley Planning Commission. Councilor and commission member Christine Allen detailed her concerns regarding a driveway project – yes, another one – in the steep slope area of Hill Street. Included in the discussion was Harshman Code Technician and Zoning Officer Randy McCray.

Click to Enlarge.

This project, and the 601 Hill Street driveway before it, were significant factors in a proposed revision to driveway construction standards. More about this below.

 

Steep Slope Saga Slides Into Standards Stalemate

Late last year, Minas LLC sold its last two holdings in the Hill Street and Hopkins Street “steep slope” area of Sewickley. It would appear that Minas principal Stan Southern’s stated intentions to sell the remaining properties and “close up shop” have been met.

Responding via e-mail, Barbara Cox recently stated that she has yet to meet her new neighbors at 601 Hill, but that their gravel and runoff water continue to make regular visits to her property. She also described as “terrible” the process of developing the driveway at 607 Hill.

To its credit, the Planning Commission began to investigate how to develop standards for driveway construction that would (hopefully) restrain those who would engage in future misadventures such as these. Then-commissioner Ed Green researched existing standards for driveway slope, owing to no such animal being resident in borough code.

At the Commission’s July 1, 2020 meeting, he presented PennDOT Publication 13M, Section 7, which establishes a standard for driveways along state-owned rights-of-way.

        Graphic from PennDOT driveway standards publication.                  Click to Enlarge.

Per the minutes, Mr. McCray stated that “he spoke with Mr. Harshman about the PA DOT standards. The only concern was that they may be overly onerous to administer“.

The Planning Commission voted unanimously to add language to the Zoning Ordinance to require new driveway construction meet the PennDOT standard. Council approval was then required to formally add this to the ordinance.

The minutes of Council’s December 8, 2020 meeting reported the following-

Click to Enlarge.

Contacted last month, Christine Allen confirmed that Council appears to be holding off, citing the complexity of the rules and their applicability to all areas of the borough. She stated –

Crescent Avenue, March 2021.

Council lacks the will to adopt driveway standards, despite strong arguments in favor of doing this, which were made by multiple members, including me.

Regardless of the complexity of any standard and/or perceived difficulties in enforcing it, some type of regulation needs to be imposed, at the least in the natural resource protection overlay as defined by the zoning ordinance.

This overlay, created by the borough in an apparent attempt to manage activities that threaten hillside stability and associated life and property, would seem tailor-made for requirements of this type.

This is not the only area of the “steep slope district” that is experiencing problems, as the photo to the right illustrates.

More about this later.

 

Dundee Farm Dispute Winds Down….NOT.

When I last reported on the court battle between Scott and Theresa Fetterolf and Sewickley Heights Borough over the alleged commercial use of Dundee Farm in violation of zoning regulations, Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph James had ordered the parties to attempt to reach a consent agreement by early September 2019. For those unfamiliar with the length and breadth of this dispute, I also reported on it here, here, and here.

When that agreement didn’t happen, Judge James scheduled hearings in December 2019 and March 2020 to hear oral arguments and review evidence. In May 2020, he issued a ruling that divided the disputed activities at Dundee Farm into three separate categories – those that occurred between August and December 2017, those related to agricultural uses, and those related to a “School, Special, or Studio” use. From the judge’s ruling –                        

In June 2020, both the borough and the Fetterolfs appealed Judge James’ decision to Commonwealth Court. On March 1 of this year the Court returned a ruling which reversed the Common Pleas ruling regarding activities in 2017, and affirmed the ruling regarding the “School, Special, or Studio” activities. The Fetterolfs then applied for re-argument of this decision, which Commonweath Court denied on April 23.

Borough Manager Nathan Briggs, contacted via email on May 19, issued the following statement –

The Borough is pleased with the Commonwealth Court’s decision in support of local zoning.

The only option that remains now is to request an appeal before the Pa. Supreme Court.  In order to do this, the Fetterolfs must file a Petition for Allowance of Appeal on or before Monday, May 24, 2021.

The next step is to move forward with positive actions in the Borough.

Perhaps those positive actions may include the Fetterolfs recognizing their responsibilities under the rule of law, utilizing the processes established under that law, and cooperating with both the borough and their neighbors in using their property in a manner complementary to those responsibilities.

Nah…..the Fetterolfs filed that petition with the Pa. Supremes on the last day that they could. 

Unfortunately, it appears that this saga has a little longer to go.

 

Sewickley Gets a Piece of Cherock

A noteworthy story in September of last year was the sale of the former headquarters of Explore Sewickley to AE Works, an architecture and engineering firm founded and headed by Sewickley resident Michael Cherock. The company is currently in the process of transforming the building into its headquarters, and has begun the process with the borough to add a third floor.

Along with making a positive impression with Sewickley officials by relocating the company from Pittsburgh’s North Side, Mr. Cherock has also shown a willingness to contribute further, by applying for and being appointed to the Sewickley Planning Commission, replacing Ed Green, who was appointed to Council.

The company’s body of work is impressive – from a restoration of the lobby of the Edgeworth Club to a conceptual project for a new hockey arena at the RMU complex on Neville Island. This concept may remain just that, if last month’s unfortunate news out of “Bobby U” holds up.

It’s also worth noting that Mr. Cherock moved his family to Sewickley from Glenfield in 2017, after serving a lively 1 1/2 years as Mayor there. In a Post-Gazette column by Brian O’Neill from back then, Mr. Cherock stated that Glenfield Borough Council was “run more like a Moose Lodge than a governing body“. The column also profiled him as someone who is forthright, direct, and loathe to compromise.

With the manner in which Sewickley has conducted some of its operations in recent years, I wonder what obscure fraternal organization Mr. Cherock might compare it to.

This may be especially interesting in light of a recent letter to the Herald by Sewickley resident Jeffrey Rhoads, which essentially accused the Planning Commission Chairman, also a local architect, of a conflict of interest.

Sewickley Borough actually has a Conflict of Interest Policy that was enacted in 2012, but it only applies to Council members and certain “key employees“.

Mr. Rhoads’ letter also lamented the lack of any apparent code of ethics for some borough officials, and cited a snippet of what is in place in Monroeville as an example. The Pa. Public Official and Employee Ethics Act  also addresses the conduct of certain elected, appointed, and public officials, but it is unclear as to whether that extends to members of boards and commissions.

That’s about as far as I’m going to go with that…for now.

In any event, my best wishes to Mr. Cherock and his company.

 

Edgeworth Taco Bell – Mucho Ruido y Pocas Nueces

The “new” Taco Bell in Edgeworth, as seen from Hazel Lane. The entrance to the parking lot from Hazel has been closed off.

It started with a proposal to construct a McDonald’s in mid-2015.  It then morphed into a questionable plan to put a Chipotle restaurant in the space about six months later. Then adjacent property owners got into a tiff with the developer, which resulted in some legislative legerdemain a few months after that.

Fast-forward to 2019, and now the developer wants to put a Taco Bell in the space. After much deliberation at the Planning Commission and Council levels, in September 2019 Edgeworth Council approved the planned Taco Bell development, which included a drive-thru. Among the conditions set by Council included the closing off of the parking lot access from Hazel Lane, as well as other considerations regarding signage and traffic flow. 

After construction delays related to stormwater drainage and the pandemic, the new restaurant, pictured above, made its debut around November of last year. The building is fairly small, and is tucked in at the southernmost end of the lot. The drive-thru lane is right up against the property line for Starbucks. In looking at the finished product, I’m not sure exactly how many parking spaces were lost to the building, but it couldn’t have been that many.

Curb cuts onto Route 65, 2015.

One improvement is the change in traffic patterns as a result of traffic for the restaurant being forced to access it from either Route 65 or the access road to the Esmark building. The congestion at the Hazel Lane light to exit the area seems to have lessened.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t help with the over-abundance of curb cuts off of 65 into and out of the commercial area. Safety in this area hasn’t really been enhanced at all.

One week last month, the usual Tuesday bundle of coupons in the mail included some for the “new Taco Bell in the neighborhood”. The offers, like the building itself, seemed anemic. I’ve been there once, and left unimpressed. Unlike other Taco Bell outlets, this one doesn’t even offer breakfast.

What was the point?

 

Leetsdale – Build a Bridge, Get Over It

The pandemic year was one of change and adjustment for many local governments, and Leetsdale was no different. In early 2020 I was involved in a Right to Know Law appeal regarding several draft meeting minutes that the borough would not release due to their not yet being approved by Council.

Pennsylvania open records law maintains that draft minutes become accessible public records after the next regularly scheduled meeting of the entity involved. The borough, through its solicitor Megan Turnbull, released the minutes requested a week after the appeal was filed.

This incident felt more bureaucratic than any deliberate attempt to withhold records. The minutes of a meeting represent the historical record of a governing body. A backlog of minutes in draft form just isn’t acceptable, and the law reflects that. Since then, the situation has improved considerably.

Over the last year, those minutes reflected several issues regarding the conduct of the borough’s business –

The January reorganization meeting included vocal objections over the seating of duly elected councilor Roger Nanni, who had previously served on Council from 1998 to 2013. He was defeated in the primary election that year after violations of the Pa. Ethics Act involving the employment of a family member. In apparent anticipation of these objections, Mr. Nanni was sworn in before the actual meeting.

At the regular meeting three days later, Mr. Nanni wasted no time in bringing to Council’s attention what might be best described as an 800-pound gorilla, hiding in plain sight, perhaps for good reason –

Portion of Leetsdale Council meeting minutes, January 9, 2020

This meeting also included discussion by Ms. Turnbull regarding a resolution to revise guidelines for citizen comments, which would have imposed a maximum 2-minute comment period. After accusations from at least one citizen of an attempt at censorship, Council voted to table any further action on the proposal.

In February, several citizens made comments regarding allegations of misconduct against an unnamed Council member that had resulted in a confidential financial settlement with a former borough employee. Several citizens demanded the resignation of the member involved. Mr. Nanni made a motion to reorganize Council that, while the minutes state “MOTION CARRIES”, also indicates a roll call vote showing a 4-3 vote against the motion. No further action was noted, so it appears that the motion did NOT carry.

COVID created both opportunities and challenges for the use of online platforms for government meetings. Leetsdale appeared to struggle more than others with this. Restrictions were placed on virtual attendance, with Council requiring both registration and submission of comments in advance.

I did both for the April meeting, but along with at least one other citizen did not receive the promised access code to attend remotely. My comments at that time focused primarily on how these practices may or may not fall within established guidance from the Pa. Office of Open Records (OOR), and regulation in the form of the Pa. Sunshine Act.

I also made comments for the May meeting, which was conducted under the same conditions. Along with concerns about the borough’s compliance with regulatory advice disseminated by the OOR, I expressed concern with the borough’s ability to conduct online meetings similar to standards achieved by neighboring municipalities.

I also made the following statement about the allegations that no one would, or apparently could, speak about –

While it is understood that legal agreements may preclude the disclosure of specific details, the Borough nonetheless needs to be more transparent regarding this issue, especially if taxpayer funds were involved.

Some middle ground needs to be arrived at before the Borough’s business continues to be hindered by continued demand for an end to what many interpret as stonewalling.

The meeting minutes for the summer months contained little or no apparent reference to the issue. This changed at the October meeting, when Mr. Nanni again moved to reorganize Council. This time he had a majority behind him and the motion passed, 4-3. Councilor Ben Frederick then moved to enter executive session. This was defeated by the same 4-3 majority.

Council then, again by that same margin, proceeded to elect councilor Wes James as President, replacing councilor Jeff Weatherby.

Aside from the obvious lessons that could be learned from this experience, another consequence looms large over the borough and its operations – the questionable decision to enter into any type of settlement agreement that requires confidentiality on the part of a government entity, which at the end of the day remains accountable to the people.

I’ve seen settlement agreements from other municipalities where a clause establishes that both parties understand that the agreement could be released in response to a public records request. This could also be a sort of guidepost for those seeking elective office, or employment in the public sector –

Behave as though your actions can become public knowledge at any time.

As it happens, transparency and integrity were two prominent buzzwords in the municipal primary election held a few weeks ago. The unofficial results of that election may display a desire on the part of citizens for a more open, responsive approach to government operations. I’ll have more to say as the field for the November election takes shape.

Even with all of this going on, Leetsdale is trying to build bridges to solve known problems in a literal sense. This dates back to the consequences of the Lubrizol Fire of November 2015. Much concern and commentary was directed toward Council regarding the two industrial parks and several private dwellings dependent upon only one way out over the railroad tracks.

Leetsdale Council and other officials, along with public safety leaders and property owners in the industrial area, have been working over the last few years to attempt to establish an emergency evacuation route using one of three bridges that cross Big Sewickley Creek between the Hussey Copper property and the Port Ambridge Industrial Park.

Last year, Council authorized borough engineer Dan Slagle to “begin to move forward” with the process of designing a single-lane evacuation bridge that would utilize an existing railroad spur. Council President Wes James recently confirmed this via e-mail, stating Mr. Slagle was to “do some leg work on getting some right of way information and permissions from Ambridge and their property owners“.

From the Lubrizol fire to several incidents at Hussey over the last few years, recent history continues to highlight the need for more than one way out of that area. It’s good to see the ongoing commitment of the borough to this issue, and the daunting logistics that accompany it.

 

Local Government – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

As I was in the last stages of finishing this post, a slim majority of Sewickley Council succeeded in firing Borough Manager Marla Marcinko. They needed the Mayor’s help to do it.

According to Sewickley Herald reporting that was both comprehensive and informative, the firing was unexpected, sudden, and not well received – so much so that councilor Christine Allen resigned in response to the decision and the manner in which it was handled.

Additional Herald reporting also raised questions regarding the legality of the firing under the Sunshine Act, and included comments from Ms. Allen relating to other critical issues in the borough that have been reported previously, and are not going away –

Allen said that the internal dispute over manager’s position, as well as a lack of interest in improving infrastructure, were the two major factors in her decision.

“Sewickley has roads and walls that have already failed for decades of neglect,” Allen said. “As long as Marla was here, I thought this would get done. We don’t have a strategic plan. That’s your job, to have a strategic plan for doing business. I would like roads and walls to be a priority. What we do should mirror our agenda, and it didn’t.

“I came into this wanting to do the right things the right way, and I feel like I’ve been put in a compromising position.”

That last sentence sounds painfully familiar, and could almost be associated with the oft-used adage about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.

I found both Ms. Marcinko and Ms. Allen to be responsive, forthright, and dedicated to their respective responsibilities. They’ll be missed.

The manner in which Ms. Marcinko was relieved of her duties – last minute action, not on the agenda, without public comment and cloaked as much as possible in the secrecy of the executive session – speaks to an unfortunately all-too-common tactic deployed when some representative bodies want to keep more controversial aspects of the people’s business as hidden as possible.

There is nothing new under the Sun – or even hidden from it.

That being said, there is a need to maintain confidentiality within some deliberations of government. It’s entirely appropriate to discuss the performance of an employee within the confines of an executive session.

