Development Update – Billionaire Farmer, Treehouse Karma

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

Tull Estate Expands     

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

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

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

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

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

“Muottas” Gets Ready To Move

210CampMeetingAccessRoad

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

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

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

MuottasDriveway

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

Leet Has Growing Pains

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

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

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

According to Wikipedia

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

MuottasFencing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Equal Protection of the Laws’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a good week ahead.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Community, Government, Growth, Local, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Hockey Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pens50logo3cups

Uh, make that 4 Cups now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_20160612_212102
With that Game 5 loss came the Game 6 clincher in San Jose, on a Sunday night, one that I usually have off. When the Pens announced that they would host a watch party inside Consol Energy Center, we found ourselves inside a very cold arena with an awful lot of fellow fans watching a big TV.IMG_20160612_225659

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

GulfBldg061216

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

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

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

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

CrosbyParade061516

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

See you in September.

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

Quaker Valley: A Great Year Ends with Crash, Thuds

Carlin_Kids_Read

 

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

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

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

 

QV Yearbook Joker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

        – H.L. Mencken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 – Mohandas K. Gandhi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Edward R. Murrow

With that admonition, have a great summer.

 

 

Posted in Civil Liberties, Government, History, Local, Media, Schools, Security, Traffic | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Election Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Times report also stated: 

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

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

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

The Politics of ‘Concussion’ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Casualties of Bullying 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boundary Street Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Departures

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

Robert Murrer

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

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

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

John M. Herbst, Jr.

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

pic_jackherbst

 – Cochran Hose Company

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

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

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

Ambridge Nationality Days

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

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

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

The Citizen at 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations to Ms. Rankin and her staff.

QVHS #1 #6 

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

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

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

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

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

“New” QV Police CarIMG_20160507_070955

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great month ahead.

Acknowledgements – Sewickley Herald Digital Archive

Posted in Government, Local, Personal, Politics, Public Safety, Schools, Traffic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

March / April Digest: Arrivals, Departures, Returns

CIMG0357

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

CIMG0349

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen King is coming to Sewickley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Station 176 – A Questionable Farewell

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

                                                         – George Bernard Shaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are there complaints? Council said no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marty McDaniel Departs with Dignity

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

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

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

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

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

Wendy Bell Departs – Badly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arriving at Your Destination in One Piece…

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

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

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

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

65SBatBoundary

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jazz Returns to the Pittsburgh Airwaves

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

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

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

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

Enjoy the transition of seasons.

Posted in Government, Local, Media, Pittsburgh, Politics, Public Safety, Traffic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

February / March Digest: Blessed are the Peacemakers…

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

Jane L. Borthwick, 1859, 1863.

It’s been a busy month or so.

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

Deputy-Geer

Deputy Derek Geer, 1975-2016.

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

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

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

Geer_Memorial

Roadside Memorial.

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

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

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

Hello, Columbus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll be back…

Profligate Police and the Under-Served Mentally Ill

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

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

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

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

Ambulance Angst and the Diva of Debt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Tull Courts the Sewickley Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Forward

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

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

Have a great month ahead.

Posted in Business, Grand Junction, Health, Local, Personal, Public Safety, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Some Digestible Portions

Sew bridge panhandler 011916

A young adult male solicits money from passing motorists along Ohio River Boulevard at the Sewickley Bridge entrance. Taken January 19, 2016.

One of the more interesting e-mail newsletters I receive is Eat That, Read This by Adam Shuck. Mr. Shuck finds news stories from many local sources, and posts them with links and insightful, snarky commentary into a mostly daily e-mail digest. It’s a refreshing way to plug into what’s going on in the city and other parts of the region.

I thought I would try to emulate the style of this newsletter, with smaller posts about several topics instead of one long essay. For me, it seems easier to work on something comprised of snippets that seek to inform, give an opinion, and/or encourage the reader to learn more if they want to. I hope this seems easier for you to “digest” as well.

Edgeworth 

Mr. Shuck keeps his eye on our area, as evidenced by a post from his January 28 edition:

Speaking of the Sewickley area, this guy is the reason that Edgeworth can’t have a Chipotle.

The most recent update to the saga of developing an Edgeworth parking lot into food service and retail space has the proposal in limbo, due to the inability of the property owner to obtain the required agreement with an adjoining owner for sharing the access road between the TheEdgeofWorthproperties.

According to the Sewickley Herald account of the most recent Edgeworth council meeting, Esmark CEO Jim Bouchard has apparently been less than a willing participant in this process, being unavailable for discussions about such an agreement.

Edgeworth Council made an agreement a precursor for approval of the Chipotle development, and was unwilling to grant an extension. The developer is not pleased, and I frankly don’t blame him. This type of relationship should be a prerequisite in development applications – before a spade of earth is turned.

The business biography that Mr. Shuck unearthed features an interesting quotation from Mr. Bouchard:

We have to learn how to play in their sandbox and do it in the most cost-effective way.

 

I guess he’s just not thrilled with letting anyone else play in his sandbox…for now.

