I hope that your Independence Day holiday was a good one.
Over the last couple of months, two conflicts between government and homeowners in the Quaker Valley area have illustrated some important facts about local government’s ability to relate to how individuals choose to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” on their private property.
Also pertinent to the discussion is the manner in which information is communicated by both social and mass media, and how government and others respond to the attention generated by that reporting.
Truchan Treehouse Tribulations
According to the May 14 Sewickley Herald, when Elise Truchan wanted to build a treehouse in front of her Quaker Heights home for her 8th grade project, she and her family researched applicable ordinances via the somewhat informative Leet Township website.
Unfortunately, the resources available on that site were incomplete, as the Truchans were issued a Notice of Violation in March for having a non-conforming “accessory structure” on the property. The initial Herald report stated that “after (the Truchans) were first notified they were in violation of zoning rules in March the family says they reached an agreement to keep the treehouse in the family’s front yard until Oct. 1″.
This was apparently until the story gained traction in the local, national, and global mass media machine. Quoting the June 4 Herald:
Building inspector Joseph Luff notified the family last week that they needed a variance from the zoning hearing board, or the treehouse would have to come down within five days.
The notice…came after the Truchan’s story…was featured on “Fox and Friends” on Fox News; KDKA-TV; The Daily Mail in England; and numerous other publications.
Over the past month, many other media outlets and news sites have re-posted the Truchans’ story. A petition on change.org has garnered nearly 100 signatures.
Additional original reporting approached the story in different ways. The Post-Gazette focused on the reasons behind why municipal ordinances governing land use exist, and must be applied in ways that sometimes seem to strain against common sense.
After being unable to secure any specific comment from township officials, the P-G reporter sought out Richard Hadley, Director of the Allegheny League of Municipalities:
Mr. Hadley said while ordinances can become cumbersome and overburdening in many ways, they provide community structure and protect residents and businesses from property uses that are incompatible with neighboring property.
If the township officials give the Truchan family a pass, Mr. Hadley said it opens the door for others to argue, “Why them and not me?”
“That’s the reason municipalities are very strict about enforcing their ordinances. Waivers can extend to things getting out of control,” he said.
Ms. Martin’s reporting has a more anti-regulatory tone to it, while including some more entertaining tidbits that other news outlets may have passed on. For example:
In their variance application, the Truchans argue the rule about structures in front yards “should be read in the spirit of which it was written.”
Just because a building inspector might be able to technically shoehorn a given situation into the letter of the law doesn’t mean that’s a reasonable way to apply a law.
Ms. Martin also reported that while township officials were helpful with accessing zoning ordinance information that is apparently not posted online, they refused to discuss the treehouse situation specifically. This refusal to comment was echoed by nearly all of the media reports that I reviewed.
My own experience with Leet officials was a pleasant one. I recently inquired of them if Quaker Heights, a subdivision roughly as old as I am, had a homeowners association, or if any properties had restrictive covenants in place. Assistant Manager Betsy Renkers replied promptly that there was neither a HOA or covenants, and that the township would investigate any complaints received from residents.
They have recently taken this a step further, announcing in their summer newsletter that they have assigned an existing township employee the additional duties of Code Enforcement Officer, and established a complaint process that emphasizes the anonymity of those making complaints, as provided for by state open records law.
This includes the unknown ‘neighbor’ who reportedly started the whole treehouse mess by complaining about it.
Mr. Oswald and his Grassy Knoll
By contrast, the lengthy dispute between Sewickley Borough and Hill Street resident Larry Oswald has featured calm, comprehensive discourse from both sides, featured prominently in the local media.
Mr. Oswald comes across as an intelligent, articulate, and resolute citizen with definite ideas on how he wants to use his property. Before and since he was cited by the borough last September for the condition of his yard, Mr. Oswald has calmly stated his case for the continued existence of his meadow – in person to Council, in a letter to the Herald on June 18, and by retaining counsel from a local environmental law firm.
Mr. Oswald’s appeal to Common Pleas Court has included, according, to Council meeting minutes, “an environmental expert from the University of Pittsburgh, a professor from the Department of Biological Services, who indicated that almost none of the vegetation on Mr. Oswald’s property should be considered a weed, and that this type of vegetation provides a strong ecological benefit“. Further review of those minutes has also shown that Sewickley Council has adjourned into executive session on more than one occasion to discuss the case involving Mr. Oswald.
In what could be a response to Mr. Oswald’s challenge, Council has acted quickly to draft and enact a new ordinance governing the legal height and condition of grass, plants, and vegetation in the borough. Council members and Borough Manager Kevin Flannery have been quoted extensively regarding the need for “uniformity“, and for property owners to meet “expectations that we value each other’s property…to enhance our property so the community is enhanced“.
Mr. Oswald’s appeal was continued to a hearing held on June 23. According to his attorney, Megan Lovett, both parties were advised that a decision would be rendered to them by mail, something that was atypical in her experience for a summary appeal of this type.
As of this writing a decision has not been received by Ms. Lovett, who declined to speculate on her client’s chances to win the case, or whether the arguments presented may have influenced Council to ‘fast track’ the new ordinance.
Observations and Conclusions
Should Miss Truchan and Mr. Oswald be successful in their appeals, what is the long-term plan for their respective projects? Will Elise continue to use and maintain her sanctuary as it (and she) grows older? What will become of Larry’s meadow, along with the rest of his ample abode, when he is no longer physically able to tend to it?
If Mr. Oswald is forced to de-foliate in the name of ‘uniformity’, perhaps he would be willing to exchange the desire to offset pollution and create oxygen, for reducing his own carbon footprint and increasing energy self-sufficiency, along with perhaps that of his neighbors.
Mr. Oswald’s property sits on a hill with excellent exposure to the south and west, ideal for capturing a good portion of whatever daily sunshine our area receives. Cut down not only the meadow, but the big trees along the street as well, and install a healthy, robust array of solar panels.
Sewickley Council moved hastily to establish new rules for grass and plants, possibly in response to Mr. Oswald’s push-back, and received some negative comments from other citizens in response. Let’s hope that the end product of this haste doesn’t become the law of unintended consequences.
Sewickley officials do deserve to be commended for the open, forthright manner in which they communicated their thoughts about the Oswald situation with the media and other citizens.
On the other hand, the actions of some Leet Township officials in not only refusing to discuss the Truchan treehouse, but appearing to actively dodge contact attempts from the media and others, create concerns about transparency and accountability.
Leet’s reported actions in first agreeing to allow the treehouse until October, then switching gears with an order to immediately dismantle it unless the Truchans went through an expensive variance process, smacks of an approach that is inconsistent at best, arbitrary, capricious and possibly vindictive at worst.
That being said, governance in these areas is not easy, especially in an environment where citizen perception of what constitutes an appropriate use of private property is changing, and transparency and accountability in municipal operations is being sought on a greater level by taxpayers.
The Internet has been leveraged by numerous area municipalities as a resource for citizens, but there are varying degrees of service provision. For example, Sewickley and Leetsdale provide complete, searchable online access to their ordinances. Leet Township does not.
Municipalities need to be willing to revisit their ordinances on a periodic basis. What should be a common sense, balanced approach to maintaining community character, while respecting individual property rights, can be lost in misguided attempts to control as much as possible about a citizen’s use of their property.
Mr. Oswald, despite his well-intentioned zeal for ecology over the rarefied aesthetics of his community as dictated by his elected officials, may have nonetheless gone a little bit overboard here.
But who can argue with a kid’s treehouse, so long as it is well maintained?
Best wishes to everyone for equal measures of freedom and understanding.
Enjoy your independence.
Credits – Sewickley Herald Digital Archive