The significance of this action, combined with the media reporting and possible ramifications under the Sunshine Act – which would require a court filing to fully flesh out – bring the possibility that the public may decide to demand a closer look at this decision.

I was hoping for a strong virtual turnout at tonight’s Council meeting for just that reason. I did notice a Herald reporter’s name among those logged in – perhaps something new that can be relied on in the future, and not just for Sewickley meetings.

Until next time.

 

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Loose Ends for a Better Year, Part 2 – Old Files, Empty Spaces

My wife is currently on a mission to clean and de-clutter several areas of the house. We have been shuttling items and materiel to various locales for recycling, reuse, or resale. Leslie calls this “up and out”.

I’m going to try to do the same thing here – there are several updates related to previous posts that I will attempt to briefly summarize before (hopefully) closing them for good, additional shenanigans developments notwithstanding.

This space needs some fresh information, and this year is lining up to be chock full of issues ripe for exploring. It’s a significant year on the local front – municipal elections, school board elections, and the battle for a new high school for starters. The information war on that topic is already underway, and I’ve added links to all of the related websites near the top of the sidebar.

Let’s get to cleaning house.

Sewickley Parking Authority – 28 Months (or so) Later

When I last reported on developments in the most recent iteration of the Sewickley Parking Authority (SPA), a new, downsized Board of Directors, comprised entirely of Council members, was beginning the process of assessing the actions of previous boards and making some decisions that constituted significant change in the authority’s administration and operations.

The timeline below, constructed from board meeting minutes and other documents obtained via a Right To Know Law request, gives an illustration of the period when the board was reduced in size from from five members to three, its actions in the months leading up to their resignation en masse, and the dismantling of those actions by the new Council-dominated board.

World War P

January 2020 – Fielded numerous comments from citizens and business owners related to issues with machines, enforcement hours, and loading zones. Voted to hire a full-time administrator, and retain Public Partners of PA to conduct a recruitment. Fired the solicitor for the board, and hired another solicitor from a different law firm. Discussed leasing garage parking spots from Heritage Valley Sewickley Hospital.

February 2020 – Changed the hours of parking enforcement. Changed parking fees for Zone 1 (central business district) to a tiered rate based on the length of time parked, with the first hour at $1.00 and going up an additional .25 per hour that the vehicle is parked. This was allegedly intended to discourage employees of Village businesses, commuters, and others from parking in Zone 1 the entire day. Also increased fines to $20 within 5 days, $50 after 5 days, $75 after 30 days, and then referred to Magisterial District Court.

They also retained an accounting firm, entered into a consulting agreement with TrueTec Solutions, and retained “special counsel” to provide candidates for the administrator position.

March 2020 – Hired Judith Boyle as Administrator at an annual salary of $65,000 plus benefits. After approaching the borough for additional office space and being denied, leased 2 offices at 417 Thorn St. for $2,000 per month on a one year lease. Authorized purchase of office equipment including a computer and printer, not to exceed $5,000. Authorized the lease of up to 30 garage spaces from HVHS Sewickley for re-leasing. Voted to convert 9 metered spaces on Washington St. behind the borough building to leased parking.

There was no board meeting in April 2020, but SPA was on both the agenda and minds of  Council at their April 14 meeting. According to the minutes –

Click to enlarge.

While the minutes likely do not reflect the tone and/or length of the discussion, the action taken afterward appeared to be swift and decisive. At the special meeting of Council on May 1, the last order of business conducted was to accept the resignations of the three board members, and name their Council member replacements.

This new board got to business on May 20. The meeting audio and printed minutes included reorganization of the board, adoption of a mission statement, and fact finding from staff members, borough personnel, and visitors. Highlights include:

Sewickley Chamber of Commerce President Diana Kauffman – “expressed concern about the former Board members being gone and stated that Sandra Marr was the best Chairperson with whom she’s workedthe prior board….were collecting data from the parking stations rather than making decisions based on anecdotal data….the prior board had a Facebook page and a point person and a good relationship with businesses”.

Administrator Judith Boyle – “does not know who the signatory is on the checkbook. (Borough Manager Marla) Marcinko stated that she should call the bank and (Board Treasurer Larry) Rice indicated that the two signatories should be (Board Chair Cynthia) Mullins and Mr. Rice. Ms. Marcinko was surprised to hear that there was a checkbook. Mr. Rice asked if there is an outstanding credit card”.

SPA Manager Grace Frank – “stated that she does not know the role of Ms. Boyle and stated that she feels more comfortable working from the Borough Building. Ms. Boyle asked if Ms. Frank could remain in the Borough Building and that the other Ambassadors (meter maids) work from the new office at 417 Thorn Street, 3rd Floor.  The Board decided to think about that before providing an answer”.

That answer, and many others, were revealed the following month.

Pride and Prejudice…and Parking

On June 10, the board terminated the RFP issued in May for an “Integrated E-Citation Management & Processing System”, and also terminated the associated contract with TrueTec Solutions. They also re-hired the solicitor that had been replaced in January.

On June 17, the board voted to ratify a separation agreement with Administrator Judith Boyle, thus terminating her nearly 3 month employment. They also passed a resolution restoring parking rates in Zone 1 to 50 cents per 1/2 hour, with a 3 hour maximum.

In subsequent meeting minutes, board Treasurer Rice focused on SPA’s financial condition and obligations, especially the debt on the parking payment system and ongoing maintenance costs. The machine vendor, PSX, was billing SPA for repairs on a time and materials basis, as the machines were no longer under warranty and had experienced multiple issues after their installation in 2017. An annual maintenance agreement was also discussed.

Additional items included continued lease payments for the office space at 417 Thorn St., which had been vacated prior to the 1 year term being up. As parking rates had been cut back to $1.00 per hour with a .50 minimum in Zone 1, business owners expressed concern over parking turnover in the zone, with employees more likely to park in the zone if parking is free. This may have been the genesis of the current practice of enforcing meters from 9AM to 1PM on Saturdays.

The November 2020 minutes documented Chairperson Mullins’ stated intent to request a resolution from Council to absorb the Parking Authority, no later than the end of this year. This was reiterated in the minutes of Council’s December 8, 2020 meeting. Councilor Todd Renner was appointed to replace Larry Rice, and stated that he “was hoping to serve a one-year term“.

In January 2020 I sought out former SPA board chairman Richard Webb, who had resigned his position in September 2019. He cited a dispute with the borough unrelated to SPA operations as the reason for his departure.

Despite our conversation being before the pandemic affected, well, everything, some of his comments remain relevant to SPA’s future (however limited), and the possible dissolution of the authority –

  • The Mayor and Police Chief complained about being unable to void parking tickets. Mr. Webb stated that such a privilege existed when the tickets were issued by the borough. When Council delegated the power to issue tickets to SPA by ordinance, that privilege was eliminated whether or not Council intended to do so.                                                 This could be reversed should the SPA cease to exist once again.
  • A stand-alone parking meter in Columbus, Ohio, that accepts coins and credit cards.

    Mr. Webb called the removal of stand-alone meters and the purchase of machines for fee collection a “huge fiscal mistake“. He added that it will take seven to eight years for this equipment to fully depreciate, and that they “will fail well before that“. He predicted a “gradual meltdown” and that the machines will become “impossible to maintain“.    Based on the documented record of the authority’s business, the machines will continue to occupy much of what time the SPA has left, and then the borough’s time afterward.
  • Along with discussing changes in zone time limits, Mr. Webb cited historical data to defend the increase in both rates and time of enforcement, stating that the current $1.00 per hour rate “is the same as the ten cents per hour charged in the 1950s“.  Mr. Webb added that revenues and availability suffer when actions are taken that artificially hold down prices and scale back enforcement efforts – this includes too much “kowtowing” to business owners.

You have to feel for these businesses a little. They are trying to attract consumers into an area where parking is at a premium, when many of those consumers can obtain similar goods and services in other fairly proximal communities with ample free parking. All while they are trying to spin up their operations in the wake of the “easing” of the pandemic.

I freely admit that my visits to “The Village” are largely limited to the Library, the eye doctor, and the bank – all with their own lots. Other businesses I patronize with a presence in Sewickley also have a presence in Moon Township. The Tull Theater has many showtimes outside of meter enforcement hours.

An Occurence at Sewickley Bridge

I’ve made no attempt to conceal my illustration of the SPA as something akin to a zombie disaster, owing to it being resurrected, killed off, and resurrected again multiple times to accomplish missions that perhaps exceeded Council’s perceived fiscal authority or ability at that point in history.

All characterizations aside, parking in Sewickley is no joke. The borough, through its Parking Authority, says as much through its mission statement, adopted in May 2020 –

It is the purpose of the Sewickley Parking Authority to manage existing parking assets, to promote turnover in the central business district, to balance the needs of residents, retail businesses, restaurants, professional offices and taxpayers, to provide an easy-to-use experience for parking customers that promotes compliance, and ensure consistent revenue stream from parking assets.

I’m hopeful that this mission will remain for whomever is in charge next year.

Through the documented actions of several SPA boards over a relatively short period of time, one can surmise that there are varied opinions on how to accomplish that mission. Most recently, this included an expansion of SPA administration and associated expense during a pandemic that sapped the SPA of incoming revenue. This apparently stretched the patience of Council beyond what they had previously been able to address by just getting new board members, or reducing their numbers.

The SPA was becoming a bloated, disconnected, and expensive bureaucracy that appeared to be in tenuous control of its finances. Their being reined in by Council is a good thing for parking consumers and borough taxpayers alike.

Council President Jeff Neff’s stated opposition to the borough once again assuming control over its parking resources seems counterintuitive, given these circumstances.

Should Council decide to once again bury the SPA this year, it may very well stay dead this time, assuming that any lessons learned from this latest escapade will be remembered and considered when and if the time again comes to “fix” parking in Sewickley.

Regardless of the entity providing oversight, it is necessary if Sewickley is to effectively attract visitors and consumers, and assure that the quality of their “experience”, parking and otherwise, makes them eager to return. This is a tall order in the face of a pandemic whose schedule is its own.

If the borough intends to take this on again, it must also be with a focus on service and consistency – which means some type of evaluation of current technology, processes, and people, with the appropriate adjustments as budgets will allow.  

The death throes of the SPA as detailed above reminded me of a famous short story that I read in middle school. The main character, a Confederate sympathizer condemned to hang, experiences what appears to be an adventurous escape after a botched execution attempt….

He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon–then all is darkness and silence!

I’ll be back soon with more files to clean out, and make way for newer spaces to explore.

Enjoy the springtime.

 

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Loose Ends For a Better Year, Part 1 – Tolerance, Inclusivity, Reality

Your magic brings together
what custom has sternly divided.
All men shall become brothers,
wherever your gentle wings hover.

from Ode to Joy (translated from the German) by Friedrich Schiller (1785)


My son was lamenting on social media about how there was no way this is March already. I’m inclined to agree with him.

Since I wrote here last, the Coronavirus pandemic has waxed, waned, waxed again, and now hasn’t figured out what to do next in the wake of both vaccines and variants appearing on the horizon.

The impact on community, economy, and education has been significant, and several in our area have stepped forward to lend assistance.

We also endured a presidential election that was contentious in rhetoric, consistent in its execution, gratifying in the result, and difficult to accept for those whose view of the nation has approached self-delusion.

Those delusions then fleshed themselves out as violent insurrection, with consequences for the participants and our political system that are just beginning to be reckoned with.

We’ve had quite a ride, and there is more to come.

That’s as much as I’ll say here about the two big issues in this past challenging year. I wrote about a lot of things that others did not, and that is what I prefer to focus on as we continue another circuit around the Sun.

With that in mind, here is the beginning of a compilation of some things from this last extraordinary year that either got covered and are being updated, or didn’t and deserve some attention.


#SewickleySoWhite? Not always, but…

Screen capture from the 1940 Sewickley Centennial Film showing two competitors after a footrace at Sewickley High School. This is one of few examples of African-Americans being featured in the film. Click on image to enlarge. – Sewickley Valley Historical Society

In September 2019, Leslie and I were among those gathered at the Tull Family Theater for the community premiere of a restored film account of Sewickley’s 1940 Bicentennial.

The silent film was presented without edits, and included a live narration by Sewickley resident John Poister, who coordinated the restoration for the Sewickley Valley Historical Society.

Mr. Poister included in his narrative a reference to what had become obvious to many in the viewing audience – the lack of almost any footage of the borough’s African-American community. The image above is one brief example – another segment showed children walking together out of the old Sewickley Elementary School. That was about it.

Some of those in attendance made their feelings known through the Sewickley Herald, which reported on the disappointment felt by many African-American residents who thought that the film was not representative of their presence in the community. Through Mr. Poister, the Historical Society stated that Sewickley’s de facto segregation “is a part of the town’s history that cannot be changed and should never be overlooked“.

This past year, some visible, distinctive efforts were made to recognize and commemorate the historical presence and contributions of African-Americans in the Sewickley area. These include the following –


Veterans banners placed along the 400 block of Walnut Street in Sewickley.

♦ The work of borough resident and former councilor John Dunn in coordinating and executing Sewickley’s robust Veterans Banner Program. According to a KDKA-TV feature story from September 2020, the banner collection will eventually include all 82 Western Pennsylvania Tuskegee Airmen.

The reporter also made a point to show the banners in the 400 block of Walnut Street, which honor primarily African-American veterans. Banners honoring these veterans are also hung in other locations throughout the “Village”.

♦ These banners were tied in with information provided as part of Sweetwater Art Center‘s annual MAVUNO Festival, which responded to the pandemic by including a comprehensive self-guided tour of African-American historic sites, along with its virtual art exhibit this past October.

According to the tour guidebook, the banners on Walnut “are hung as a testament to the patriotic spirit, and willingness to serve among the Black community in Sewickley Valley and the surrounding area“.

The 400 Block of Walnut features prominently in the MAVUNO tour as the current / past location of several places key to Sewickley’s African-American history. Examples include the Black Business District, which is now the location of Safran’s Market, and the original location of the Colored YMCA, adjacent to St. Matthew’s AME Zion Church. For those unfamiliar, the Sewickley Valley YMCA was a whites-only facility until the early 1970s.

♦ While the banners and many of the highlighted locations illustrate where African-Americans in Sewickley lived, recreated, worshiped, and did business, St. Matthew’s Church remains a focal point of the effort to maintain the history, awareness, and vitality of a community whose numbers have dwindled over the decades.

Last year, the church announced a funding effort for renovation of their historic building at Thorn and Walnut, which also houses the archives of the Daniel B. Matthews Historical Society. An October 2020 Herald report detailed how the community has stepped forward in a big way.


My wife is a Sewickley native, part of a vital African-American community documented in works such as African Americans in Sewickley Valley and Their Story: The History of Black/African Americans in Sewickley and Edgeworth.

The current and future residents of the Sewickley area are fortunate to have such a rich chronicle of information (and the people who care to gather and share it) about how the area has changed over the decades – as well as how it hasn’t.

I am confident that future generations will be able to learn something from these efforts – if they choose to do so.