It’s up to Mr. Bouchard to at least come to the table, and up to Edgeworth and other local governments to assure that these types of messes don’t happen in the first place.

<=>

Two other things that I’ve noticed about this situation in recent days – First, the proposed Chipotle site, described by others as a parking area that is not needed, has been approaching half full on many weekdays when I’ve driven by.

SeconHVHS logod, that situation may change as the spring approaches, with the imminent departure of four well-established family physicians from their Heritage Valley practice in the Esmark building, which they moved into not even three years ago from offices in what was known as “Doctors Row” in Sewickley. In other words, they’ve been around here a while.

According to a letter sent to patients in January, these four doctors will re-establish themselves in April at an existing family practice in Cranberry Township, affiliated with the Allegheny Health Network.ahn_logo

This move affects many local residents who, if unable/unwilling to travel to Cranberry or do not have compatible insurance coverage, will be forced to change what in many cases is a long-standing relationship with their primary care doctor.

Those changes warrant additional explanation, which I hope to be able to get down the road.

<=>

In other events that defy explanation, Edgeworth is appealing the court order that permitted an Oliver Road resident to cut down three large trees damaging her sidewalk. According to the Herald account, the resident’s lawyer is not happy, and thinks that Edgeworth taxpayers should be not happy as well.

I think he has a point – it feels as if the borough is playing chicken with the 85-year-old resident over who will be the first to flinch at the time and legal fees involved in pursuing such an appeal.

Such is the nature of the continued approach of many governments to the lockstep enforcement of codes and ordinances that appear well-intentioned, but just turn out to be bad form.

<=>

Of course, there are those situations where government should have a foothold in land use, but decline to do so. Fortunately, the new owner of ‘Muottas’ seems to be a reasonable individual, or one highly sensitive to how he is perceived by the community – at least so far.

Thomas Tull is receiving praise from preservationists for his decision to move the old house to another location on the extensive property that sits atop the first hill between Little Sewickley Creek and Camp Meeting Roads in Edgeworth and Leet Township.

As the Post-Gazette report also pointed out, there are other concerns:

“The entire development project will [cost] many millions of dollars and the cost of relocating and renovating the Walker house is a big part of our overall budget,” (Lucas Piatt of developer Millcraft Investments) said.

This continues to raise questions as to how construction and other vehicles will access the site, and how much of a role Camp Meeting Road, through-travel municipalities such as Leetsdale, and Allegheny County, which owns Camp Meeting Road, will play. I’ll keep an eye on this.

<=>

Leetsdale

An online video report in the January 21 Beaver County TimLeetsdaleLogoes (since placed behind their annoying subscriber-only paywall) included an interview with Leetsdale council member Joe McGurk about the options being considered by the borough regarding the use of the Henle Park Splash Pad.

This facility, which is exceedingly popular in the summer months, has been the topic of controversy in recent years over the number of non-residents using it, the impact on the municipal budget in terms of water usage, as well as parking in the immediate area of the facility.

Apparently, the 2011 arrangement between a local precious metals dealer and the borough to help pay those water bills didn’t last longer than perhaps a year, so the clamor about the above difficulties has begun to resonate with council again.

I e-mailed Mr. McGurk with a few questions about the Times report, which included:

Has council done cost estimates related to the imposition of a non-resident user fee for the splash pad? How much will it cost to develop a system for identifying borough residents, securing the facility, and paying staff to oversee an admission and ticket sale process?

Mr. McGurk replied:

The Parks and Rec Board have been tasked with coming up with a workable plan to be shared with Council before the coming season. Everything is open for discussion.

According to the Leetsdale Borough website, the borough is trying to fill three vacancies on that Parks and Recreation Board – the website also indicates that the current membership of the seven-member board currently consists of the wives of two council members – one of them being Mrs. McGurk.

There’s an opportunity here for Leetsdale residents to step up and get involved in a key aspect of the character and livability of their community.

<=>

Another key component of a community’s character is how citizens are informed and protected in times of emergency. The Lubrizol Fire from November of last year continues to resonate with locals, especially with the report last week that Chapman Properties, owner of Leetsdale Industrial Park, intends to rebuild the destroyed plant.

That rebuilding process Lubrizol11172015wpxicontinues this month with the borough’s Planning Commission, which counts Fire Chief  (and now Constable) Ernest Logan among its members. This is good news, considering that Chief Logan is eminently qualified in the areas of public safety and incident management.

The lessons of the Lubrizol fire have not been lost on borough responders and emergency managers. The fire department page of the January borough newsletter included the following:

One of the key points…is that the public needs to be better informed as to what to do should something like this happen again. To that end, the Public Safety Committee is putting a guidance document together that will be sent to every home in Leetsdale.

I’m looking forward to receiving this information. What would really be great is if documents like this could be posted online – along with the borough newsletter (including back issues) and agendas and minutes of council, planning commission, and zoning hearing board meetings. Neighboring municipalities such as Edgeworth, Leet, and Sewickley seem to be able to do this, and keep the content up to date.