However, the mere existence of a historical presence does not guarantee substantive change. It takes work by a community to recognize the attitudes and biases of the past manifest in our own present-day behavior, and commit to move toward an environment where all are truly welcomed and treated with respect.

Unfortunately, a lot of that work still needs to be done.


The Short, Sad Story of the QVIA

Another visible, distinctive effort toward recognizing and celebrating diversity in the Sewickley community was the well-attended protest at Beaver and Broad streets in late May of last year. Leslie and I were among those gathered.

The protest was organized with help from then-local couple Jennifer Doody and Janet Paulus. I noticed the protest information appearing on multiple social media sites, and within groups created by and for local area users of those platforms.

After the success of the rally, Ms. Doody and Ms. Paulus appeared to waste no time in leveraging their Internet savvy and new-found community connections to help create a grassroots organization committed to “recruit and organize civically minded individuals…in order to prevent and alleviate the discrimination (systemic and otherwise) (of) marginalized individuals in our community experience”.

The resulting Quaker Valley Inclusivity Alliance (QVIA) established a robust social media presence on multiple platforms, recruited several individuals to serve as board members and municipal liaisons, and began work on an ambitious agenda that included the following –


♦ Along with other stakeholders, petitioned Sewickley Borough Council to name the small, borough-owned parklet in front of the Tull Family Theater in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen. This was discussed during the September 8, 2020 meeting of council, with no commitment made and comments in the minutes stating that “time should be afforded for greater community-wide feedback which will create greater buy-in and visibility”.

♦ Circulated an online petition to request that Sewickley Council continue the practice of hosting live, virtual meetings even after pandemic restrictions are lifted, and maintain an archive of meeting recordings on the borough website.

While the borough is still only conducting Council and other board meetings online due to these restrictions, audio of meetings dating back to June 2020 is available to citizens via the borough website’s robust Document Center page. Open the Boards & Commissions and Borough Council & Mayor folders, and access the sub-folder Zoom Meeting Recordings for each entity.

♦ Moved to establish a dialogue with the Sewickley Police Department and then-Mayor Brian Jeffe. This included a lengthy letter sent July 8 to Mayor Jeffe and Police Chief Richard Manko, requesting information about the department’s operations, policies, and budget. The letter also requested a meeting with involved stakeholders to exchange information about the questions posed.

The first meeting between QVIA and borough stakeholders occurred online on August 5, about a week after Mayor Jeffe submitted his unexpected letter of resignation to Council. In his letter, Mr. Jeffe stated “the political climate now has made it fashionable to empower those who critique versus those who contribute“. Whether that was a reference to QVIA and similar citizen efforts is unknown.

However, during the course of the approximate one hour meeting, Mr. Jeffe commented on the “positive dialogue” of the exchange, and that he wanted to continue that dialogue for as long as he was still Mayor, expressing a desire to “see the process through“. A tentative commitment to one meeting a month was made.

♦ A July 15 QVIA e-mail newsletter detailed many of the above initiatives, as well as others pursued in cooperation with efforts being made by student organizations at Quaker Valley High School. The newsletter was titled “From Tolerance to Inclusivity“.


There is no further record or information about any additional meetings or events. This is likely due to the sudden announcement in mid-September that Ms. Paulus and Ms. Doody were resigning their leadership positions, and would be leaving the area.

In an impassioned December 1 post on her personal Facebook page, Ms. Doody stated that her family’s safety had been compromised by a neighbor “hoping to get you threatened, harassed, and your children taken away just because you’re gay“.

In a later comment on the same thread, Ms. Doody tempered her criticism to state “I love the majority of our neighbors. We have made amazing friends here. I am angry, not at my hetero friends, but at the social constructs that provide them with a level of safety and privilege…MY FAMILY will never experience“.

The initial announcement stated that other board members would continue the work of QVIA. This has not materialized into any visible action. Contacted in January via social media, Ms. Doody stated “There is no one to contact at QVIA. We were threatened until we disbanded and left so…not a prime position I think people wanted to put themselves in”.

Ms. Doody declined to address any specific threats made against her, Ms. Paulus, or QVIA, stating only that “the FBI are aware” and “we’re already moving and happy to be doing so”.

The QVIA Facebook page is still active with posts, but without any apparent administrative presence. A separate page for the QVIA Board of Directors has been deleted. A Linktree page and website remain online, but are either incomplete or in need of updating – an unattended monument to good intentions, a fading virtual echo of what might have been.

Ms. Doody’s Facebook page was recently updated with a family picture taken at their new home in Vermont. It’s a sad statement about our community that these citizens, after putting forth a good faith effort to improve it, nevertheless felt the need to leave it, seemingly under duress.

Best wishes to them.


This threatening behavior, whether subtle or overt, is admittedly unfamiliar to me, and I have been taken aback by my own ignorance of the quiet ugliness some people can display toward others for reasons that have no basis in a civil society.

Across this area we pride ourselves for safe neighborhoods, excellent schools, quality municipal services and vital businesses. This behavior nonetheless emerges from within our community without regard for how we paint ourselves as some rarefied example of what passes for civility.

These experiences and realizations led me to recall what the writer and radio host Garrison Keillor often used to describe his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota –

The little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.


Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.

– Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Through my wife I’ve had the opportunity to meet many people with whom I otherwise would not have become acquainted. Through these interactions, I could say that I have been afforded a unique perspective into the lives of African Americans, and have gained an understanding of their experiences as a result.

I would be dead wrong.

New postage stamp issued January 28, 2021. USPS.com

As someone with an affinity for literature and the arts, I have reached out to these to help gain some measure of appreciation. Starting in high school with works such as Black Like Me, and more recently through the plays of August Wilson, the product of the author’s experiences or observations is displayed in full.

As the title character exclaims in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there.

This extends to those marginalized by gender, orientation, identity, or something else, but at the same time my efforts ring hollow. I can mention familiar works that purport to illustrate a version of the lives led, but how do I educate and/or support others over and above being a mere spectator to one author’s perspective?

The hardest lesson to learn, at least for me, is listening. No knee-jerk reactions, no hastily proffered solutions. In the majority of my life experience this has been more of the standard response when presented with a problem – it’s often difficult to just sit still and listen.

Instead of trying to elaborate further, I will defer to the words of Jennifer Doody, from her Facebook post in early December –

This brings me back to that e-mail newsletter –

Tolerance is defined as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions, beliefs, and practices that differ from one’s own.”

By contrast, Inclusivity refers to “the fact or policy of not excluding members or participants on the grounds of gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, etc.”

A presentation given by two Pittsburgh-based FBI analysts last November appears to confirm that intolerance and hate still have a foothold across our region, and that those so engaged see the potential for organized growth here. According to a recent Patch report, the Southern Poverty Law Center has gathered information that appears to support the FBI assessment.

While both attitude and policy have changed for the better, it appears that significant challenges remain within society at large, without whose consent and cooperation any attempts at creating a more just, inclusive community are unlikely to succeed.

If justice sleeps in this land, let it not be because we have helped to lull it to sleep by our silence, our indifference; let it not be from lack of effort on our part to arouse it from its slumbers.

– Francis J. Grimké, “Equality of Rights for All Citizens, Black and White, Alike” (1909)

Regardless of our perceived level of social refinement, the world only spins forward.

Best wishes for the year ahead.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Community, Government, Human Rights, Justice, Local, Personal | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bordering on the Bizarre – The Paradox of Postal Zones

It’s been a while since I wrote something for this series about the lines that society, government, and industry have drawn around us. In previous editions I have focused on area codes and phone exchanges, municipal boundaries as they relate to retail development, and the lines that bisect one Pittsburgh area neighborhood.

As I was in the process of writing this, KDKA-TV reported on the controversy surrounding a teenage water vendor at an intersection that constitutes the boundary between Edgewood and Wilkinsburg – two of the four communities that claim a portion of Regent Square.

The issue was resolved by the young entrepreneur crossing the intersection into Wilkinsburg, where the local government seemed much more understanding and appreciative of his efforts than the reticent officials in Edgewood.

Such is the nature of imaginary lines, and the power structures behind them…

This time I will explore the lines drawn by the United States Post Office Department, later reorganized as the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), for the routing and delivery of mail. These lines have been fashioned across history by the settlement of our nation – wherever the people went, there was a need to establish delivery routes and post offices around those population centers.

YOU Get a Post Office, and YOU Get a Post Office…

In the Sewickley area, we are able to see how postal services first evolved thanks to a very informative article in the February 2018 issue of the Pennsylvania Postal Historian, the quarterly bulletin of the Pennsylvania Postal History Society.

Beginning on Page 17, author Daniel Telep details the founding, movement, and consolidation of numerous post offices across the Quaker Valley communities, dating back to the first post office in the Sewickley area –

Opening on January 9, 1824, the Sewickley Bottom post office…operated out of the home of David Shields who was its only postmaster…That office was discontinued on September 1, 1857 but moved and reopened as Leetsdale on February 4, 1867…That office closed on October 18, 1872, but again moved and reopened on July 30, 1873. Today it operates as zip code 15056, Leetsdale.

The David Shields House, “Newington”, located at Beaver Road and Shields Lane, Edgeworth – National Archives

The David Shields House in “Sewickley Bottom” – now Edgeworth – is also known as “Newington”. It is one of the crowning examples of historic architecture in the Sewickley Valley, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mr. Telep also tells us that the first Sewickley post office opened on Beaver Street in 1851 as “Sewickleyville”. The name change to Sewickley came in 1871. The grand, impressive Sewickley Post Office on Broad Street opened in 1912, and served in that role until 1981. Today the building houses Sweetwater Center for the Arts and the Sewickley Valley Historical Society.

Many other small post offices served the Quaker Valley area. According to Mr. Telep –

Glenfield, Pa. had a post office…which opened on January 28, 1876 and operated continuously until its discontinuance on November 30, 1969 when the new Interstate 79 road project bought up and eliminated most of the town. The Dixmont post office opened further down the Ohio River on June 30, 1861 in the hospital at the Dixmont Insane Asylum complex…and didn’t close until January 31, 1954. Both the Glenfield and Dixmont offices were absorbed into the Sewickley post office.

On July 26, 1889 the Shields post office opened one mile away from the Leetsdale office, operating until August 31, 1938, when it too was absorbed into the Sewickley office.

The Edgeworth Station post office opened on January 15, 1899 and closed on November 20, 1904…The last post office absorbed into the Sewickley office is Haysville, Pa., January 20, 1890 to December 31, 1949. Just west of Leetsdale the post office of Fair Oaks, Pa., January 14, 1898, to January 31, 1955, was absorbed into Leetsdale, zip code 15056.

The last sentence above raised additional questions about the Fair Oaks neighborhood of Leet Township and Bell Acres Borough. This neighborhood has a mailing address of Ambridge, 15003. If the Fair Oaks post office was absorbed by Leetsdale, why was the neighborhood it served assigned to the Ambridge postal zone?

I was able to contact Mr. Telep in an attempt to clarify this. He referred me to the book Pennsylvania Postal History, by John L. Kay and Chester M. Smith, Jr. (Quarterman Publications, Inc., 1976). According to this volume, the Fair Oaks post office actually reopened on February 3, 1955, and closed for good on August 31 of the same year. An additional notation indicates “Fair Oaks 15003” on the following day, September 1. This would appear to indicate that mail service was thereafter provided through the Ambridge post office.

Mr. Telep speculated on possible political reasons for the short-term reopening of the Fair Oaks location. However, additional evidence suggests operational challenges may have played into this. According to Sewickley Herald reporting in the mid to late 1950’s, the Post Office Department was actively seeking proposals for the relocation of the Leetsdale post office, possibly owing to an anticipated jump in volume with the 1954 development of the Buncher Industrial District, now known as Buncher Commerce Park.

This need was likely addressed with the opening of Quaker Village Shopping Center in August 1963. The post office relocated from Ferry Street to the shopping center in 1965 or 1966.

Increased workload, and the lack of immediate capacity to respond to it, may have been  key factors in the decision to assign Fair Oaks to the Ambridge postal zone.

The former Leetsdale Post Office, 23 Ferry Street. The post office is currently located in the Quaker Village Shopping Center. In this photo the building is occupied by Sewickley Stained Glass. It now houses Sewickley Antiques. – John Peel

With regard to all of these post offices consolidating, Mr. Telep wrote –

One can only speculate that these…offices within the 3 mile radius from present day Sewickley were opened because of their local identities, social ties, neighborhood rivalries and local political influence. Convenience and prestige dictated the openings of the offices, but governmental budgeting pressures and population shifts resulted in their closings.

While the realities of economics and demographics appeared to prevail in the consolidation of these facilities, many of the above-mentioned factors continue to play a role in the operations of numerous local governments and associated agencies across our region.

Rural Past to Suburban Present

For those situated in rural areas, the development of Rural Free Delivery across the turn of the 20th Century provided a reliable, well administered system to get mail to and from remote and agricultural areas. According to United States Postal Service historical data, Sewickley established RFD service in 1903 – the same year it got a weekly newspaper.

As America’s population and businesses grew, and development began creeping into what was farmland or subdivided from large estates, the USPS devised the ZIP Code system to optimize the routing and delivery of mail.

As the blog of a Washington, DC design firm was helpful in pointing out, ZIP codes are designed with the mail carrier in mind.

When Postal Inspector Robert Moon first proposed zip codes in 1944, he was not thinking about how they would look on a map. He was hoping they would add some efficiency to an increasingly overwhelmed mail delivery system. So rather than laying out areas “as the crow flies,” the USPS had to lay out areas “as the mail carrier hoofs it.” That’s how you get portions of zip code areas meandering off in strange directions, stopping and starting again, and winding around themselves. It was built for people following already-established roads and navigating communities.

ZIP Code boundaries for northwest Allegheny County lined and labeled in blue. Municipal boundaries are light green, with municipalities labeled in black. Click image to enlarge. – Allegheny County GIS / John Linko

As the above map illustrates, these postal zones were created in relationship to the largest population center proximal to that particular area when the boundaries were drawn. Small, unincorporated villages such as Wexford, Gibsonia, and Allison Park hosted the post office for what were largely rural, undeveloped agricultural surroundings.

With the advent of Enhanced 9-1-1 service, beginning in the 1970s actual street addresses began to replace the “R.D.” number and box system, and many locales that were changing radically in the face of sprawl became edified for future generations.

By virtue of their presence on every piece of mail delivered to the sprawling subdivisions and commercial centers that today cover much of that former farmland, these little villages maintain their tangible presence in the minds of the inhabitants, even if they are in many cases an anachronism – and sometimes an annoyance.

I say this because in the conduct of my work, postal zones may create confusion that can  become an impediment to quickly identifying the location of an emergency.

For example, when a resident insists they live in “Gibsonia”, it actually means they live in any one of five different municipalities – Pine, Richland, West Deer, and Hampton Townships, and the Town of McCandless. Four different school districts cover this area as well.

As with “Wexford”, “Allison Park”, “Warrendale”, and numerous others, there is NO City of “Gibsonia”. In an emergency, what matters is the municipality where you are located.

Close-up of the Sewickley postal zone, which covers all Quaker Valley communities except Leetsdale and the Fair Oaks neighborhood of Leet Township and Bell Acres Borough. It also covers the majority of Franklin Park Borough and a good chunk of Ohio Township. Click image to enlarge. – Allegheny County GIS / John Linko

Similar confusion can result from the extension of a postal address into areas well outside an established community’s municipal boundaries. The attractiveness of certain postal addresses from a marketing standpoint often results in the stretching of what is reasonable.

For example, the developers of subdivisions, apartment complexes, and senior living communities have often invoked the word “Sewickley” as part of the description or name of a development project, when the actual location shares very little with Sewickley proper outside of the ZIP code. Many of these locations are in Franklin Park Borough or Ohio Township, and are actually more convenient to other communities such as “Wexford” (parts of McCandless, Pine Township, Franklin Park, and Marshall Township) for groceries or other services.

Aerial view of the intersection of Wexford Bayne Road (State Route 910) and Nicholson Road in Franklin Park Borough, with associated businesses and the I-79 Wexford interchange. Though considered by many as part of the Wexford community, the postal zone / mailing address for this area is Sewickley, 15143.

This has had an increasing level of importance this year, with the pandemic creating additional demand for delivery services from all manner of businesses. ZIP codes provide business owners with an easy-to-implement set of delivery area boundaries.

Tell that, however, to those who are shut out of some delivery services due to their placement on the “wrong” side of a postal boundary. A recent post on the social media site Nextdoor.com lamented the writer’s location on the Fair Oaks side of Leet Township, which prevented deliveries from the Whole Foods Market in “Wexford” that friends on the Quaker Heights side of the township were able to receive. Seems that the store’s delivery area includes Sewickley 15143, but not Ambridge 15003.

The Media Helps…and Hinders

Media outlets seem to have different ideas on how to utilize postal and actual locations  when reporting the news. The staff of Trib Total Media, especially their Westmoreland County bureau and the Valley News-Dispatch, appear to be meticulous in identifying locations, i.e. “the Natrona section of Harrison Township“.

I found some disparate style in a recent visit to the website of the Pittsburgh Business Times. The contrast is illustrated by two stories – “Rock ‘n’ Joe opens new location in Gibsonia” and “Judge upholds denial of UPMC’s permit to build Jefferson Hills hospital“.

In the first example, the new business is in Pine Township, but the reporter chose to use its arcane Gibsonia postal address to identify the new location.

In the second example, the reporter specifically refers to the proposed UPMC South location as being in Jefferson Hills Borough, when the postal zone for the address is Clairton, 15025.

I reached out via e-mail to the Business Times with questions about the use of locations in their reporting. While I did not receive a response, I’m hopeful that any perceived socioeconomic bias about the use of certain postal zones would not impact the way they choose to report location information.

All bets are off when it comes to advertising, however. The little jingle that sticks in the head of any Pittsburgher of certain years would not sound as nice if it said that Century 3 Chevrolet was in West Mifflin, where it is actually located.

Proactive Government Shapes Their Own Identity

It appears that the haphazard growth of many areas contributes to the edification of postal zones bearing the names of ancient communities that have little relevance to the present day. However, this is not always the case.

Just across the Butler County line lies Cranberry Township, historically identified by post offices in the hamlets of Ogle and Hendersonville, and by its economic “center”, Crider’s Corners.

It’s then somewhat surprising to see ZIP code 16066 named after the township, and the postal zone boundary quite nearly matching that of the township.

The Cranberry Township postal zone, which closely follows the municipal boundary with the exception of the Thorn Hill Industrial Park. – here.com

While officials at both Cranberry Township and the Cranberry Historical Society did not respond to email requests for comment, it would appear that the change happened after 1983, when the Seven Fields townhouse development seceded from Cranberry to form Seven Fields Borough. Seven Fields is in the Mars (16046) postal zone.

There are other local examples of this type of progress. Growing up, I remember going through the villages of Wireton and Glenwillard along Route 51. Those familiar will recognize these towns as part of Crescent Township. The former Glenwillard post office has been re-named “Crescent”.

After an e-mail inquiry, an unnamed township official replied with the following –

This happened over 20 years ago. Can’t really give you a lot of information. We had 5 different zip codes back then all for Glenwillard. The Commissioners decided to merge them all together into what is Crescent, PA 15046.

So it appears to be possible for local governments and municipal planners to appeal to the Postal Service to adjust boundaries and rename postal zones (within reason) to reflect modern changes to the communities that the postal zone serves. This also helps to explain why the Coraopolis (15108) postal zone has a listed alternate name of Moon Township.

Can the USPS re-orient the jigsaw-like configurations of Sewickley and other postal zones to reflect the proliferation of growth in what were once rural areas? As the zones were designed to better facilitate delivery and not necessarily municipal identity, what are the possibilities?

The Least of Their Problems…

Considering recent news coverage concerning the Trump administration’s ideas toward “improving” the USPS, it’s possible that among those improvements could be a mail routing system that can be scaled and/or modified to recognize shifts in population and utilization patterns.

It doesn’t appear that those things are a priority for now. Combined with a well-reported hue and cry among citizens and elected officials alike, as well as scrutiny from one of the few U.S. Inspectors General that Trump hasn’t attempted to marginalize and/or replace, the Postmaster General appeared to back off from service reductions that could threaten the integrity and reliability of the U.S. mail, especially as it concerns the November election.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be having the necessary impact on recent service reductions, which have had a practical impact on all manner of time-sensitive mail unrelated to the upcoming general election – from prescription drugs to live chicks.

Navigation Is Essential

As that election approaches, and the pandemic shows continued persistence in its ability to disrupt our society and economy, it is more imperative than perhaps at any time in our recent history that our citizenry become more cognizant of Situational Awareness, defined simply as “being aware of what is happening around you and understanding what that information means to you now and in the future.”

A big part of Situational Awareness is taking stock of the factors and variables that come into play not only when faced with circumstances out of the ordinary, but in our routine  daily existence.

The influence of the lines drawn for the provision of services and/or the conduct of government, and our individual awareness of that influence, helps to shape how we conduct ourselves as citizens, consumers, and human beings.

The bottom line associated with this is painfully simple, yet complex in the wake of all of the lines we draw around ourselves, or have had drawn around us –

Know where you are – it may save your life.

Have a good rest of the summer.

Acknowledgments – Daniel Telep, Sewickley Herald Digital Archive, My Beloved Leetsdale Facebook Group

Posted in Community, Development, Government, Growth, History, Local, Media, Rural | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking Back, Moving Ahead in Sewickley

“We are a solid, solid Council. We make great decisions in this borough. We are fortunate to live in a borough like Sewickley Borough. We should be holding each other’s hands – I don’t care what your political party is. Our agenda should be the same – make this place the safest and funnest place for our children and our grandchildren to grow up in. That has always been my goal. That’s all I’ll say. We’ll move on.”

– Sewickley Council President Jeff Neff, during the virtual meeting of Council on May 12, 2020.

Despite the cries of indignation from many on social media in the wake of the Jeff Neff photo controversy, I thought from the onset that he would not be removed from his position as Sewickley Council President, even with the close vote along party lines.

While the May 1 virtual special meeting was lively and well-attended, the decision to retain Mr. Neff spoke to the consensus that I felt was building once the initial wave of shock and disbelief gave way to more reasoned review and reflection.

Along with the published meeting minutes, the video of the proceedings (since deleted from the borough website) also included a good chunk of chat comments posted while the proceedings were underway. Although the comments for only the first two hours of the three hour, forty minute meeting were saved, some of them were revealing and astute –

“Turk”As a Sewickley resident, this is a distraction. This will have little impact on the business district or our community going forward. By Memorial Day- people dont even talk about this by end of summer -no one remembers.

“Donna Korczyk”I wish people would stop making this about Jeff Neff’s character. I believe it is about taking responsibility for one’s actions. When an action that one has taken seriously affects their ability to effectively do their job, then resigning is the responsible action to take

“Clark Webb”Jeff seems like a nice guy. I delivered his mail and he was personable and nice to me. I don’t question his character, but based on his actions I do question his judgement, and do think he is more focused on his campaign and not protecting and serving Sewickley.

Like Mr. Webb, I admire Mr. Neff’s achievements and reputation for integrity, and accept his contrition for the photo debacle as genuine. I do not agree with some of Mr. Neff’s beliefs as stated on his senate campaign website – especially with regard to energy development.

Map showing results of 37th Senate District Republican Primary. Areas in green won by Devlin Robinson, areas in blue won by Jeff Neff. – Allegheny County Dept. of Elections

I stated in my last post that support for Mr. Neff’s campaign appeared to be focused in the Quaker Valley communities and surrounding areas, and that opponent Devlin Robinson’s familiarity to a larger electorate in his native South Hills, along with the County GOP endorsement, might be too much for Mr. Neff to overcome.

The above map, and associated unofficial results, appear to bear out those observations.

With Mr. Neff’s campaign at its apparent end, I believe that serving the citizens of Sewickley has been and remains his “first, best destiny“. This is true even if his tenure as a member of Council has seen some challenging times and some curious decisions – some that stretch the definition of “great” for myself and others.

Here are some examples.

Zamagias Condos rise above Blackburn Avenue – May 24, 2020.

1. The questionable handling of the approval process for the Zamagias Condominiums in 2016, and the equally questionable conduct of the public hearing for the project’s approval by Council. This resulted in an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging the validity of the hearing under the Pa. Sunshine Act.

2. Doing away with the Committee of the Whole in 2017, thus cutting publicly accessible Council proceedings by half.

On a related note, a review of meeting minutes for the eleven Quaker Valley municipalities appears to show that Sewickley is one of only three towns that do not utilize standing committees to divide responsibilities for oversight and review. The other two that don’t are considerably smaller – Sewickley Hills, and teeny tiny Haysville.

3. The 2017-2018 mishandling of zoning and code enforcement associated with the Minas LLC development on Hill and Hopkins Streets. This appeared to culminate with the retirement of the borough official with responsibility over these areas, and also exposed a decided lack of transparency with regard to the activity of the Zoning Hearing Board.

Partially completed “accessory structure” in rear of 922 Beaver Street.

Things were looking up in this area after the hiring of Erin Sakalik as Assistant Borough Manager, along with Manager Marla Marcinko. Among Ms. Sakalik’s reported duties were oversight of code enforcement, zoning, and building inspection.

This included acting as a liaison with personnel employed by Harshman CE Group, retained by Council to provide the day-to-day enforcement and inspection activities that appeared to be lacking in recent years.

Regardless of the exact reasons why, the alarmingly short tenure of Ms. Sakalik is remarkable for the wrench her departure appeared to throw into what appeared at first to be a well-intentioned attempt to assure continuity in daily oversight.

4. The most recent evidence of this involves the construction of an accessory structure within the borough’s Historic District –

  • In early 2019, owners began the approval process to construct a two-story garage and storage area behind 922 and 924 Beaver Street – one of the grandest and prettiest duplexes you’ll ever see.
  • According to the November 2019 Code Enforcement report, Harshman CE stated that it had issued a building permit to the owners for a “garage”.
  • The owners proceeded with construction until a stop work order was issued by the borough, citing that the project had not been submitted to the borough Historic Review Commission (HRC) for a Certificate of Appropriateness as per ordinance.
  • Concerns regarding the structure began to surface in the proceedings of both Council and the Planning Commission in March. This continued in earnest with the April Council minutes. The conclusion of the Public Comment portion includes the following:

    Click to enlarge.

  • The public hearing on the project was conducted as part of Council’s May meeting, for which audio is still available online as of this writing. During the hearing, HRC Chair Heather Wildman stated “We have not, and will not issue a Certificate of Appropriateness” for the project, citing that the structure is inappropriate based on height, mass, and style, and may even exceed the maximum height for an accessory structure anywhere in the borough.
  • Ms. Wildman added that the situation is unique because “a building permit was issued erroneously“, and requested that Council remand the owners back to the HRC to determine what revisions can be made to conform with their requirements. She also stated that the owners submitted a revised plan in March but later withdrew it, citing the high cost.
  • Council voted in favor of the HRC recommendation, with President Neff stating that he was willing to “work personally” with the owners to achieve some sort of solution. Despite this, the owners did not sound happy with this result.
  • It appears that the owners may have known that they were in a historic district, but neglected to follow the historic review process once Harshman had issued a building permit without the required review.

5. The June 2018 decision to withdraw from the Quaker Valley Council of Governments. Whether this contributed to the somewhat abrupt departure of long-time Borough Manager Kevin Flannery is unknown, as is the long-term impact on the borough’s operations after shutting themselves out of this cooperative entity, which didn’t cost them all that much to participate in to begin with.

6. The 2018 agreement with turnKey Taxes to optimize the collection of delinquent business privilege tax. This created significant confusion and consternation within the business community, who were essentially unaware that a third party, independent of the regular tax collector, had been retained to collect this delinquent tax, or that there was even a business privilege tax to begin with.

Despite this reaction the borough appears to be pleased with the result, continuing what they see as a successful arrangement to collect the delinquent tax, even in the wake of litigation against what the borough claimed were 15 tax scofflaws.

One of those businesses, attorney Stan Ference, denied in the Herald story that his law firm had not paid the tax. Mr. Ference subsequently filed a Right to Know Law Request for records concerning the borough’s relationship with turnKey. Mr. Ference then appealed the borough’s response to the Pa. Office of Open Records, which issued a Final Determination that is currently under appeal to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

7. The process of moving sewage treatment to the Leetsdale Municipal Authority (LMA) plant, and converting the existing sewage plant into a pumping station. This would require the construction of a pipeline from the Sewickley plant on Chadwick Street to the LMA pump station in Edgeworth.

The nascent Sewickley Gazette, published for the last year or so by the ladies who brought us Character Matters, stated in a 2019 report that “Sewickley Borough Council Members have recently voted to pay for an Act 537 Sewage Facilities Program; if implemented, Sewickley will send its wastewater to Leetsdale.”

In the second of two reports on the subject, the Gazette stated that the current Council inherited this decision gate from previous administrations, who around 2009 reviewed a previous offer from Leetsdale and arrived at the following –

Borough Manager Kevin Flannery and then-borough Engineering firm KLH argued that it would be prohibitively expensive to build the pipe to transfer the wastewater and that Leetsdale’s facility wasn’t ready…Leetsdale’s Sewer Authority and its borough engineer dispute that.

The amount to upgrade Sewickley’s Chadwick Street plant? $3.5 million. Borough Council voted unanimously to improve Sewickley’s plant. For reasons not yet clear, that $3.5 million expense ballooned; the bond stands at just under $10 million…They will continue to pay off this bond every month until 2030.

Sewickley Sewage Treatment Plant. – YouTube

Mr. Flannery seemed to have a particular affinity for the sewage plant, as evidenced by a 2012 video presentation touting the plant’s operations after these improvements were complete.

This change of heart displayed by Council in 2018 may have been another signal of his imminent departure. The ladies at the Gazette also had some thoughts about this.

Sewickley Council should be commended for making this move.