Bicycle Lanes and Cart Paths

John Orndorff is a man on a mission, as is the organization he is representing to Quaker Valley area governments, the Ohio River Trail Council.  Through their “Complete Streets” initiative, the council wants to make sure that area roads are safely designed and consistently marked and signed to optimize use by as many transportation modalities as possible, including pedestrians and bicyclists. They also want to see these roadways linking into a single, marked trail system that extends through numerous municipalities. Their websiteGreenwayLogo is slick and comprehensive, filled with maps, studies and related reports.

To accomplish this trail optimization, there must be buy-in from our disparate patchwork of local governments, and according to the Herald Mr. Orndorff has been busy lobbying the various borough councils to obtain their support.

What hasn’t been reported in at least two media accounts is Mr. Orndorff’s unique qualifications for this sort of lobbying effort. Mr. Orndorff is also a member of Glen Osborne Borough Council.

So long as Mr. Orndorff remains a municipal official while trying to present this plan to officials in his own municipality as well as others, his elected position is germane to any discussions about, or reporting on, those efforts.

Edgeworth councilman David Aloe was quoted by the Herald as stating “Pennsylvania wasn’t built for bike traffic. The roads were built for cars.” I would take that a step further with the roads that are being considered for designation –  they were built for horse-drawn wagons, and have been adapted over nearly two centuries to accommodate modern conveyances.

I believe that the cause of the trail council is a noble one, especially with regard to achieving a standardization of traffic management strategies on municipal streets and across municipal boundaries.

However…as attractive as making a bike trail system that traverses not only our area, but links into the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states seems to be, we have to be honest with how much our roads can realistically handle – hopefully without going through the disagreement that has accompanied similar efforts in Pittsburgh.

Have a great month ahead.

Posted in Business, Community, Government, Health, Local, Media | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Edgeworth Land Use Activity Raises Concerns, Eyebrows, Hackles

Hazel at ORB Accident 111116

Police investigate as a tow truck removes vehicles involved in a collision on Ohio River Boulevard at Hazel Lane in Edgeworth, Monday, January 11, 2016.

 

ADDENDUM,  January 18, 2016 – Several of the below issues are on the agenda for Edgeworth Council’s consideration at their monthly meeting, scheduled for tomorrow, January 19, at 7:00 pm. Local media has indicated they will be present.

The possibility exists that the Chipotle decision may be revisited under Old Business at tomorrow’s meeting, and that citizen comments for non-agenda items may include comments about traffic, and the possible demolition of ‘Muottas’.

<=>

Happy New Year.

Sounds strange over two weeks in, doesn’t it? Tell you what, it certainly doesn’t feel like the first half of January has already passed, but there it is.

If I were to assess the issues that I reported on this past year, the word LOCAL looms large, because that’s my intentional focus. History, Civil Liberties, Public Safety, Politics, and Land Use make up the sub-headings.

Some topics were re-visited as updates and other embellishments when warranted. That’s how I’ll close the books on 2015 and open them again, with some observations about proposed land uses in one particular area municipality.

Esmark View 12282015

The proposed Chipotle and retail site, with surrounding commercial properties, as seen from the Esmark Center.

 

Chipotle – Coming Soon (?)

The subject of a post a month ago, the Edgeworth Borough Council meeting of December 15 was indeed covered by the Sewickley Herald.  Edgeworth resident and attorney Michael Tomana was also in attendance, and provided me with some additional information and observations.

Add in the Herald narrative, and the combined accounts give an impression that the proceedings fell somewhere between dark humor and surrealism.  For example:

Following the first vote, which failed, the property owners had a private discussion and returned to announce they would work out an agreement.

So saying “no” was the only way to get these guys to talk to one another?

The second vote passed 3-0 pending a written agreement. Councilman Daniel Wilson recused himself due to a conflict.

Council President Joseph Hoepp and Vice President Gary Smith were absent from the meeting, with five council members in attendance. Councilman Wilson’s “conflict” is that he is the Chief Financial Officer of Eat N Park, which has a local, competitive presence in the immediate area of the development.

That left four members – not three – set to vote on Chipotle.

According to Mr. Tomana:

Motion to approve the development failed on a 2-2 vote.  (David) Aloe and (Ivan) Hofmann for, (Carrie) Duffield and Greg (Marlovits) against. Matter sent back to solve issues.
Developer than said he wanted to know why. Greg Marlovits answered because there is a legal dispute unresolved over the access road.
Developer comes back and asks Council to vote again “conditioned upon him working out the private road dispute.”
Shockingly they agreed to re-vote right then and passed it 4-0. Outrageous.

 

An agreement for road access between property owners should be a prerequisite for developing vacant land –  not something pieced together once Pandora’s traffic box has already been opened. Perhaps this is why Burger King is isolated from every other adjacent property in terms of vehicular access.