Not only will the resulting consolidation help to provide more efficient service, but Sewickley will be largely relieved of making expensive improvements to an aging facility that continues to receive violation notices from regulators, and whose odor has been the bane of nearby commercial and residential properties.

Per LMA Board Chairman Jon Kuzma, the Act 537 plan has been completed, and must be approved by the eight involved municipalities. These consist of all Quaker Valley communities with the exception of Sewickley Heights, Sewickley Hills, and Glenfield. Once these approvals are secured, the plan will go to the Pa Dept. of Environmental Protection for final review and approval. Then a call for bids for pipeline construction can be issued.

Mr. Kuzma added that the newer LMA plant is currently operating at 50 percent of its capacity, and will be ready to handle the additional wastewater once the pipeline project is complete.

It’s unfortunate that Sewickley may still be saddled with bond indebtedness until at least the next decade. Should the other involved municipalities see the long-term wisdom of this arrangement, the borough will eventually see an end to putting good money after bad, and customers will hopefully enjoy quality service at lower rates.

8. The imposition of an event fee on organizers of festivals and other public events, and the defunding of Explore Sewickley. While the borough did rescind the fee for this year in response to backlash received from various business and community groups, it appears that starting in 2021 these events will be subject to some type of fee schedule.

It’s understandable that Council would desire to have these events contribute in some way to covering the expenses the borough incurs for hosting them, with the exception of police services that are paid for separately.

I’m wondering if the borough has explored an enterprise fund approach to special event operations, where the event fees charged are earmarked to fund any activity (public or private) related to the marketing, administration, and safe conduct of those events. How much of a fee could be reasonably charged, and how much of a budget those fees can support, are just two of the issues to be considered with any future action in this area.

9. When Council re-re-resurrected the Sewickley Parking Authority in 2015, I’m not sure that they envisioned the political “zombie apocalypse” that would follow.

From the en masse resignation of the 5-person Board in early 2018 and the appointment of a new board a few months later, things seemed to become more interesting every few months as well. This included signs of increased acrimony between the board and Council, as evidenced by comments attributed to Mayor Brian Jeffe, documented in the September 2019 Council minutes

Mayor Jeffe commented that he was opposed to the tone of policy of the Parking Authority, as it is damaging to the business community. He commented that it is not appropriate to allow appointed, not elected, officials set the policy for the town.

This was followed by the resignation of board Chair Richard Webb later that month, the appointment of Vice Chair Delvin Miller to replace him, and the jettisoning of Mr. Miller amidst the reduction in board size from 5 to 3 members in January of this year.

The new, streamlined board scheduled and conducted regular monthly meetings into the pandemic, until they again resigned en masse, replaced by three sitting Council members. Prior board members Sandra Marr and Brian Turk did not respond to requests for comment.

This Council-dominated board conducted a virtual meeting on May 20, and also released a comprehensive Request for Proposals (RFP) for an “Integrated E-Citation Management & Processing System (CMPS)”.

According to the RFP’s Scope of Work, the new system –

…will need to be installed in concurrent (sic) with the Sewickley Parking Authority’s existing parking system…it is meant to be implemented, tested and ready to be connected to new affiliated parking payment systems that SPA will be procuring.

The RFP process appears to be coordinated by Philip Savino, who until very recently served as Chief Technology Officer of the Pittsburgh Parking Authority. Mr. Savino did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment.

The above language and other information in the RFP appears to indicate the Authority’s intent to replace the pay stations installed in 2016 and 2017, to the tune of over $440,000 according to Sewickley Herald reporting at the time.

This reporting also alluded to difficulties with the vendor over the machines’ durability and performance. Information from other sources allege that a much higher total cost is involved, with the existing equipment still around seven years away from being fully depreciated.

There is much more to report on later about issues surrounding the Parking Authority, it’s latest “spin-off” iteration, and the general state of parking in Sewickley.

***

As Jeff Neff’s aspirations for higher office appear to be on hold for now, I’m hoping that he and his colleagues on Council can really try to put aside any partisan differences and work to improve on some of the above issues, as well as the ones that continue to develop.

There was actually a positive sign of cooperation and resolve in Sewickley on the Saturday before Memorial Day, one that Mr. Neff, Council, and perhaps all of us can learn from.

All lives matter.

Best wishes for a safe and healthy summer ahead.

Posted in Business, Civil Liberties, Development, Government, History, Human Rights, Justice, Local, Media, Politics, Transportation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Life, Love, and Lament in the Time of Corona

(Apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

“There are strict scientific principles that have to be adhered to in medicine. At the same time, a humanistic touch is needed in dealing with people. You have to combine social aspects, ethical aspects, personal aspects with cold, clean science.”

– Dr. Anthony Fauci, via The New Yorker

So here we are.

I’ve included several links in the sidebar for resources that I believe to be credible, and will be continually updated with pertinent and timely information on how our society and planet are dealing with these extraordinary circumstances.

The numerous irons I have in the fire of research, investigation, and documentation are all settled to quiet embers in the face of the threat that has brought our world to a slow crawl.

This isn’t to say that I won’t be keeping my usual eye on local government – there’s plenty of collected items to share when the time comes. This will probably be sooner rather than later, as local government for the foreseeable future is encased in the amber of this pandemic, and largely unable to move in a public and accountable fashion.

This also doesn’t mean that they aren’t apt to try something, so due diligence is still important. Credit is due to Leetsdale, Sewickley, and Quaker Valley for working to leverage technology to allow for public meetings via teleconference, even if the results have been somewhat mixed. Hopefully more will follow.

Our family life has been impacted by the addition of our granddaughter on a full-time basis. Leslie continues to do the bulk of caring for Violett, along with multiple other responsibilities that have been affected by the virus in varying degrees.

Social distancing – with a kite – in Walker Park, late March.

While first responders often garner the moniker ‘hero’ from the very visible aspect of the critical jobs they perform under all manner of conditions and circumstances, little mention is given to those who are enduring this while also enduring the loss of job income, access to child care, and difficulties arising from caring for others along with the tasks we take for granted.

These people are examples of heroism as well. My wife is among them.

My essential government job that can’t be done from home has not been overtly affected so far – my schedule has been the same, with daily screenings for symptoms when arriving for work. Management has taken steps to protect the facility and better accommodate those working inside.

It’s likely inevitable that COVID-19 will impact our employees in some fashion – this will require adjustments in operations, staffing, and work hours that are as yet unknown. With that, along with just about everything and everyone else, we are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Given the increased reliance on social media and other visual forms of entertainment and information delivery, perhaps ‘see and wait’ might be more representative of the situation we all face.

An exercise of First Amendment rights by a closed business in Quaker Village Shopping Center, Leetsdale – March 22, 2020.

This corner closely monitors civil liberties issues, and there are several related to the pandemic. The response of some state and local governments that represent areas with large part-time or tourist populations has had a mixed response from citizens, governments and advocacy groups. This ranges from state border checkpoints to closing off the Florida Keys and the Outer Banks to local residents and workers only.

Among other things that I found amazing, amusing, perplexing, or downright aggravating:

Escape to Cape Cod?

In keeping with the above actions taken by more remote resort areas, I was partially amused, partially alarmed by the effort to convince officials to close the two bridges that connect Cape Cod, Massachusetts to the mainland, save for permanent residents and workers. Seems that an early influx of seasonal property owners in the wake of school and business closings has some of the year-round population alarmed. Fortunately, the rule of law and the wisdom of some locals seem to be holding sway.

The Sagamore Bridge over the Cape Cod Canal. The bridge connects Cape Cod with the Boston metro area and US Highway 6. It is one of two bridges connecting the Cape to the mainland.

I’ve been going to the Cape for over 35 years, and have responsibilities to a year-round resident there. The Cape is not the Keys or the Outer Banks – the bridges that define its accessibility are only an hour’s drive from the Boston metro area.

Over the last two decades the Cape has evolved into not only a tourist destination, but an attractive exurb for those who can afford it. There is charm, tradition and beauty in abundance, but also conveniences and growth to match any suburban area.

Closing it off is not only impractical, but short-sighted as well.

The (Virtual) Library

We should all take stock of the awesome usefulness of the Sewickley Public Library, even in the face of its closure. The library home page features all manner of ways to access online resources, such as free access to subscription sites for The New York Times and Consumer Reports.

These and numerous other resources are available to anyone with a library card on the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh system, which is shared by all public libraries in Allegheny County. The elibrary site is the hub for all manner of content, from visual media to eMagazines to legal forms.

One resource I had the pleasure of exploring is the library site of Ancestry.com, made available for out-of-library use until the end of May, at least. Thanks to this feature, I have preliminary research for a post down the road.

America’s Doctor?

Screen capture of Dr. Anthony Fauci speaking at a symposium on pandemic preparedness and response, November 10, 2017 – C-SPAN

It’s been interesting to watch and read about the extraordinary level of skill and expertise displayed by a career federal government employee, who has served six presidents. Dr. Anthony Fauci has not only been a credible, authoritative source for information, but has been able to deftly navigate the information quagmire (swamp?) that the Trump Administration has helped to foment since the crisis began.

I dug a little deeper to learn more about the man and his career. A new profile in The New Yorker details his lengthy service at the NIH, and his involvement throughout the 1980’s and 90’s in assuring that HIV / AIDS got the attention it deserved from politicians and scientists alike.

Dr. Fauci also appears prescient in speaking about pandemic preparedness, albeit with influenza, in both a C-SPAN presentation and an op-ed for Scientific American in 2017.

America has taken notice, and some segments are showing their appreciation. How often is it that you get to call your shot on SNL?

Restlessness and Protests Make for Strange Bedfellows

Sewickley Borough Council President and candidate for State Senate Jeff Neff (center, holding sign) stands with members of the Iron City Citizens Response Unit during a protest at the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh, April 20. – Ryan Deto via Twitter (@RyanDeto)

Some citizens are upset with the continued restrictions put in place by Governor Wolf and other state governors – so much so that protests have been conducted against the restrictions on non-essential business activity. Those involved have also attempted to paint the restrictions as a civil liberties / constitutional issue.

Pittsburgh’s version of these protests on April 20 offered additional entertainment in the form of armed militia and political candidates. This included candidate for state senate and Sewickley Borough council president Jeff Neff, featured in the photo above with some of the attendees.

The Pittsburgh City Paper reported this first on April 21, focusing on the insignia being worn by the militia members, and its documented association with white supremacist ideologies.

First posted by City Paper News Editor Ryan Deto on his personal Twitter feed, the above photo was soon shared across social media and generated numerous comments on local sites such as the SHAPE & 10 Actions Sewickley group on Facebook, and Mr. Neff’s own campaign page on the same platform.

The Beaver County / Allegheny Times also reported on the incident on April 22, and included statements from the campaign of Mr. Neff’s primary opponent Devlin Robinson, as well as Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Washington Co.), who according to the Times is “chairwoman of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee and a Robinson supporter”.

In apparent response to these statements and reporting, Mr. Neff issued a statement of his own that same evening, titled “JEFF NEFF’S STATEMENT ON OVER SCRUTINIZED PHOTOGRAPH”. The statement’s tone and assertions generated online comments that approached the response to the original incident, with several citizens taking it to task over its unapologetic and argumentative tone.

Mr. Neff called the criticism by his opponent “blowing the situation way out of hand, and they sound a lot like the Democrats did when they tried the same desperate maneuver against President Trump”. It seems unfortunate that Mr. Neff felt the apparent need to channel Mr. Trump’s style as well.

In response to the public outcry, Sewickley Ward 1 councilor Christine Allen posted a statement to her Facebook page. She called for a special meeting of council to address the issue, then expanded upon that request in a second post on April 24.

By the end of the week, both the Post-Gazette and Trib / Sewickley Herald had more comprehensive reporting, which included additional comment from Mr. Neff and Sewickley Mayor Brian Jeffe. The Mayor’s comments appeared to signal that even amidst continued support for Mr. Neff, some consequences may arise from the incident.

Cooler and more conciliatory heads were beginning to prevail. Quoting Mr. Neff in the P-G story –

In the end, Mr. Neff said he doesn’t regret the photo. “I’m not a professional politician. I don’t have a huge team around me to sit there and say, ‘Jeff don’t take a picture of that,’” Mr. Neff said.”God presents me with challenges and opportunities and I think this is his challenge to put me in check to what’s coming up ahead. People are going to be after me all the time.” For now, he said he’s working on reassuring and rebuilding trust with his constituents.

This was followed by another statement on his campaign Facebook page –

Jeff Neff for Pa. Senate 2020 – Facebook.com

In the span of one week, a tremendous amount of social media commentary and print media coverage has been generated, with the potential of more to follow as the next council meeting (regular or otherwise) approaches. Additional reporting from the Times states that a special meeting will likely be called this week.

The only entity that hasn’t weighed in is the Quaker Valley GOP, whose website appears to have been compromised in some way, and whose Facebook page hasn’t been updated since April 17.

***

Jeff Neff is an excellent public safety professional, a dedicated public servant, and has made significant intangible contributions to the Sewickley and Quaker Valley areas.

As a fellow public safety professional, I believe him when he says he has learned from this experience and will endeavor to avoid similar pitfalls.

That being said, Mr. Neff’s tenure on Sewickley council has been a decidedly mixed bag from this vantage point, and despite some prominent local support I believe that his senate campaign was probably doomed before it started.

Not that it’s really any of Mr. Neff’s fault – his reputation and name recognition, while significant, are largely confined to the Quaker Valley area, which comprises a precariously small demographic portion of the 37th Senatorial District.

The lion’s share of the 37th’s population is rooted in Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs, as is the winner of every election for the seat at least as far back as 1996. Incumbent Pam Iovino is from Mt. Lebanon, and Devlin Robinson’s neighborhood is Bridgeville.

Mr. Robinson is a military veteran and holds a professional degree. These are not prerequisites for success, but regional GOP leadership is probably going to pitch him as the second coming of Guy Reschenthaler, and probably believe that Mr. Robinson has the best chance to unseat Ms. Iovino in November.

Ideologically, Mr. Neff doesn’t appear to offer anything that distinguishes him from the anointed Mr. Robinson – except, unfortunately, this latest photo op.

I wish Mr. Neff the best of luck with his campaign, but I can’t help but think he may have tried to reach too high on this one.

***

In the continuing aftermath of the protest and militia appearance, perhaps Mr. Neff’s alleged transgressions aren’t as bad as those of one Danny DeVito, who was also in attendance at the April 20 rally.

Mr. DeVito, of Carnegie, seeks the Republican nomination for the state House in the 45th District, which includes Coraopolis, Emsworth, and Kilbuck. The district, which has been in Democratic hands for over 50 years, is currently represented by Anna Astorino Kulik of Kennedy Township.

In a City Paper follow-up story on the rally, Mr. DeVito had some choice responses when contacted about his presence there –

He went on to say “[City Paper News editor Ryan Deto is] a bay area beta male, he hides behind the keyboard to attack sports commentators, club owners, and other Pennsylvanians to say things that he would never say in person.”

“The City Paper, which is most often used to protect car seats from pizza grease, can eat shit,” said DeVito in the statement.

I think it could be fairly asserted that Mr. DeVito, through these public statements, shows a decided lack of professional integrity desired by a thoughtful, informed, and engaged electorate.

Through the challenges presented by the Coronavirus pandemic, those same voters are beginning to see through these absurdly Trumpist attacks on civility, reasoned discourse, and the media. I don’t think that Ms. Kulik need worry much.

Another quirk about Mr. DeVito is that he almost seems to relish the similarity of his name with that of a famous actor. I can see a similarity that tie the two individuals even closer together –

We will hopefully all have learned something from our changing times, and can take stock of how important (or not) some parts of our lives are in what is sure to be a changed world down the road.

Best wishes for health and happiness in the weeks ahead.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Community, Family, Government, Health, History, Local, Media, Personal, Politics, Public Safety | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hill (and Hopkins) Street Blues – A Steep Slope Saga

This is a long story, covering over five years of history and activity in a Sewickley neighborhood. My posts are typically about half this length, touching on multiple occurrences and issues.

This one begged for a slower, more deliberate exploration, if only to illustrate how this little neighborhood got redeveloped, the potential consequences to local property owners, and the integrity of both the hillside they live on and the government in which they put their trust.

Bassett residence, 432 Oliver Road, Edgeworth, circa 2017

432 Oliver Road, present day.

I was surprised at how much of my previous writing has involved local land use issues, and in a relatively short time how much change has occurred with some of those who were involved –

  • The former Edgeworth home of the late Dolores Bassett has been transformed by renovation (see photos above). The trees she fought for the right to remove are still in place today.
  • Elise Truchan, the girl who built the treehouse in Leet Township, graduated from Quaker Valley this past June. Her mother reports that Elise started college this Fall on the other side of the world – a 4-year degree program at NYU Shanghai. Wow – best wishes for success in what sounds like a true adventure in the making.
  • Larry Oswald, who successfully fought Sewickley Borough in 2015 over the right to keep some of his property as a meadow, passed away in January of this year at age 75. Mr. Oswald, who described himself in print as a “very private fellow”, had no published death notice, obituary, or funeral service that I could find. Allegheny County real estate records show that the Oswald property on Hill Street was sold in July.

In a related post on these and other subjects, I simultaneously lamented and celebrated the change that occurs in communities when people pass away, retire, or otherwise move on.

Larry Oswald’s neighborhood was no different in that respect, but certainly very different in others.

Straight Street in Sewickley, looking east from Centennial Avenue toward the steep slope area of the borough. The two houses partially up the slope are fronting Hopkins Street.

National Geographic topo map illustrating this “steep slope” area. The map shows an approximate 60-80 foot change in elevation between Hill and Hopkins Streets. – Allegheny County GIS

As the above illustrations show, this area is one of rapidly changing elevation – so much so that Sewickley Borough recognized the risks inherent with developing it. The borough’s Zoning Ordinance establishes a Natural Resource Protection Overlay for much of this steep slope.

The ordinance defines this designation as “intended to mitigate potential hazards, prevent potential impacts on the region’s water and stream quality and protect private property from potential damages that may occur due to the uncontrolled development of lands with sensitive natural resources”.

It was this neighborhood that Edward Abbott and his new bride Elizabeth came to be a part of, purchasing a house on Orchard Terrace in 2006.

Over the course of the next 7 years, Ed and “Buffy” Abbott began a family in an area with an increasing amount of nearby residential property available for redevelopment. Apparently seeing this, Mr. Abbott sought to create a business opportunity to purchase, remodel, and sell several of these properties.

Mr. Abbott sought the assistance of Stanford “Stan” Southern, a friend and fellow parishoner at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church. In October 2013, Mr. Southern joined Mr. Abbott in the incorporation of Minas LLC. With Mr. Southern as a self-described “silent partner”¹, Minas began the process of property acquisition and renovation with the purchase of the Abbott home the following month.

Ambition and Tragedy

Much of this information has been gleaned from multiple sources, including e-mail conversations with Barbara Cox and others. Links to many of these sources are provided, including a pivotal Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) transcript from September 2018. More about this document later.

During 2014, Minas purchased three more residential properties and a vacant lot along Hill and Hopkins Streets. These properties all share common boundaries with the property of Barbara Cox, who has owned her Hill Street home since 2004. As the below graphic illustrates, these properties basically surround Ms. Cox’s property.

Allegheny County GIS image modified to show properties acquired by Minas LLC in 2014, and their selling prices from the Allegheny County Real Estate website. There is over 70 feet of elevation change in this area.

Minas then started renovating these properties in earnest, beginning with the original Abbott residence on Orchard Terrace. This house sold in October 2015. The Abbotts  moved into and renovated 548 Hopkins Street.

The other renovations continued with 547 Hill Street, which included an update of the driveway fronting the structure. This house sold in June 2018.

Another property acquired was 601 Hill Street. Shown above, this house is set back a good distance, similar to 547 Hill, but without a driveway.

Barbara Cox, along with her Mulberry Street neighbor Sandra Martin, have been among the most impacted and vocal neighbors with regard to these projects. Ms. Cox summarized her initial concerns as part of a letter to Sewickley councilor Hendrik van der Vaart:

Although I live within 100 ft. of the Hopkins Street property, and I am the person most directly impacted by the situation. I was never given written notification (required by the borough) that a building permit and variances had been requested. Sewickley CEO (Code Enforcement Officer) explained that my not receiving the letter was a mistake…This lack of notification kept us from attending any zoning meetings taking place and voicing our opinions at that time…I was not notified (so) there were no objections.

The vacant land to the immediate left of 548 Hopkins was addressed as 550 Hopkins, and where Minas LLC proposed to construct a house and driveway in 2015. – Google Maps

Minas then began the planning and zoning process to construct a house on the vacant property adjacent to 548 Hopkins, as illustrated above. They received a permit in October 2015 to build a house on this lot, with a variance for a 20 foot setback to provide for a driveway. In early 2016 Minas also received a building permit for interior renovations at 601 Hill.

Up to this point, the borough’s zoning and development process appeared to proceed by design, with the significant exception of the most proximal and affected landowner not being notified.

2016 aerial photo of 601 Hill Street, with evidence of earth movement and debris removal – Google Maps

Construction activity at both 547 and 601 Hill was well underway when Sewickley Borough issued a stop work order in March 2016. According to a letter to Minas from then-Code Enforcement Officer Nancy Watts –

I have become aware of grading and excavation work that was not authorized…This parcel…has slopes between 25 – 40%, according to slope analysis maps. Pursuant to Chapter 27, Part 5, Section 503 (of the Zoning Ordinance), an engineer’s report is required to proceed with any more grading.

Canton Avenue, Pittsburgh – instagram.com @steelcitynews

Percentage of slope reflects the amount of elevation change per 100 feet of distance. By comparison, Greentree Hill on I-376 west of Pittsburgh averages between a 5 and 7 percent slope. Canton Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood is one of the steepest streets in North America, with a 37 percent slope.

In June 2016 the Abbotts also purchased 602 Hopkins Street, adjacent to the vacant lot at 550 Hopkins and directly behind 601 Hill Street.

 

Later in 2016, Edward Abbott was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Barbara Cox stated that in early 2017 construction workers, who had been accessing the Hopkins Street site from 547 Hill St. and then behind her property, had begun bringing heavy equipment to the site.

During the aforementioned September 2018 ZHB hearing, Ms. Cox testified –

I came home one day, and there was a huge bulldozer in the back of the house, and it was just digging into the hillside…They tore out all of my greenery. And so I asked the gentleman who was renting (601 Hill Street), “What’s going on there?” And he’s like, “Oh, that’s my secret driveway.” And I was obviously very, very upset.

And at that point in time I had decided that I was going to come to the Borough and discuss this. And then a week later I heard Ed (Abbott) was sick. I didn’t feel at that time I wanted to cause more trouble for the family. No one was using the driveway…So I let it go.

548 / 550 Hopkins Street with new curb cut and driveway completion in progress – July 2017. The location of 601 Hill Street is indicated. – Google Maps

550 Hopkins driveway in December 2018 as seen from sidewalk, with nearby addresses labeled. – Sewickley Herald – Tom Davidson

2018 photo of the boundary between 550 Hopkins and 555 Hill looking south, with boulders placed at the property line and a large amount of earth pushed into the neighboring yard. – Barbara Cox

The same boundary and dirt mound, looking north toward 547 Hill St. – Barbara Cox

Review of that same zoning board testimony and other records show that Mr. Abbott, instead of building a house and driveway at 550 Hopkins, elected to excavate and construct a steep driveway down to the rear of 601 Hill Street, with the apparent intent of serving that address instead. He had also leased out the house at 601 Hill.

These records (or the lack of them) also appear to show that the driveway was constructed, the street opened and a curb cut installed, and an older, decommissioned fire hydrant removed, without the necessary permits from the borough to do so. It’s unknown whether or not any required occupancy inspection or permits had been obtained to legally offer 601 Hill for rent.

This construction had a negative impact on Barbara Cox’s property –

When the driveway and parking area were constructed, they leveled a portion of the hill side along the property line…This dirt was pushed into my yard. They leveled their property and re-graded mine, resulting in a small “cliff”… I am concerned about erosion and potential mudslides. I already see erosion on the hill side they have created. Since the work on 550 Hopkins Street & 601 Hill Street myself and another neighbor have had a significant amount of water in our basements.

After the driveway work was “completed”, there did not appear to be a great deal of activity from a development or regulatory standpoint. The Abbotts sold 602 Hopkins St. in late 2017.

Edward Abbott died on May 11, 2018.

Abundant Loose Ends

In the wake of Mr. Abbott’s passing, Stan Southern emerged from his silent partner role to continue the work of Minas LLC. According to his testimony before the ZHB –

Minas, LLC now exists to pretty much help keep Buffy and her kids — her two daughters — in that house at 548 Hopkins, where
they currently live. I would like to get the properties completed and homes sold and get any proceeds from those sales will at this point go to try to keep Buffy and the kids in the house.

The considerable task now before Mr. Southern was to essentially reverse engineer the rough cut of Mr. Abbott’s oversight into something that would pass muster with the borough, the neighbors, and eventually the marketplace.

This began with completing the renovation work at 601 Hill Street, including work on the driveway, which would also require renewal of an expired building permit. This additional activity again drew the attention of Barbara Cox and Sandra Martin, and marked the first apparent awareness on the part of Sewickley Borough as to exactly what had been done.

601 Hill Street in Summer 2017. As part of the extensive renovation the front porch steps have been removed, and a winding path has replaced the front sidewalk. The renovation suggests that the main entry was moved to the rear of the structure. – Google Maps

The project at 550 Hopkins and 601 Hill was in apparent violation of several sections of the Sewickley zoning ordinance. These include:

  • Section 503 – Establishes requirements for earth movement in the Natural Resource Protection Overlay, including a Resource Protection Analysis and engineering reports.
  • Section 404, Table 1 – Use of a lot for off-street parking only is neither permitted by right or an available conditional use in the R-1 Zone.
  • Section 303 – Driveways cannot cross lot lines, and must meet setback requirements from lot boundaries.

Section 1002 also prohibits parking areas in the front yards of properties in the R-1 zone, thus precluding any parking in the very spacious front yard at 601 Hill.

Mr. Southern set about to correct these layers of violation by first approaching the borough to obtain a variance for the existing driveway as constructed. During the hearing for this variance request, ZHB Chairperson James Eichenlaub appeared to offer a potential solution. Quoting the transcript –

MR. SOUTHERN: It’s a large house now. Four bedrooms, three and a half baths. I don’t know how anybody could reasonably move into that house without a driveway. I just don’t see it. It’s going to be very difficult. The only viable option I see for that driveway is to come in from Hopkins Street and cross the boundary line.
MR. EICHENLAUB: We addressed the issue of resubdividing the properties at the time, and he (Edward Abbott) didn’t want to do that, but that’s also a way of relieving this issue is restructuring — so you can redesign the lots —
MR. SOUTHERN: Yes.
MR. EICHENLAUB: — so that driveway could come off of Hopkins and serve, you know, by combining those two lots.
MR. SOUTHERN: I didn’t know that was an option.

The ZHB approved the original plan for a house but denied the driveway request, citing in an October 2018 violation notice that among other things the driveway existed on two separate parcels of land.

It was about this same time that Kevin Flannery announced his retirement as Sewickley Borough Manager.

By late 2018 Barbara Cox and Sandra Martin had become regular attendees at Sewickley Council meetings. After several attempts to get answers about what was going on with the project, they took to the pages of the Sewickley Herald to express their concerns in a November 3, 2018 letter to the editor.

Mr. Southern appeared before Council at their November 13, 2018 meeting to answer questions. He mentioned the possibility of a lot consolidation to address the driveway issue. According to the minutes, after a “lengthy discussion…the situation was remanded to the Code Enforcement Officer and the engineering firms representing both parties“.

Video of this specific portion of the meeting is available here. Councilor Christine Allen, who represents this area of the borough as part of Ward 1, had some specific questions and concerns about the project. Turn up your speaker volume.

It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.

Grace Hopper

Mr. Southern retained Sewickley attorney John Edson to assist in the approval process. Mr. Southern and Mr. Edson appeared before the Sewickley Planning Commission on December 5, 2018 for a pre-conference to create a reverse subdivision, which would unify 601 Hill and 550 Hopkins into one parcel of land. A second violation notice from Ms. Watts later that month stated “The submitted unification plan shall eliminate some, but not all, of the zoning violations”.

The Herald published one follow-up story on the issue, on December 17, 2018. Councilor John Dunn, who also represents Ward 1 and is Council’s representative on the Planning Commission, told the Herald

(The planning commission) can’t look past what is in front of us, so what we did was we voted on the fact that if they want to merge those properties, we have given the recommendation to have a public hearing to hear about it.

That hearing was held on January 2 of this year. According to the minutes

Mr. Southern…apologized for the errors of the past and reiterated that he was working to remediate the issues and that he wants to work with the neighbors to make sure that he complies with all regulations and ordinances.

Ms. Cox and Ms. Martin testified regarding their continued concern for the safety and stability of the slope in the wake of the work being done, as well as issues with stormwater and the interruption and/or diversion of natural springs. Christine Allen also offered testimony.

In response, Commission Chair Nathan St. Germain offered comments that could almost be confused with an attempt at absolution –

Mr. St. Germain explained that it was impossible for the Borough to know what every homeowner does on there (sic) property and that Mr. Southern is working to bring the property back up to code. He is incurring cost to do this and he has taken responsibility for this situation.

Action by the Commission was tabled by unanimous vote, pending numerous items requiring resolution from the borough and their consulting engineers, Coraopolis-based LSSE.

Engineer’s March 2019 rendering of the Hopkins St. driveway project, including drainage plan.

By March, Mr. Southern and Mr. Edson were again ready to approach the Planning Commission. The handwritten minutes of the March 6 hearing, obtained via a Right to Know request, reflect their testimony detailing the features of driveway construction, designed to optimize safety and manage stormwater, as well as remediate Ms. Cox’s backyard.