One other question looms large – the borough’s traffic engineer, Trans Associates, stated that a 3-lane intersection at Hazel Lane would be required to accommodate traffic flow in and out of the area with a McDonald’s in play, but backed off from that with Chipotle and two additional retail storefronts. I wonder why.

In a July 2015 Herald story, Edgeworth Manager Martin McDaniel acknowledged a considerable increase in accidents and traffic citations along their section of Route 65:

“In the last six months, there have been seven reportable accidents,” McDaniel said. In the prior five years, there had been only three.

Information from other media accounts and Cochran Hose Company data showed five accidents in the Edgeworth commercial corridor of Route 65 from May through September of 2015, with at least three of those accidents involving serious vehicle damage, injuries, or both. And as the photo at the top of this post demonstrates, the trend continues.

Chipotle restaurants, while typically not having drive-thru lanes, do offer extensive fax and online ordering services for takeout orders. This may attract those who live, work, or attend school nearby, such as Sewickley Academy across the street, to approach the business on foot.

Esmark CEO Jim Bouchard, who also attended the Edgeworth council meeting, was quoted by the Herald as stating, “Trust me, everybody in my building loves to see Chipotle coming. They all love to eat it, and I think all of us do and our kids do.

Considering recent events related to food quality and illness at several Chipotle outlets across the country, along with associated litigation announced last week, I’m wondering if Mr. Bouchard might choose to eat his words, and if the company will still be in a position to expand in the wake of these challenges.

Who knows, maybe Mr. Wilson could be persuaded to put a Hello Bistro in there if things don’t work out….again.

Muottas 2

The William Walker estate, “Muottas”, located above both Little Sewickley Creek Road in Edgeworth and Leetsdale’s Lark Inn Fields neighborhood.

 

Miffed Over “Muottas”

At just about the same time last month came the revelation that a historic Edgeworth mansion had been sold, and that within a few weeks of the sale the new owner had started the required process to tear it down.

The Post-Gazette reported in mid-December on movie mogul Thomas Tull‘s purchase of the William Walker estate “Muottas” and over 100 acres around it. The story went into particular detail about the restoration of the house by the previous owners, Harlan and Cynthia Giles, as well as reaction from local preservationists to what appears to be the lack of any attempt to protect the property via a preservation easement.

P-G Reporter Marylynne Pitz was clear and matter-of-fact in her assessment:

Preservationists are aghast at the prospect of losing a third historic home during the past quarter century. But it seems there is little anyone can do to derail Mr. Tull’s plans, whatever they are.

Online comments to the story seemed to largely lament the circumstances surrounding the sale, with many resigned to Mr. Tull’s ability to demolish the house, but hoping that he could be persuaded otherwise. This included the great-grandson of William Walker, who was gracious yet resolute, encouraging Mr. Tull to look into the history of the area and their family before making an irreversible decision.

Muottas Area 1

The general area of the Walker estate, showing ‘Muottas’, the property surrounding it, and the associated family houses ‘Bagatelle’ and ‘Pulpit Rock’. The Lark Inn Fields subdivision of Leetsdale was created by William Walker in the 1920’s, so it is also technically part of the original estate.

Much of that history is available through the book Keep Tryst: The Walkers of Pittsburgh & The Sewickley Valley: An Intimate Portrait of a Prominent Pittsburgh FamilyThe Walker clan, whose descendants still own property in Edgeworth, were instrumental in not only excelling in their own businesses, but in advocating for the protection of the Sewickley area from what they saw as the industrial behemoth of Pittsburgh crawling up the riverfront of the Ohio Valley. It’s a well-illustrated and informative read.

The most intriguing aspects of this story for me relate to WHY and HOW.

First, why did Dr. and Mrs. Giles leave the house and property unprotected, aside perhaps from the impressive amount ($5.5 Million) that they received for it?

Indeed, their legacy as preservationists and activists is well documented. Mrs. Giles was a founder of the non-profit Edgeworth Preservation, which made a concerted, though unsuccessful effort in the 1990’s to convince Edgeworth council to enact a historic preservation ordinance.

At the same time, the Gileses continued to put forth a great deal of effort to restore ‘Muottas’, for which they received a preservation award from the Sewickley Valley Historical Society (SVHS) in 1994.

Mrs. Giles continued her efforts in preservation advocacy, not only at the government level but also in the area of historical documentation. Along with other Edgeworth Preservation volunteers and the support of several local organizations, Mrs. Giles spearheaded the publishing of Historic Houses of the Sewickley Valley in 1996.

This 180-page volume documents numerous residential structures, with information on their original owners and designers, as well as exterior photographs. I found it most informative and entertaining – houses that I previously knew only in passing, or by virtue of childhood friends that lived in them, took on a whole new life as a result.

For her efforts, Mrs. Giles was named the Sewickley Herald Woman of the Year for 1996.

SVHS became the repository for the records and assets of Edgeworth Preservation in 2000, and published a second edition of Historic Houses in 2011.

Muottas Parcel Detail

Allegheny County GIS image showing ‘Muottas’ and surrounding property, which extends into Leet Township almost to Camp Meeting Road.