Ms. Cox and Ms. Martin reiterated their previous statements regarding safety, as well as increasing frustration with the process as administered to this point. Christine Allen also gave what was summarized by the scribe as a “lengthy statement of concern“.

The Commission approved the reverse subdivision, sending it to Council for final approval. Barbara Cox’s frustration with the process also came out in a March 9 email –

The Planning Commission meeting went really bad for us. We tried to ask questions about what could have been done to have avoided this situation. More or less we were told that if we did not like the system “We should step up and volunteer for a committee”. We made the comment that it looked to the community as if it is better to ignore zoning laws. Just do what you want and then the borough will help you fix it. That was not the right thing to say because it really upset them.

A Grudging, Surreptitious Approval

Sewickley Council’s meeting of March 12 was noteworthy in that the new Assistant Borough Manager, Erin Sakalik, was in attendance. It was also significant in the result of the hearing conducted for the lot consolidation resolution. From the minutes –

(Borough Solicitor) Richard Tucker conducted a public hearing: John Edson, Stan Southern, and Elizabeth Abbott spoke in favor of the lot consolidation. Sandra Martin and Barbara Cox spoke in opposition. After the hearing was closed, motion to adopt Resolution 2019-008 by Councilperson Renner died for the lack of a second.

According to Ms. Cox, “Todd Renner said ‘well they will just take us to court’. The attorney for Minas LLC said ‘We will see you in court‘”.

In the days that followed, it appeared that Council’s demurral was indeed not the end of the story. Reached in May, Christine Allen stated that Council’s Solicitor had informed them that a refusal to take up the resolution for a vote was not the same as disapproval, and the resolution could go into effect without a formal vote. Ms. Allen also stated that Mr. Edson had challenged her to recuse herself from voting, due to her publicly-stated concerns during the planning and zoning process.

By the beginning of April, Marla Marcinko was beginning her tenure as Borough Manager, and Erin Sakalik was settling into several operational areas, including code enforcement and zoning.

As Council’s April 9 meeting approached, Barbara Cox remarked on information she was receiving regarding the next move by Council –

I heard that the borough solicitor may feel that this does not need to go to court. That the board maybe able to vote on this again. I am not sure of any of the details. Again, Sandra and I learned about this late last night. I have checked the agenda for the meeting Tuesday night. I do not see Minas listed. Sandra Martin and I are going to attend, to see if we can learn anything.

Indeed, the published agenda for this meeting made no mention of a vote on the matter. Yet the minutes of the meeting show that after emerging from executive session just before 11:00 PM, Council voted to approve the reverse subdivision – 5 in favor, 1 opposed, with 1 abstention, 1 recusal, and 1 absent. The meeting adjourned shortly thereafter.

From their apparent effort to keep this approval vote quiet – even from those directly impacted by the decision – Council’s administration of this process can’t help but raise questions, even among those with a greater understanding of the issues at hand.

Contour map with the newly unified parcels highlighted in red. – Allegheny County GIS

Transparency Issues Cloud Process, Impede Accountability

When I began researching this over a year ago, the first steps I took were to review some of what had already transpired at the ZHB. Seeing no minutes posted online, I filed a Right to Know request for electronic copies of ZHB minutes for part of 2018, and the Resource Protection Analysis for the driveway project.

The borough’s reply included the following –

As an initial matter, the Sewickley Borough Zoning Hearing Board (“Board”) does not keep minutes. Instead, a court reporter transcribes every meeting. The transcript is not delivered to the Board unless the Board orders it. Accordingly, your request for actual minutes is denied.

The borough stated that it did possess a copy of the September 2018 transcript, and allowed a later request to review it at the borough offices. In order to receive an electronic copy of it, however –

…you are responsible for the duplication fee imposed by the Borough’s stenographer…(who) has informed the Borough that an electronic copy of the transcript would cost $313.50 (114 pages x $2.75 per page) and a hard copy mailed would cost $323.50.

The borough cited the state Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) as justification for the cost of this document. This is in apparent conflict with the fee schedule issued by the Pa. Office of Open Records (OOR) in accordance with the state’s Right to Know Law (RTKL).

Seeing a discrepancy that needed to be clarified, I filed an appeal of the borough’s decision with the OOR in December 2018. They ruled in my favor in March of this year.

The OOR concluded that if the borough possesses the transcript, the matter in question has been adjudicated, and the transcript is being requested by someone not directly involved in the proceedings, it must be treated like any other public records request. The transcript that I received is referenced several times in this post.

Another disparity exists between the MPC and the Pa. Sunshine Act, which applies to “any state or local government body and all sub-units appointed by that body that perform an essential government function and exercises authority to take official action or render advice”. This includes Planning Commissions and Zoning Hearing Boards.

While the MPC requires ZHBs to have a “stenographic record of their activities“², the Sunshine Act also requires them to have written minutes of their meetings. These must include “the time, date, and place of their meetings; the names of the members present, the substance of all official action taken during the meetings, and a record of how each individual voted. The minutes also must list all members of the public who participated in the meetings and a summary of their comments.”

Sewickley’s Planning Commission has written minutes available for their meetings, many of which are published on the borough website.

The ZHB, by the borough’s own admission, does not, relying instead on transcripts that may or may not be available to the public. Ms. Cox and Ms. Martin were thwarted in an attempt to view ZHB proceedings from 2014 and 2015, because the borough did not have a copy of the transcripts and did not take written minutes.

This had the effect, whether intentional or not, of concealing the board’s activities from citizen review, in apparent violation of the Sunshine Act.

Unfortunately, the OOR cannot by law investigate complaints of violations of the Sunshine Act. As it stands now, a citizen can only assert a violation during the meeting where the violation is occurring, or file a complaint in Common Pleas Court within 30 days of that meeting. An example of this is LeCornu et al v. Borough of Sewickley (2017).

To the borough’s credit, their website now includes minutes for the September 2019 ZHB meeting – the first such published minutes in at least two years. It’s a trend that needs to be continued, lest a citizen initiate that complaint process again.

The borough also claimed that a Resource Protection Analysis did not exist for the driveway project. I requested this a second time in September and received a document that contained the required analysis, marked as received by the borough in September 2015.

This document was prepared for the original project at 550 Hopkins – a house with a dedicated driveway. The borough apparently permitted its use for the application to retroactively approve what was actually built – the driveway to 601 Hill Street.

The Aftermath and The Future

Views of the driveway project, with nearby addresses labeled – December 2019

Cox property looking north, November 2019. The boulders and dirt mound have been replaced by a retaining wall. The remaining dirt has been reduced. Per Barbara Cox, this is the result of soil erosion only. – Cox photo

Rear of Cox property, looking south, November 2019 – Barbara Cox photo

Shortly following the April decision by Council on the lot consolidation, Code Enforcement and Zoning Officer Nancy Watts announced her retirement, effective in May.

The minutes of the May 14 meeting of Council included the following –

Stan Southern…spoke about the installation of a driveway at 550 Hopkins Street. He was informed by Nancy Watts that a building permit would be issued for his driveway before she resigned. He inquired as to why the permit was not issued.

Marla Marcinko clarified her prior discussion with Mr. Southern and stated that she has not yet reviewed the voluminous file yet. She spoke about the engineer’s stormwater management reviews and grading requirements. In her opinion this is land development (emphasis mine) because it impacts the borough’s stormwater system.

Ms. Marcinko stated what should have been made clear very early on in this process, backed up by monitoring of the project by borough officials – before things were done that should not have been.

Contacted in May, Stan Southern reiterated his commitment to working with the borough, its engineers, and the neighbors to get the project completed in a safe manner. He stated that Edward Abbott made “bad assumptions” with regard to the project, and that he was “painstakingly” working with Ms. Marcinko and providing Council with frequent updates.

Mr. Southern stated his goal for Minas LLC was to get any remaining properties sold, and “close up shop“.

Mr. Southern has also stated publicly his desire to help repair the damage to the Cox property. Per Barbara Cox, this has consisted of offering to provide landscaping services and ground cover.

In an e-mail from early September, Ms. Marcinko stated “All the requirements for land development were met and a building permit was issued for a driveway”. On September 24, Barbara Cox advised me that construction equipment was back at work on the site.

Ms. Cox appears to have come away from this experience with a lesser opinion of local government –

I am very tired of the entire situation. Sandra and I really tried.  We really thought the borough would be outraged by what had been done. When in reality we feel we have been treated like villains and dismissed.

No appeals are going to be requested.  The attorney fees are too high.  I have more or less been told wait until something happens then contact a lawyer.

Ms. Cox also stated she is frustrated with what has been offered in comparison to the problems she is seeing, along with a lack of coordination and proper documentation of any proposed work to be done.

She wants to assure that she and adjacent property owners are protected now and in the future, and that she and Ms. Martin “felt and still feel that the situation is unsafe“.

Hope Amidst the Bureaucracy

It is legal to raise chickens in Sewickley last I checked, and it became apparent that a flock of them were coming home to roost with regard to these events –

  • A developer attempting to utilize his land and comply with established laws and codes, despite previous activity on the property that appeared to flagrantly disregard those rules.
  • An administrative process at the municipal level that appeared to function poorly in terms of notifying adjacent property owners, responding to citizen concerns, monitoring construction activity, and enforcing existing regulations.
  • Nearby residents that are justifiably once bitten, twice shy, and distrustful of their government in the wake of its response – or lack thereof – to their concerns.
  • A vacuum at the top, where decades of largely effective day-to-day management was suddenly absent, and new permanent replacements were just coming on board.
  • A system of documenting public meetings that prevented citizens from leveraging laws designed to provide access to the proceedings of an accountable government body.
  • Elected representatives who act upon potentially controversial issues in a manner that appears designed to deny citizens the opportunity to learn about them beforehand.

*****

A Post-Gazette editorial from May advocated for revisions to the state’s open records law –

The RTK measure was signed into law in February 2008. It’s time for an update. Give it some teeth — real consequences for violations. Expand it to include a records retention protocol. And make the state Office of Open Records responsible for punishing violators.

Any revision to the RTKL should also include making the OOR responsible for punishing violators of the Sunshine Act as well.

There is much more work to be done to assure that citizens have proper access to their government and how it makes decisions.

Like the possible remedies that may be available to Barbara Cox, this is often out of reach for a great many citizens who cannot afford legal help to navigate the process.

The same can be said for the events detailed here. The fundamental processes of government should not be held at arm’s length from the people, awaiting the highest bidder.

*****

Since the departure of Mr. Flannery and Ms. Watts, Sewickley has taken important steps to assure that the continuity of critical borough operations is not compromised by the resignation of a single individual.

The hiring of Ms. Marcinko, who brings impressive experience to the position, feels like a coup for the borough and its citizens. It seems fortunate that fate and family brought her from a position where she appeared to be greatly appreciated, if the reporting of the Altoona Mirror is any indication. Along with Altoona, Ms. Marcinko has managed in places as varied as West Deer, Zelienople, Penn Hills, and Wilkinsburg.

Ms. Sakalik also brings solid managerial experience with her to those areas of borough operations that appear to need it most.

Another significant change was to contract an outside entity to administer day-to-day code enforcement and zoning activity. If the monthly reports posted to the borough website are a valid barometer of performance, Harshman CE Group is providing competent, comprehensive service to this point.

If recent council minutes are any indication, however, some residents are less than pleased with the level of scrutiny employed by Harshman personnel in performance of their duties. Allegations of “targeting” have been leveled.

*****

I get mixed feelings when I read about these things. On one hand, it’s important that code enforcement personnel be responsive to complaints from citizens, but at the same time they need to be reasonable alongside the diligence that is expected of them.

I am reminded of the diligence displayed by Sewickley Heights Borough in defending their existing zoning law against open defiance in the ongoing Dundee Farm dispute. Related documents indicate that the reports of citizens played a large role in establishing the case against the farm and its owners.

I am also reminded of Dolores Bassett, Elise Truchan, and Larry Oswald – three citizens who wanted to do something with their property not out of defiance or neglect, but in the spirit of independence, innovation, and liberty that are among the best parts of being an American.

Zoning regulations and municipal ordinances need to reflect both sets of values. This balance is not easy, but is essential if government is to remain relevant to its citizens, and respect for both the rule of law and individual liberty are to remain benchmarks of government of, by, and for the people.

Lastly, participation in and access to our government is a right and responsibility of every citizen – especially at the ballot box.

We need look no further for a relevant example than this most recent general election. Incumbent Sewickley councilor John Dunn lost his re-election bid to six-year “newcomer” Julie Barnes.

Whether or not Mr. Dunn’s approach to this 5-year odyssey contributed in any way to his being replaced is anyone’s guess.

Best wishes for a pleasant holiday season.

¹ Sewickley Borough Zoning Hearing Board Hearing Transcript, Sept. 4, 2018

² Pa. Municipalities Planning Code, Section 908(7)

Posted in Community, Development, Environment, Government, History, Local, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Timely Updates on Things Ongoing

Our busy summer continues to plug along at a steady clip. While it seems at times that things are still being left behind, we are soldiering on with projects small and large while trying to keep up with life itself.

I am fortunate that my wife is a particularly strong, intelligent, and resilient person.

While working diligently but slowly on the second half of my Spring / Summer Digest on land use and zoning, a few other timely and important issues addressed here previously have cropped up again – some with more urgency than others.

Here are some brief summaries of what’s going on –

¿Quieres Taco Bell en Edgeworth?

In April 2015, I took a close look at that section of the Edgeworth commercial district along Route 65 which includes the Esmark Center, Burger King, and the Edgeworth Square medical office building. This area now includes a Starbucks as well.

Edgeworth commercial area, 2017 image.

The reason for the attention was an attempt to develop the parking lot between Edgeworth Square and Route 65 into a McDonald’s. This generated some public concern about traffic and pedestrian safety, considering the proximity to Sewickley Academy. McDonald’s then withdrew their proposal, although it was unknown at the time as to the exact reason.

The owners of the lot then proposed building a Chipotle restaurant there, which Edgeworth Council approved in December 2015. I also reported on this and other land use issues in January 2016.

A dispute between the developer, Edgeworth Real Estate Associates, and the owner of the neighboring Esmark Center over access and traffic flow was resolved in mid-2016, but no apparent progress toward development was made.

Three years later, Edgeworth Borough has advertised on their website a hearing to grant a conditional use permit for the construction of a Taco Bell restaurant where the McDonald’s or Chipotle were supposed to go.

This hearing is scheduled for today, Tuesday, August 20, at 7:00 PM, which coincides with the regular monthly Council meeting. The restaurant proposal also includes a drive-thru component.

Without looking at the specific plans, I remain skeptical of the safety of any additional commercial development in this area. The previous development ideas really didn’t take into account the convoluted traffic patterns, seemingly uncoordinated, that currently exist in this complex of independent businesses.

Traffic flow through the commercial area, with curb cuts to Route 65 indicated by number. From 2015.

There isn’t much more to say in advance of the hearing, other than I’m hopeful that the community at large is well-represented, provides meaningful testimony, and that the powers that be in Edgeworth listen.