As hard as it seems for many local historians and preservationists to accept the Gileses’ decision to allow for the unrestricted sale of ‘Muottas’, the practical aspects of effecting radical change to the property may – or may not – provide some hope to those concerned.

The P-G story noted that access to the house and property from the Edgeworth side is via a narrow, single-lane driveway with several switchbacks, and there is a history of hillside instability. The prospect of heavy equipment accessing the site for construction and/or demolition is a cause for concern to both government and neighboring property owners.

The property, however, extends northwesterly into Leet Township, and is separated from Camp Meeting Road only by a few parcels of land – some developed, some not.

Muottas Topo Camp Meeting Rd

USGS map showing topography of the hill where ‘Muottas’ is situated, leading back to a potential access point via Camp Meeting Road in Leet Township.

As the above graphic illustrates, access could be achieved from Camp Meeting Road to a relatively level flat leading across the property to ‘Muottas’. Whether this could actually accommodate an access road for construction equipment is of course better left to engineers, surveyors, and geologists. This would also require Mr. Tull to secure the necessary land and permits to construct such an access from Camp Meeting.

The potential impact on this segment of the roadway, used heavily by residents of the Quaker Heights subdivision as well as employees and clients of HealthSouth and the Watson Institute, is hard to predict. I’m sure that Allegheny County, which owns and maintains Camp Meeting Road, along with Leet officials, will be prepared to deal with any efforts that do materialize.

Along with the speculation about Mr. Tull’s intentions for the property, last week’s P-G story on the pending sale of a majority stake in Mr. Tull’s entertainment empire raised questions about his future involvement in the Pittsburgh region, which up to this point has been significant.

Stack Property

Location of the Stack Property in relationship to Little Sewickley Creek. The owner, Edward Stack, has proposed building a golf practice facility that would require the removal of over 300 trees.

 

There is Unrest in the Forest

Mike Tomana, who also serves as President of the SVHS Board of Directors, told Ms. Pitz for her Post-Gazette story that “It’s more difficult to take down a diseased tree in Edgeworth than it is to obtain a demolition permit for a historic home“. Other recent activity before Edgeworth officials would seem to validate this assessment.

A long-time Oliver Road resident sued the borough for the right to cut down three large oak trees that are damaging her sidewalk – a condition that the borough had also sent her a warning letter about.

This resident’s recent court victory, combined with Larry Oswald’s success against Sewickley Borough last year, could signal a trend toward citizens fighting back against regulations that are perceived as unreasonable, or enforced in a haphazard and/or selective manner.

In October, the Edgeworth Planning Commission received a proposal from representatives of Edward Stack, the Chairman and CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, to construct a golf practice facility at his residence on Spanish Tract Road. This project would require the removal of 367 trees.

According to the minutes of the meeting, commission member and Councilman David Aloe advised Mr. Stack’s representatives that “a one-for-one tree replacement is required per Borough Ordinance and that the trees are of adequate size must be replanted as approved by the Borough Arborist“.

The discussion of the proposal was tabled, pending engineering reviews and a plan to replant any trees that are cut down.

The project also attracted the attention of the Little Sewickley Creek Watershed Association, which expressed concern as to the potential effects of such construction on runoff that enters the watershed from the Stack property, which overlooks the creek and adjacent Walker Park.

The park, incidentally, was donated to Edgeworth Borough in 1934 by the same family that built ‘Muottas’.

 

Conclusions and Observations

In conversation with Mike Tomana and others, an irony and a dichotomy starts to surface about these various projects, and their impact on how we both appreciate the past and proceed safely and responsibly into the future.

<=>

Our area is the repository of some tremendous examples of how the scions of industry and commerce in the 19th and 20th century excelled, built, and lived.  For as many arguing about the preservation of historic homes built by those who also shaped the area we call home today, there are those who trumpet the right of private landowners to do with their land as they please, with minimal government intervention.

Mr. Tomana pointed me in the direction of Sewickley Heights Borough, and their recently published Pattern Book.  The book is an extraordinary compilation of the rich history of the borough’s architecture and design, along with detailed guidelines for improvements to assure that new construction complements the existing character of the borough.

The book reads like a catalog for a living municipal museum, which I believe many would argue is exactly what the Heights strives to be.

The citizens of Edgeworth and their elected officials, some of whom have been in their respective roles for over 20 years, apparently feel differently about their historic character. Perhaps they feel that the scions of the 21st century deserve their monuments to self as well.

<=>

Along with this, our area is exposed to an increasing amount of commuter traffic, which strains both the capacity of our legacy roadways and the livability of the residential area that abuts them.

The addition of commercial infrastructure to what is demonstrably a risky area for both vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and the apparent failure of both Edgeworth and the landowners to adequately accommodate and manage vehicle access, smacks of an irresponsible approach to land management in the commercial area along Route 65.

                                                                                  <=>

Of equal concern is the ability of our local media to report comprehensively on issues surrounding development, history, and preservation. This is particularly true of the Herald – as I scan across the decades for background information about these and other issues, I am increasingly uneasy about the current iteration of the paper, and its ability to dive into local issues as comprehensively as their predecessors did.

This includes the seemingly mundane and ordinary meetings of municipal governing bodies. When Edgeworth Council jettisoned their fire department in October 2011, there was no media representative in attendance. I stand by what I wrote at that time:

Our local media, while small and staffed only so much in uncertain times for their industry, must nonetheless focus some attention on those actions of government and other public entities, regardless of their size, that affect citizens in their coverage area.

In all fairness, I’m glad that the Herald seems to be bearing witness to these proceedings on a more consistent basis, in Edgeworth and elsewhere.

                                                                                     <=>

There is a quotation at the conclusion of Historic Houses of the Sewickley Valley, attributed to the artist, critic and philanthropist John Ruskin:

“Therefore, when we build let us think that we build forever.  Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone.  Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think as we lay stone upon stone that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them and that men will say as they look upon the labor and the wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’”

It is interesting, if not ironic, that these words are etched into the floor of the entryway into arguably the most famous building dedicated to the practice of journalism – the Tribune Tower in Chicago.

Best wishes for health and happiness in the coming year.

Sources:

Sewickley Herald Digital Archive

Floyd, Margaret Henderson.  Architecture After Richardson. Chicago. University of Chicago Press. 1993.

 

 

Posted in Business, Government, Growth, History, Local, Media, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Critical Mass Update – Edgeworth Chipotle

A little over six months ago, residents of Edgeworth Borough raised significant questions about traffic loading and safety in the wake of an attempt to develop a parking lot at Hazel Lane and Ohio River Boulevard into a McDonald’s Restaurant. 

I covered the issues about this failed development attempt, and the associated traffic concerns, in a post this past April.

The issue has rebounded into the public consciousness thanks to the front page story in last week’s Sewickley Herald, which reported a recommendation for approval of the development of a Chipotle restaurant at the site by the Edgeworth Planning Commission on November 11 – almost a month after the fact.

Council meets Tuesday evening -that’s tomorrow – with the Chipotle Development on the agenda.

While the development doesn’t require a variance due to the lack of a drive-thru, concerns remain among borough residents that the intersection can’t handle whatever amount of additional traffic is generated by this addition to the Edgeworth business district.

Herald Editor Bobby Cherry confirmed today that a reporter will be covering the meeting, and there will hopefully be a story posted online by Wednesday.

Improvements are needed to Hazel Lane on the commercial side of the Route 65 intersection to safely accommodate traffic flow generated by this development, as well as what exists now. If you’re concerned, attend if you can.

I’ll have more later, including information on other proposed land uses in the borough that may be a cause for concern.

Enjoy your week ahead.

Posted in Business, Government, Growth, Local, Media, Politics | 1 Comment

Leetsdale – The Fire Next Time

LTD Fire 111715

Flames consume the Lubrizol facility in the Leetsdale Industrial Park, November 17, 2015.                                                                                         – Emergency Alerts in Western PA

Living in close proximity to a fire station can give you a familiarity with the routine of the people responding to fire and other emergencies. You can get a sense of the severity of an incident just by listening to what happens following the receipt of an alarm.

Such was the case the morning of November 17, when the sound of the local fire whistle was quickly accompanied by both Leetsdale fire engines leaving the building with haste, their sirens screaming. This cued me to quickly turn on the police scanner, where the urgent radio traffic confirmed my suspicions.

One look out the kitchen window cemented in my mind that this would be no ordinary day for our local emergency personnel.

As those who live in the immediate area can attest, the fire at the Lubrizol Corporation facility in the Leetsdale Industrial Park was a significant event on several fronts. The fire resulted in the evacuation of two industrial parks and nearby Hussey Copper, along with the residential area of Washington Street.

Other residents in the vicinity of the incident were asked to shelter in place. Similar orders went up in Ambridge and other nearby Beaver County communities, where the wind had carried the significant plume of potentially toxic smoke. Schools in those areas canceled outdoor activities.

Leetsdale-fire-smoke

Smoke from the Lubrizol fire in Leetsdale Industrial Park, as seen by air from the south.

Media Spin 

As the local and regional news media descended on Leetsdale by ground and air, their reporting took some interesting directions. WTAE’s coverage latched onto the Lubrizol facility’s role in the production of fracking chemicals – something that the Post-Gazette also touched on in its reporting, which included an on-line attachment of the facility’s latest DEP inspection report.  This included a detail of their operations:

Weatherford Engineered Chemistry (which sold the facility to Lubrizol in December 2014) blends and distributes oil and gas chemicals under private labels for 30-35 companies. The facility employs approximately 40 people. The facility is also a large quantity generator of both hazardous and residual waste and a small quantity generator of universal waste. Hazardous and residual waste is stored in containers at the site. The facility does not use any treatment processes…The facility has been in operation at the current site since 2003.