Dundee Farm, Borough Ordered to Attempt Settlement

The latest update from the dispute between Sewickley Heights Borough and Scott and Teresa Fetterolf was issued by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James on July 25. This took the form of an order that directs the Fetterolfs to provide a proposed consent order to the borough by September 6. The borough is required to respond by September 23. If the parties cannot reach an agreement, they are due back in Judge James’ court on September 30.

Bell Acres Councilor Gets ARD For Protester Traffic Incident

Bell Acres Councilor Gregory Wagner, charged by Pittsburgh Police in June of last year for striking protesters with his vehicle in the wake of the Antwon Rose Jr. shooting, will go through the process of Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, or ARD, related to one count of Recklessly Endangering Another Person (REAP), a second-degree misdemeanor.

Two other counts of REAP and two traffic violations were withdrawn or dismissed, according to the online docket sheet from the Pa Courts website. This disposition was ordered on August 16 by Common Pleas Court Judge Edward Borkowski.

According to the blog of a central Pennsylvania law firm –

ARD…can offer many advantages for first-time offenders charged with certain crimes. This option, defined as a pre-adjudicated disposition of the charges, means that there is no conviction, as long as the conditions of ARD are met.

If so, charges are dismissed, the record can be expunged, and it’s as though you were never charged in the first place, as long as you don’t offend again.

In many instances ARD is a popular option considered for first-time DUI offenses, but depending on the county jurisdiction can be used for many first-time offenses, including, apparently, REAP.

For Mr. Wagner, the court docket specifies that he must pay all associated court costs within a year, and complete 25 hours of community service within 9 months.

Then it all goes away…

License Plate Reader Legislation Still on the Table

In May of last year I explored among other things the system of surveillance cameras with Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) technology that exist across Allegheny County, and in our local area as well.

Within that report was an overview of state legislation designed to establish standards for retention of the vast amounts of data now being collected by these cameras.

Last year’s bill passed the House with little if any opposition, but died at the end of the session in the Senate. The bill was re-introduced in February as House Bill 317. Local representative Rob Matzie (D-Ambridge) is again listed as a co-sponsor.

Recent Post-Gazette reporting about the bill raised some of the same concerns about privacy and data use and retention that were brought up last year.

One difference that could aid in its eventual passage into law is the support it is receiving from law enforcement advocacy groups statewide.

The ACLU still has concerns about the length of time that data is retained, but is otherwise offering muted support as well.

Should HB 317 become law, the focus of civil libertarians and legislators may next need to focus on how the technology is being utilized by the private sector and other non-governmental organizations.

Perhaps this is another reason that interest in countermeasures to ALPR technology continues to exist.

Zamagias Condos Going Up

The front page of last week’s Sewickley Herald included coverage of the start of construction of a controversial condominium project in Sewickley Village. This is something that I have reported on here on several occasions.

The reporting also mentioned the community opposition that resulted in litigation over the project’s visual footprint, and how the borough handled the process of review and approval. Mayor Brian Jeffe was quoted by the Herald as stating his belief that these new condo units “will sell like hotcakes“.

I offered a comment to the story on the Herald website that I will share below –

The lawsuit and its supporting evidence called into question the Sewickley Zoning Hearing Board and borough Council in the public conduct of the approval process.

Existing zoning regulations, along with vocal and lopsided public opinion against the project, were patently ignored.

Regardless of the court findings concerning the legality of the process, these buildings will rise as a sad monument to the historic illegitimacy of local representative government in this instance and others.

The same may also be said of the Herald’s previous coverage of the dispute, which was scant and then grudging after at least one complaint was lodged with Trib Total Media management.

Mayor Jeffe’s analogy to “hotcakes” may indeed be prescient, as the buildings may seem attractive to many in the community but will in the end offer it little nutritional value.

Until next time…..

Posted in Business, Civil Liberties, Community, Government, Local, Media, Politics, Technology, Traffic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Spring / Summer Digest Part 1 – Death, Taxes, Transition, and Zoning

Since my brief hospitalization in April, gradual improvement has been occurring in the area of my personal health, but life generally remains more chaotic and frustrating than I would like. I am hobbling along better, and am enjoying the change of scenery and the easier commute that came with the relocation of my workplace last month.

A story in the July 7 Post-Gazette highlighted the new facility through the filter of a continuing theme – the challenges of getting new employees to stay, and the impact of mandatory overtime on existing staff. The P-G followed up with an editorial on July 15 that reinforced the need for additional staffing.

I’ve heard this song before – it has defined my career path, and has led me to the continued belief, bolstered by experience, that best practices incorporate an equal focus on technology, processes, and people.

I’ve also been thinking about the consequences of death and loss, and the impact of one’s passing on the community at large. Along with the impact on immediate family, blood relatives, co-workers, and neighbors, the inevitability of our mortality brings with it changes that can ripple through a community like a quiet stream through gradual change, or tear through that community when that change is like a flash flood.

The familiar cadence of Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 plays in my head, and we move on.

Neighborhood Changes

Over the past few years, our neighborhood in Leetsdale has seen the passing or relocation of several elderly neighbors. This has resulted in the sale of several properties. With those transactions come changes to both the property and the community dynamic.

We also lost/gained a church – the aging, traditional building at Broad and Rapp that formerly housed the Church of Grace and Glory was sold to a holding company associated with Hill City Church, a non-denominational congregation currently meeting at Moon Area Middle School.

126 Broad Street, Leetsdale – Bing Maps

The church announced last year that they had also closed on a parcel of vacant land in Collier Township, also owned by Grace and Glory. County real estate records list the sale price of each property at $1.
The church building, a former Lutheran church which dates to the early 20th century, is a contemporary of the former First United Presbyterian Church of Leetsdale at the southern end of Broad Street. Leetsdale Presbyterian closed in 2008, and was sold to its present owner in 2016. It has since been renovated into a private home.

Since the recent sale, this little church at the end of our block has seen both a general gutting of its innards and the replacement of the roof. Something is afoot, but what?

Contacted by e-mail, church representative Mike Rebich stated the following –

I can assure you that church building will stay a ministry center there in the community.

Anything that would happen at a church Monday through Saturday, we will use that facility for. Team practices, small groups, Bible classes etc will all be happening out of there. And of course it will be a great spot for things like weddings and funerals…In the long term we see that building continuing to be an outreach center there, even when we have a permanent facility. We have absolutely zero intention to sell it, now or in the future.

So the good news is there will still be a religious use for this particular church building. However, the potential impact on a neighborhood where on-street parking is already stressed by activities related to the borough building, its community room, and a nearby restaurant is something that will need to be looked at by Leetsdale Council.

Local Primary – Reduce, Reuse, Re-Region?

After the May 21 primary election, that same Leetsdale Borough Council has the potential to look even more like its former self from the previous decade to the early part of this one.

There are three seats being filled this election year, currently occupied by councilors Joseph McGurk, Jeff Weatherby, and Wes James. All but Mr. McGurk are seeking re-election. Mr. Weatherby and Mr. James are Republicans, and easily sewed up their nominations with no other candidates on the primary ballot.

On the Democratic side, the only name on the primary ballot was Roger Nanni, who previously served on council from 1998 to 2014. Mr. Nanni was defeated among a 6-candidate field in the 2013 Democratic primary. This defeat came after Mr. Nanni was one of two Leetsdale councilors fined by the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission in March 2013 for ethics law violations related to employing family members.

Current Leetsdale councilor Osman Awad was also defeated as an incumbent in that same 2013 primary. He won election again in 2017 along with another former councilor, Benjimen Frederick, and incumbent Thomas Belcastro.

One of the more popular services Leetsdale provides to its citizens is its own municipal trash and recycling collection. Instead of contracting with a private provider, the borough owns its own truck and picks up lots of stuff. There was talk a few years ago about changing this, but Council opted to maintain the status quo, while encouraging residents and landlords to abide by the existing rules.

Barring a significant write-in effort, it would appear that Leetsdale voters will return another previously discarded council member to office come November, continuing the same pattern that I wrote about 2 years ago. What I also wrote back in November 2013 still applies today.

The value of this particular form of recycling will require additional observation and analysis over time.

Quaker Valley School Board

With two board members from Region II (Sewickley Borough) not seeking re-election, the primary races were rife with activity to replace them. A total of three candidates cross-filed for both major party primaries – Geoff Barnes, Richard Kain, and Chesney Soderstrom.

Ms. Soderstrom will be on both party ballots in November, giving her an advantage for one of the two available seats. Mr. Barnes will be the other Democratic candidate, with Mr. Kain on the Republican side. Incumbents in Region I and Region III were unopposed in the primary.

The Sewickley Herald reported in depth on each of the Region II candidates and their stated focus before the May primary. The drive to plan for and construct a new high school factored in some way in all three candidate’s responses, with Mr. Kain being the only one of the three not quoted as supporting the new facility.

Mr. Kain was briefly quoted in the Herald regarding his concerns for the school district’s current debt load, and whether or not it can sustain the weight of a major capital improvement project. He mentioned the current financial crisis facing the Penn Hills School District as an example of what he believes is a slippery financial slope that Quaker Valley can and should avoid.

His comments slightly echoed those of Sewickley resident Leland “Peter” Floyd, who painted a gloomy picture of financial ruin in a letter to the Post-Gazette from early March –

It is too late to close the barn door for Penn Hills, now that the financial horses are gone. However, it is not too late to keep Quaker Valley’s barn door closed in spite of the major desire by the QV board to kick it wide open to create an expensive new high school.

The letter generated numerous online comments, as well as spirited discussion on social media groups such as the QV School Board Updates page on Facebook.

Mr. Floyd has apparently been a fervent anti-tax advocate in the area for over 25 years. According to reporting in the Sewickley Herald from 1994, Mr. Floyd was General Chairman of the fledgling Quaker Valley Tax Reform League, which was formed in apparent response to property re-assessments earlier that year. This a part of a recurrent and continuing debate surrounding the perceived inequities of funding new schools with property taxes.

The QVTRL also counted among its leadership former school board member Marianne Wagner, who served non-consecutive terms before leaving the board in 2017. Mr. Floyd himself was an unsuccessful candidate for the board in 2011.

As Quaker Valley enters into a period where increased funding needs for a new high school become closer to reality, the board must continue to recognize that the need for fiscal responsibility carries with it an equal measure of standing with the desire to optimize any new facility to maintain the quality of education that area children receive.

Along with the above goal, two other things about this hold importance for me –

  • That the new school and its facilities be accessible and available to the community. This includes making the school property available for projects of mutual community benefit, such as the Municipal Solar Initiative of the Quaker Valley Council of Governments. 

    The former Walker estate “Muottas” on its new foundation just north of its original location. – Allegheny County Department of Real Estate

  • That the former Walker estate “Muottas”, relocated to another part of the proposed school property by previous owner Thomas Tull, be preserved and maintained as a community asset. Consultation with area agencies and groups involved in historic preservation is an essential component of this process.

The primary activity in Region II also brings up the continued issue about balanced and equitable board representation across the Quaker Valley district. I covered this issue in detail in 2015.

Region II encompasses Sewickley Borough – only. As of the 2010 Census, this region comprises only 27.5 percent of the total district population. Compare this to Region III, which consists of seven municipalities and accounts for 42.1 percent of the population – 2,000 more people than Region II – but is still represented by only three board members.

These voting regions have remained the same since at least 1981. Anyone aspiring for a seat on the Board in the 2019 or 2021 election needs to commit to serious study of re-allocating representatives by population when the 2020 census data is released.

There are currently four sitting board members – Ms. Doebler, Mr. Floro, Ms. Helkowski, and Mr. Kuzma – with whom I have spoken previously about this issue. Should the 2020 census show a continued or growing disparity in population, these and the other board members need to be prepared to address what may amount to taxation without proper representation.

Dundee Farm Dispute Continues with Court Appeal

The decision of the Sewickley Heights Borough Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) regarding the Dundee Farm and Fields appeal was announced and distributed in late April.

The farm’s owners, Scott and Theresa Fetterolf, had their appeal of zoning ordinance violations denied, with some exceptions. Their challenge to the validity of the zoning ordinance was also denied.

The findings include a summary of the testimony and evidence received from each of the ten public hearings held by the ZHB during 2018 and in January of this year. The complete and detailed findings are available for review here.

The Fetterolfs had 30 days to appeal the borough’s decision, and did so on May 24 in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. Their appeal alleges numerous misinterpretations of law, the failure of the ZHB to exercise appropriate discretion, and disregard of the provisions of the Pa. Right to Farm Act as it relates to the operations of Dundee Farm.

The case is Fetterolf vs. Zoning Hearing Board of the Borough of Sewickley Heights, Case ID SA-19-000363. The borough, acting as an intervenor on behalf of its zoning board, introduced as part of the case record all of the evidence presented and testimony offered to the ZHB as part of the appeal. The evidence files are very large, and can be viewed via the Allegheny County Court Records website (registration required).

Much of the evidence presented was gathered by neighboring property owners who also occupy what was once part of Dundee Farm when it was owned by the late Nancy Doyle (Nanky) Chalfant. Scott and Theresa Fetterolf purchased the main house and farm from Mrs. Chalfant in 2003.

Mrs. Chalfant died in 2012. William and Melissa Marks, along with Lindsey Smith and wife Linda Pell-Smith, purchased their respective properties from the Chalfant estate in 2015.

Map of Dundee Farm property, showing locations of separate parcels and the various entrances. Enhanced to show detail. Allegheny County Department of Court Records (Exhibit SHB 10).

As the above graphic shows, these properties can be accessed by three separate entrances. One of the main complaints that these neighbors leveled was the amount of traffic that was entering their respective properties via the two entrances off of Scaife Road, attempting to reach the Fetterolf property, which was to be accessed from the entrance on Blackburn Road. Melissa Marks’ testimony to the ZHB was summarized as below –

Zoning Hearing Board Findings, April 29, 2019, Page 17.

The due diligence exercised by these neighbors in documenting the activities surrounding events both advertised and conducted on the Dundee Farm property, and then reporting them to the borough, make for a comprehensive and convincing foundation for the remaining case evidence.

This evidence appears to clearly establish that the business activities at Dundee Farm far exceeded what a reasonable person might consider to be associated with the conduct of an agricultural enterprise. This is irrespective of whatever legal rabbit hole the Fetterolfs may be trying to drag the borough down now.

That rabbit hole will move to the courtroom of Common Pleas Judge Joseph James, for a status conference scheduled for July 25.

After a zoning appeal process lasting over a year, an ultimately futile attempt to make the dispute a federal case, and now additional litigation, the Fetterolfs appear to be sending the message that they will continue to defend their perceived right to use their property as they see fit, without apparent regard for the rule of law or the comfort of their neighbors.

I must echo the borough’s assertion in their letter to residents from nearly one year ago –

Sewickley Heights deserves much credit for the diligence with which they have enforced their existing zoning regulations. They have set an example that at least one neighboring municipality could learn from.

I’ll have more on that in the weeks ahead.

Enjoy the summer days.

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