The Sewickley Herald, in conjunction with resources from their parent the Tribune-Review, produced reporting that initially focused on the hazards from the burning chemicals involved, and previous incidents at the plant.

Trib reporter Elizabeth Behrman and Herald Editor Bobby Cherry followed up the next day by incorporating this latest incident into the continued concern by residents about the lone vehicular access point in and out of Leetsdale’s industrial areas and the Washington Street neighborhood. The Herald first reported on this in January of this year, spurred by a petition drive conducted by Washington Street resident Lauren Jones.

Ms. Jones, running with incumbent Councilman Jeff Weatherby, parlayed her activism and subsequent visibility into a seat on borough Council come January.

CIMG5885

The Leet Street Bridge, taken November 2013.

Bridge Brouhaha

Things used to be a lot worse, even with a viable Leet Street Bridge. In 2007 the Maruca Overpass replaced a grade crossing at Ferry Street as the primary access point for the industrial and residential areas across the Norfolk Southern tracks.

Prior to that, the crossing and the tracks were the scene of several accidents and derailments, such as a train-versus-semi crash in 1982 that blocked access into these areas for a considerable time period.

Leetsdale is also not alone in the Quaker Valley when it comes to single points of access in and out of an area. Parts of Glenfield, Glen Osborne and Haysville are also threatened by having only a single way out.

Borough officials in Leetsdale have been straightforward, and I believe honest, in their stance that the municipality cannot solely carry the financial burden of replacing the Leet Street Bridge. Should an emergency situation render the Maruca Overpass unusable, such as a train derailment with hazardous materials involvement, one official posited to me that emergency access could be created over the tracks in the form of a temporary grade crossing.

Several individuals also point to at least one existing bridge spanning Big Sewickley Creek between Hussey Copper and the Port Ambridge Industrial Park in Beaver County. The potential exists for the rehabilitation of this bridge for emergency egress, or the creation of a road connection between the two industrial parks that would provide two ways in and out of these facilities.

Such an endeavor would have applications not only in an emergency capacity, but also by providing an alternate means of truck travel in and out of all local industrial areas, including Buncher Commerce Park. It will also require what some may call a daunting level of coordination and cooperation between private landowners, multiple local and county governments, and the Commonwealth.

Perhaps the fire will serve as a wake-up call for all stakeholders as to the risks, benefits, and opportunities involved in making this happen.

Single Points of Success..and Failure

From my limited but proximal vantage point, the response, evacuation, and coordination efforts were handled in a professional and competent manner.

Common pitfalls with these major incidents are often related to communication – in this case, the early establishment of a unified command post, involvement of county-level resources, and the implementation of an effective radio communications plan helped to reduce any initial confusion. This was maintained even as resources from neighboring Beaver County, operating largely on a different radio system, responded to assist.

The affected area was evacuated quickly by police, who went door-to-door in the residential areas, made both lanes of the Maruca Overpass flow out of the impacted area, and also stopped traffic on Route 65 so that this traffic outflow could move away from the area as quickly as possible.

The local news and social media were quick to attempt to distribute the word about the orders that were issued. As a result, my family and I waited out the events inside the house until it was obvious that the fire had been brought under control.

One thing that was noticeably missing from the response was any notification using Leetsdale Borough’s Emergency Notification System, colloquially known to many as Reverse 911. Neighbors that I spoke with were also curious about the lack of any notification using a system that, on the surface, appeared to be tailor-made for exactly this type of event.

Acting Leetsdale Police Chief Daniel Raible was quick to explain the reason when I spoke with him in the days following the fire. When initially purchased, the Swift911 system was set up so that only one person could log in and activate it – then-Police Chief James Santucci.

After Chief Santucci’s departure, Acting Chief Raible stated he had yet to secure the mobile application that would have permitted him to activate the system and send a message from his position at the scene. He stated that it was his intent to provide access to the Borough Secretary and office staff to provide a backup means of activation should a similar situation occur again.

I also contacted a representative of SwiftReach Networks, the system vendor and service provider, who stated that it was a simple task to add more authorized users to accomplish this end.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t address emergency situations on a 24/7/365 basis, or if the municipal building becomes part of an evacuation zone. Additional contact with other borough officials resulted in the information that this contingency is being addressed.

Leetsdale Crossing 031936 Herald 032736

The Ferry Street railroad crossing under water during the 1936 St. Patrick’s Day flood.                    – Sewickley Herald Digital Archive

The Lessons of History

A combination of newspaper research and the recollections of others through a Facebook group dedicated to Leetsdale history provided a glimpse of what this area has experienced in the past, and how those experiences shape both present day approaches and future planning efforts.

Respondents cited flooding among the most frequent events that impacted the residents of this area.  Herald accounts of floods in 1907, 1913, and 1942 accompanied reports of the infamous St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936 and Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

Leetsdale natives also recalled a January 1963 fire at the Andy Gard Toy Company plant as one of the most significant events impacting their community. According to the Herald account:

Firemen from Ambridge, Edgeworth, Sewickley, Fair Oaks, Harmony Township and Aleppo Township were called to the blazing plant but about all they could do was confine the flames to the plant and save houses on Washington Street, across the street from the burning buildings. Fortunately, there was little wind and the roaring flames, topped by a huge column of black smoke, rose straight up into the cold morning air.

Part of the foundation and sidewalks of Andy Gard are still visible today. My grandmother worked there, and hers was one of many jobs that were lost when the plant was not rebuilt.

Additional Herald reporting in March 1963 lamented that loss, and cited efforts by the company to be accommodated by the borough, combined with an alleged lack of due diligence on the part of the local government to assure that the original plant was built in accordance with existing law:

Ordinance 205 expressly prohibits chemical or plastics plants within the borough limits of Leetsdale. The ordinance has been on the books since 1938. Apparently when Andy Gard built its building, Leetsdale did not enforce its zoning law (Ord. 205) and even overlooked the fact that the building was built over a sewer line…Yet another problem, that of an adequate water line, will have to be settled too. A larger water line is necessary to provide enough pressure in the event of a future fire.

Since that time, Leetsdale has greatly revised its code of ordinances, and the express restriction on chemical or plastics plants no longer exists. Today’s code includes extensive chapters on both Zoning and Floodplain Management.

These chapters contain definitions pertinent to zoning and land use development, restrictions on development in floodplain areas which may endanger human life, and general performance standards that apply to any approved development in the borough. These standards are prefaced with the following:

 No use, land or structure in any district shall involve any element or cause any condition that may be dangerous, injurious, or noxious, or cause offensive odor, smoke, dust, dirt, noise, vibration, glare, attract vermin or rodents, or constitute a nuisance or be detrimental to the health, safety, morals or general welfare of the community, or to any other persons or property in the Borough.

Of course, there are also provisions in both of the above chapters pertaining to the granting of variances and special considerations. While the intent of the framers of these ordinances is undoubtedly the “health, safety, morals, or general welfare”, there have been and will likely continue to be compromises made when political and/or economic factors come into play.

Whether these exceptions are worth the risk to the community falls upon We The People to elect competent representatives, and hold them accountable. All the more reason to stay informed and involved with the decisions being made on your behalf.

CIMG5887

The foundation and sidewalk of the former Andy Gard Toy Company plant along Monroe Way in Leetsdale. The plant burned down in January 1963. The site now houses Pillar Industrial Products.

Conclusions

The communities that make up the Quaker Valley area are part of a well-coordinated public safety system, one that can leverage varied and specialized resources from within and across the region very quickly. This system functioned admirably on November 17.

As the Post-Gazette reported:

The fire alarm went out at 10:11 a.m. and the response was immediate, in part because the fire chief, the police chief, the head of public works and the mayor were all in a meeting in the nearby Leetsdale Borough Building.

If this fire had occurred at 3:00 in the morning, I’m still confident that our community response system would be up to the task.

<=>

One thing that I noticed when doing research was that many of the names we associate with these leadership roles were in largely the same positions as far back as 10 to 20 years. We are fortunate to have a community brain trust of responders and municipal officials, your friends and neighbors, who have been at it for decades.

But even with the best of intentions toward cooperation and mutual respect, relationships between officials and disciplines can become as much of an impediment as they can engender familiarity and esprit de corps

As an example, one would think that a critical tool for rapid community notification would be placed into service with the ability to be accessed by multiple municipal officials in positions of authority, once consensus for action had been reached in accordance with an established emergency plan.

This is now going to happen, but as an afterthought. The notification system should have been managed better from its inception.

I wrote about this subject four years ago, and my opinion hasn’t changed – positions and processes are more important than personalities and politics.

<=>

As our elected lawmakers and other officials work hard to keep our industrial areas active and vital, there must also be continued vigilance not only in emergency preparedness and management, but assuring that undue risk to the community at large is avoided through the diligent application and enforcement of existing zoning and other ordinances.

Some media outlets tried to frame the Lubrizol fire as controversial because the facility is involved in the production of chemicals for the oil and gas industry. Regardless of that, was the result of the fire something that presented a “condition that may be dangerous, injurious, or noxious” to residents of Leetsdale? If so, what is Council, the borough Zoning Officer, and the Zoning Hearing Board prepared to do about it?

As one suburban Denver, Colorado fire chief said several years ago, “If it can’t be protected, it shouldn’t be built“.

<=>

I’m proud to count myself among the residents of Leetsdale. As residents, we assume certain risks associated with industrial activity in the immediate vicinity. This includes materials being transported on the highways and railroads, such as the crude oil trains that have made recent headlines.

This incident shows the level of commitment, expertise, and cooperation that exists within our own community and those around us. It also shows us the extent of the great work yet to be done.

Best wishes for a safe and pleasant holiday season.

Acknowledgements:  Sewickley Herald Digital Archive, Bing Maps

Posted in Economics, Local, Media, Personal, Politics, Public Safety, Schools, Security | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment