Some Digestible Portions

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Edgeworth Land Use Activity Raises Concerns, Eyebrows, Hackles

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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’.

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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.

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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 1997.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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“.

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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

EVERY Vote Matters – OR – Celebrity Jeopardy, Leetsdale Edition

 “All Politics is Local” 

                                   – Byron Price (1891-1981)

Unofficial results Leetsdale 11032015

Graphic showing unofficial election results for Leetsdale municipal elections, November 3, 2015.                                                                             – Allegheny County Elections Division

This past Tuesday evening after the polls had closed, Leslie and I made our way to the Leetsdale Municipal Building, where the entire borough casts their ballots.

There are several forms posted on the door after the polls close – among these are the master printout of all voting machine tallies, an accounting of absentee ballots, and a return sheet showing the number of voters, number of absentee ballots cast, and the signatures of our local election officials that all required documents were forwarded to the County Elections Division, which does all the final counting.

Others are writing about the big races, like the state Supreme Court race or the special election to replace our State Senator here. I tend to focus on the little contests, often pitting neighbor against neighbor, that slip under the radar of even the most well-intentioned local media.

Such an election is the race for Constable in Leetsdale. A constable performs numerous law enforcement-related functions, ranging from serving warrants, collecting fines, and other court services, polling place security, and prisoner transports, to name a few. The state Supreme Court has described constables as “independent contractors that orbit the judiciary”. They also possess many of the roles and responsibilities of a peace officer under Pennsylvania law.

For the primary election this past May, the incumbent Constable, Donald Turner, filed for re-election as a Democrat. His son Zachary Turner also filed for the Democratic nod, as did Ernest Logan, a retired police officer and the current Leetsdale Fire Chief. There were no Republican candidates on the primary ballot.

Donald Turner won the Democratic nomination. However, Ernie Logan received sufficient write-in votes from Republican voters to earn their party’s ballot position in Tuesday’s general election.

That vote was one of those close ones that make the small local elections really interesting to watch and try to analyze. As the graphic at the top of this post illustrates, Mr. Turner had a one-vote lead, 133 to 132, until the absentee ballots were added in, which then gave Mr. Logan an apparent 136 to 135 victory.

The results also listed one write-in vote in the race – a vote that, given the outcome, had the potential to seriously influence the election.

One thing about those voting machine printouts on the door is the availability of additional information that doesn’t make the final results. These include the actual names that received write-in votes, along with information on undervotes for each race. In this context, an undervote means that a voter cast a ballot, but did not vote for anyone for the race in question.

Poll Sheet 11032015 Constable

Voting machine tally for the Leetsdale Constable race, with write-in and undervotes highlighted. This tally does not include absentee ballots, which when added resulted in a one-vote victory for candidate Ernest Logan.

Leetsdale Council write-in candidate Benjimen Frederick garnered 79 write-in votes. Along with those write-ins were humorous entries for other offices, such as “MICKEY MOUSE” and “ANYONE BUT HIM”.

That one write-in voter for the Constable race cast their vote for TURD FERGUSON.

Mr. Ferguson is a fictional character from a “Celebrity Jeopardy” skit on Saturday Night Live that first aired in 1999. The name re-entered the popular consciousness this past September during the real Jeopardy game show, as CNN reported.

Along with the above tongue-in-cheek vote, 17 other voters didn’t even bother to cast a vote for Constable. Perhaps those voters don’t consider the position to be all that important in the total scheme of things – which considering the powers of the office isn’t really accurate. In response to controversial behavior and a lack of training and certification standards, the state Supreme Court established policies and procedures for Constables in 2013.

Take into consideration the total voter turnout in Leetsdale –  289 out of 831 registered, or just under 35 percent – and there’s a measure of sadness along with the suppressed laughter over someone’s idea of a joke that for at least one person, and perhaps the integrity of our democratic system, isn’t very funny at all.

And finally, combine these with the complexities of running for and serving in public office, the hectic pace of our everyday lives, the insidious evil of politics and cronyism and its effect on how the job should be done, and the general apathy and lack of understanding of exactly how government functions for the people.

Is it any wonder why there are fewer citizens willing to make a commitment to elected office, or public service in any capacity?

We’ve got several local examples of citizens in elected office, public safety, and other disciplines who perform their duties selflessly, competently, and with humility. If you know someone like this, thank them. Then work toward assuring that their example is duplicated.

A big part of that work includes exercising your right to vote – regularly and responsibly.

Have a good week ahead.

Posted in Government, Humor, Local, Politics | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Treehouse and Meadow Update – Victories, Vagaries, and Variances

A follow-up to the Tale of Independence from a little over three months ago.

Truchan Treehouse Interior_Times

Elise Truchan stands inside her sky-lit Leet Township treehouse, which will be coming down before the end of the year.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Beaver County Times

The last vestiges of what felt like a long, warm summer seem to be holding on against all odds. The leaves, still on the trees and mostly green around our house, seem to be engaged in a valiant, though ultimately futile struggle to stay in color and position. The colder temperatures that have been creeping into our weather of late seem to be signaling an end to this effort.

So it was in late July for Elise Truchan of Leet Township and her family. As the Sewickley Herald and Pennsylvania Independent reported, their long-awaited and expensive hearing over Elise’s non-conforming treehouse came off with a decisive thud, owing to the inability of the three-person Leet Zoning Hearing Board to muster a quorum.

The family did not want to wait until August (with Elise back in school) for another hearing date, so what followed was a closed-door negotiation between the Truchans and the solicitor for the Zoning Board. The end result was a settlement where the treehouse will be permitted to stand for the remainder of this year.

Elise’s mother Vicki Truchan passed along her feelings about the process in an e-mail exchange shortly after the hearing. Included in this exchange was information that KDKA-TV investigative reporter Marty Griffin had referred the Truchans to an attorney, with whom they were unable to make contact:

Unfortunately, we knew we had the deck stacked against us since we had no lawyer.  We were nowhere near certain that we would win the hearing in August, so we decided it was best to settle.  The borough was pretty adamant on keeping the October 1st date, but we did negotiate to keep it up until the end of December.  Elise is very upset, but she realizes that it was most likely the best outcome that we could get from this ordeal.

The Tribune-Review echoed some of these sentiments in a “sad commentary” on August 3:

Elise, now 14, says she’s sad but “learned a lot about politics and how things work.” Sadder still is that Leet would not make an exception for an educational project.

As much as Leet Township officials strived to adopt a conciliatory tone in the wake of the citizen response and media attention that was generated, I can’t help but wonder if their process for appealing to the Zoning Board is designed to serve as more of a deterrent than it is an earnest attempt to provide appropriate access to due process of law.

It certainly doesn’t seem like the Truchans got their $500 worth. Based on their experience, one wonders if anyone will, absent the financial resources to do so.

That’s not how government should be designed to work.

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One person who does seem to have gotten his money’s worth is Larry Oswald. For several years he has resisted efforts by Sewickley Borough to get him to bring his meadow into lockstep compliance with someone’s idea of “uniformity”.

Not seeing a path to an acceptable resolution, Sewickley took Mr. Oswald to court, and won. Mr. Oswald’s appeal to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court was heard in June – and in late September, Judge Robert Gallo found Mr. Oswald not guilty.

Mr. Oswald’s lawyer, Oday Salim, explained to the Herald the position taken by his client, and how their victory could be traced to due diligence on their part, combined with a lack of the same on the part of the borough:

The borough never even bothered to identify the specific areas in the yard that in their opinion violated the ordinance…Our expert explained in great detail that Larry’s yard has far more benefits than a manicured lawn because it provided more habitat for birds and bees, could better manage storm water runoff and produced less waste material.

Oswald’s lawyer found the old code didn’t “reflect today’s understanding of natural yard management and how beneficial they can be, and is not enforced by anyone with sufficient knowledge or expertise,” he said.

“To me, it seems a shame that yards like Larry’s with so many positive attributes should be singled out for enforcement simply because there are some who can’t easily appreciate their beauty and utility.”

Another contrast from Sewickley’s original response in June was their reticence in the wake of an unfavorable decision. Reached at the beginning of October, Code Enforcement Officer Nancy Watts referred any questions about the Oswald case to Manager Kevin Flannery.

Mr. Flannery stated only that council’s Committee of the Whole would take up the issue on October 13, and that it was up to Ms. Watts as to whether she would pursue continued action against Mr. Oswald under the borough’s new grass and weed ordinance. As of this writing, the new ordinance has yet to be uploaded to Sewickley’s online code of ordinances.

Mr. Oswald’s name also appeared in the agenda for the October 19 council meeting under the Solicitor’s report. As of this writing, it’s unclear as to whether the borough will appeal the most recent court ruling, deal with any future code violations they perceive are occurring on Mr. Oswald’s property, or if Mr. Oswald will be prepared to mount a similar defense to either possibility.

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As I stated in my previous post, municipalities need to exercise flexibility in how they write and/or enforce ordinances regarding how a private property owner may use their land, or structures erected thereon. I’ve said enough about the treehouse and the meadow for now – what about other perceived incursions into a community’s sensibilities?

Consider the societal trend of urban and suburban agriculture, specifically as it relates to poultry and honeybees. Urban beekeeping is catching on – groups such as Burgh Bees are attempting to encourage citizens to keep bees as a way to sustain the environment, while bolstering populations that have been in serious decline. They maintain an apiary in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, with one coming soon to Brookline.

Citizens are also finding it advantageous to use their property to raise chickens. In a recent Herald story, reporter Larissa Dudkiewicz profiled a Sewickley Academy program that brought Lower School science students face to face with their food chain, courtesy of an interesting business called Rent The Chicken.

Ms. Dudkiewicz also took the time to detail the differences in municipal ordinances which govern raising chickens. One recent addition to this list is Leet Township, which passed an ordinance in August establishing the legal requirements for the keeping of chickens and bees. The ordinance appears to apply common sense requirements, but also establishes the need for a township permit with an associated fee. Let’s hope they don’t want $500 for this as well.

The Herald story illustrates well the disparities in allowable activities across the anachronistic boundaries of our numerous boroughs and townships. Sewickley frowns upon private grassy meadows, but has limited restrictions on animals unless they present as a ‘nuisance’. However, if I want to rent a couple of hens next summer for fresh eggs, Leetsdale says absolutely not.

There are, of course, larger threats to domestic tranquility – consider that bastion of subversion, the Little Free Library. According to the libertarian-leaning Watchdog.org (affiliated with the Pennsylvania Independent), several communities around the country have gained treehouse-like attention for threatening and/or taking punitive action against residents who dare to erect a small cabinet with books on their property – how’s that for an “accessory structure”?

To the credit of our various local governments, no one here has gone that far off the deep end, and the little library in Edgeworth appears to continue to thrive.

Perhaps all of this will encourage increased citizen awareness and participation in this oft-overlooked component of municipal government, and with that will come more flexibility, consistency, and common sense.

Enjoy the colorful weeks ahead.

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

Ambridge Book Challenge Highlights Importance of Free Expression

Happy Banned Books Week.

Each year I post a link to the above page of the American Library Association‘s website to the sidebar of this blog. The website includes a comprehensive listing of challenges to books in libraries or schools across the country, and offers resources for educating, reporting on, and dealing effectively with challenges to literature that occur with surprising frequency.

It’s not often that a book-related controversy occurs in our local area, especially so close to this observance. Yet about three weeks ago parents in the Ambridge Area School District were before their school board with criticism as to the use of a book in a ninth grade honors communication class.

The hyperlocal news and events website Ambridge Connection has thus far been the only media outlet to report on the controversy surrounding Jeannette Walls‘ memoir The Glass Castle.

Parents Myron and Keyona Walker complained to the board that their daughter was subjected to, and had to read out loud, portions of the book containing offensive language, much of it racially derogatory. The Walkers also alleged that the teacher was insensitive to their complaints, and declined to assign a different book or otherwise listen to their objections.

An overview of challenges to The Glass Castle since its publication in 2005 is available here.

The website’s reporting was further embellished by the numerous comments in response to it. There are over 30 of them, which I would recommend anyone with a strong interest to review in their entirety. They are illustrative of two things that I believe are essential:

  1. The perspectives of citizens are important, even the ones that you may disagree with.
  2. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects, with some very narrow exceptions, even the most odious speech from official reprisal, repression, or censorship by publicly owned entities, including libraries and schools.

Ambridge Connection co-founder Felicia Mycyk made other comments in a post to her personal Facebook page. This included the following:

I am glad that the book was in question, according the parents their 9th-grade black female had to read it out loud in a class of majority white students pages of this book on previous day —if it was ANY student I would TAKE ISSUE if they would had continued to read this book out loud.

To be put in a compromising position by your teacher to read a book out loud that includes words that a 14 -15-year-old should not.
I value a good life lesson, but note and respect opinions like it has been done in the past.
In my school days and adult days I have been the only black person and only female, It has been character building but not lessons that I should have had to go through.
Allow options – opt out or have private readings and open discussion.

Ms. Mycyk’s thoughts echoed a recurring theme among many who offered comments, including myself – that the content of the book is perhaps not as critical to the issue at hand as how the book was presented and taught by the staff at the high school.

One category of oft-challenged book that enjoys greater appeal to teens and young adults is the graphic novel. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund spearheads defenses of these texts against numerous challenges.

Among those most frequently challenged is Art Speigelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, which excels not only as a chronicle of the author’s parents’ experience as survivors of the Holocaust, but of the emotional trauma that can travel across generations. It’s a tough – but necessary – read for anyone interested in things like this which must be remembered, so they are not repeated.

One particular challenge of Maus raised issues similar to the objections raised to The Glass Castle in Ambridge:

Maus was challenged over its portrayal of the Poles. The challenge was made by a Polish-American who is very proud of his heritage, and who had made other suggestions about adding books on Polish history, for our library’s collection, so it was not out of the blue. The thing is, Maus made him uncomfortable, so he didn’t want other people to read it. That is censorship, as opposed to parental guidance.  (emphasis mine)

As a parent, I believe that I have the right to control what my child reads and is exposed to, but I do not have the right to impose those preferences on someone else’s child. Our children need to themselves be challenged to expand their perspective, and to persevere through adversity.

I managed to borrow The Glass Castle from the Sewickley Library – based on what I read, the book is highly illustrative of those values. The salty language, meant to describe the dysfunction inherent in many of the book’s characters, is secondary to that deeper objective.

This is just like the content of most challenged books is secondary to the protections afforded us as citizens by the Bill of Rights, and especially the First Amendment. We evaluate challenges with those protections in mind, and jealously guard the freedoms they allow.

The Ambridge school board elected to suspend the book from classroom use, until additional information on how it was taught could be obtained from the teacher involved.

That teacher should have attempted to accommodate Mr. Walker’s objection by offering an alternate text, while at the same time assuring that The Glass Castle remains available to those students that wish to review it themselves. When teaching a text that may be controversial among some student and/or parent groups, this would appear to be an advisable contingency – one that Ambridge may wish to consider as policy.

I reported this book challenge to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Assistant Director Kristin Pekoll replied via e-mail that she would be contacting the school “to see how we can support this book“.

The local web-based news outlet Beaver Countian announced in a recent editorial their intent to shift their investigative focus on the operations of Beaver County school districts. Since then, Ambridge Area has already been the topic of reports on the hiring of a new Assistant Principal whose background has been called into question, and the resignation of a district employee where information was allegedly withheld from the board by Superintendent Cynthia Zurchin. The story includes comments from board members indicating a possibly strained relationship with Ms. Zurchin.

Ambridge and its school board appear to have their hands full with issues that seem to eclipse something as fundamentally sound as a free press and free speech. I’m hopeful they will see fit to reinstate the book soon.

Perhaps the most eloquent defense against some of these attitudes was expressed by USA Today. In a September 16 editorial about attempts to restrict free speech on college campuses, the paper said it very well:

Supporters of such restrictions argue that they are somehow differentiating hate speech or disturbing speech from protected speech. But one of the great things about democracy is that it protects the right to speak even when the words spoken offend or hurt.

Practically speaking, this war on free speech does students a disservice by shielding them from the real world, where they won’t be able to silence co-workers and bosses whose speech they dislike. If students aren’t smart enough or mature enough to understand the values of free speech, it’s up to institutions in the business of education to teach them.

Have a great month ahead.

Posted in Books, Civil Liberties, Local, Media, Schools | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

This Month in Personal History – The ‘Sewickley Malaise’

Sewickley Water Storage

Sewickley Water Authority storage tank and reservoir – present day.                                                                                                                                                                 Bing Maps

Forty years ago, the attention of the local, state, and national public health community turned toward Sewickley Borough and its municipal water supply.

If you lived, worked, played, or were otherwise hanging out in the general vicinity of Sewickley, PA in late August 1975, there’s a good chance that you, or someone you know, got really sick.

A joint statement by health officials published in the days following the outbreak gave estimates of 60% of residents becoming ill:

 “The prominent symptoms of this illness were prolonged abdominal cramps, fever, diarrhea, and vomiting”.

That 60% translates to about 4,000 people at the time, and that was just residents. The statement acknowledged that the number likely didn’t include anyone who ingested Sewickley water, but didn’t live in the service area of the Sewickley Water Authority. An example cited was “a 23-man U.S. Coast Guard crew, 20 of whom drank Sewickley water and became ill“.

Those numbers also included myself. My family lived in Edgeworth at the time, but not in the part served by Sewickley Water. I spent enough time in “the village” and other places to be one day suddenly taken over by symptoms matching those described above – with a vengeance.

I am fortunate to say that aside from chicken pox at age 8, I cannot recall being that sick before or since. Over the course of the three-day average length of the illness, I lost 11 pounds.

Word Spread Like The Virus

This happened in the 1970’s, which in the eyes of a teenager was a time of dynamic change on many fronts. If you followed Mad Men on TV, you get the idea. The social media of the day was the local newspaper, with CB Radio running a popular but fairly distant second. I was a big fan of both.

The Herald of those days was the best source, if not the sole source, of information about newsworthy, commercial, and social goings-on in Sewickley and its neighboring communities. Editor Betty G.Y. Shields and her staff were involved in the community outside the paper as much as within its pages. “B.G.” Shields was a big part of the local effort to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial less than a year away, and lots of column inches were dedicated to publicizing that effort.

Also included in Herald reporting of the day was coverage of rampant vandalism, loitering juveniles, rumors of trouble at Bethlehem Steel in Leetsdale, and a crumbling, fragile Sewickley Bridge.

Thanks to the magnificent resource that is the Sewickley Herald Digital Archive, I was able to trace a timeline of reported events. This started and ended much like the virus that entered the Sewickley water supply – starting small, but quickly becoming prolific, intense, and short-lived.

The first mention of any trouble appeared in the August 27 edition, approximately two days after the Allegheny County Health Department was alerted by a local physician to 15 patients exhibiting similar symptoms of gastrointestinal illness.  The few paragraphs included that information, but were intended primarily to alert water customers of changes in color and taste due to increased chlorination at the requests of regulators. Then-Sewickley Water Superintendent Ernest Tucci’s skepticism of water as the cause was also reported.

As cases began to multiply exponentially, so did the media attention. As state resources (DER, now the DEP) and the federal Centers for Disease Control became involved in trying to pinpoint the cause, Pittsburgh media started to pay attention, and the Herald’s reporting and opinion became much more comprehensive and focused on what was at the time a mystery ailment without a definitive cause.

The September 3 edition reported at length on the investigation, including a description of the Command Post at the Sewickley Borough Building, manned by as many as 20 workers.

On the editorial page of the same issue, the focus seemed to be one of trying to calm what appeared to be a community ready to blame the water supply, and its overseers, before the investigation was even approaching the completion of information gathering. The term “Sewickley Malaise” appeared prominently on this page.

The tone of the editorial almost seemed to admonish a citizenry just getting over the trust issues brought about by Watergate (now that’s ironic) not to jump to conclusions:

It may be that the mystery is never solved. What then? Let’s not begin talking of coverup. It is a fact that the Sewickley Water Works has cooperated fully with all the authorities, granted interviews to all reporters and, we think, want more than any others to know the answers.

The Cause, and the Effects

By the following week, those conclusions had been reached, and water was determined to be the illness’ method of transmission. The statement issued by health officials called the three open reservoirs along Water Works Road “a weak link in the water system and the probable point of contamination“.

The Herald editorial for that week grabbed hold of the recommendation to cover those reservoirs, and implored the then-Sewickley Water Commission to move “with dispatch” to plan for the eventual covering of those reservoirs – an expensive proposition.

It was also discovered that a hole in the collector for the well that drew water from an aquifer underneath the Ohio River had allowed river water into the system pre-treatment. Repairs were effected, and health officials dismissed this as a potential source of the illness.

Fallout and continued scrutiny continued in the weeks afterward. The September 24 Herald included coverage of the Sewickley Council meeting, where a councilman was quoted as stating that “providing safe water was not council’s responsibility”  – a technically correct but nonetheless unfortunate assertion that earned him criticism in an October 1 Herald editorial. This editorial also leveled criticism at the Sewickley Water Commission for failing to communicate in any meaningful way with its users and fellow citizens about the outbreak, or their plans to better protect the community’s water supply.

That communication finally occurred in mid-October, with the Herald reporting on October 22 that a public meeting held by the Water Commission detailed the costs of repairs already made, and that the costs of future repairs and upgrades related to the recommendations of health officials would likely necessitate an increase in water rates.

It was also reported that the audience at that meeting amounted to a total of nine persons. Life went on, I guess…

The System Today

A comprehensive report and analysis of this major waterborne disease event was published in the November 1976 issue of the Journal of the American Water Works Association. While copyrighted, the article can be obtained through Sewickley Public Library’s reference desk, which is how I got to read it.

According to Mark Brooks, Sewickley Water’s Operations Supervisor, the system has changed significantly, and “there is a lot more coordination now“. Of the three reservoirs in use in 1975, only one remains – Number 4, which is fully covered. Adjacent to this reservoir is a 2 million gallon storage tank. A second collection well was also drilled into the aquifer that runs beneath the bed of the Ohio.

Mr. Brooks also stated that the amount of water stored at the reservoir site is less than it was forty years ago. The former reservoir Number 1 is presently being demolished to make way for a new, straightened section of Water Works Road, slated to open in December.

The amount of attention paid to critical infrastructure such as this has increased dramatically since 9/11/2001. Regardless of the size of the system, consistency in both operating practices and security procedures, as well as environmental regulation and enforcement, has become much more prevalent in most local utility systems.

As a result, the likelihood of another ‘malaise’ may be reduced, but the CDC reminds us in this 2012 article that vigilance is still, and will always be, of paramount importance to our nation’s health and quality of life. One need look no further than the impact on our region’s water systems by drilling activity to see the need for this to continue.

Have a great month ahead.

Posted in Government, Health, History, Local, Media | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Treehouse and the Meadow – A Tale of Independence

I hope that your Independence Day holiday was a good one.

Over the last couple of months, two conflicts between government and homeowners in the Quaker Valley area have illustrated some important facts about local government’s ability to relate to how individuals choose to pursue “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” on their private property.

Also pertinent to the discussion is the manner in which information is communicated by both social and mass media, and how government and others respond to the attention generated by that reporting.

214 Kenney Dr

The Truchan treehouse, located along Kenney Drive in the Quaker Heights section of Leet Township.

Truchan Treehouse Tribulations

According to the May 14 Sewickley Herald, when Elise Truchan wanted to build a treehouse in front of her Quaker Heights home for her 8th grade project, she and her family researched applicable ordinances via the somewhat informative Leet Township website.

Unfortunately, the resources available on that site were incomplete, as the Truchans were issued a Notice of Violation in March for having a non-conforming “accessory structure” on the property. The initial Herald report stated that “after (the Truchans) were first notified they were in violation of zoning rules in March the family says they reached an agreement to keep the treehouse in the family’s front yard until Oct. 1″.

This was apparently until the story gained traction in the local, national, and global mass media machine. Quoting the June 4 Herald:

Building inspector Joseph Luff notified the family last week that they needed a variance from the zoning hearing board, or the treehouse would have to come down within five days.

The notice…came after the Truchan’s story…was featured on “Fox and Friends” on Fox News; KDKA-TV; The Daily Mail in England; and numerous other publications.

Over the past month, many other media outlets and news sites have re-posted the Truchans’ story. A petition on change.org has garnered nearly 100 signatures.

Additional original reporting approached the story in different ways. The Post-Gazette focused on the reasons behind why municipal ordinances governing land use exist, and must be applied in ways that sometimes seem to strain against common sense.

After being unable to secure any specific comment from township officials, the P-G reporter sought out Richard Hadley, Director of the Allegheny League of Municipalities:

Mr. Hadley said while ordinances can become cumbersome and overburdening in many ways, they provide community structure and protect residents and businesses from property uses that are incompatible with neighboring property.

If the township officials give the Truchan family a pass, Mr. Hadley said it opens the door for others to argue, “Why them and not me?”

“That’s the reason municipalities are very strict about enforcing their ordinances. Waivers can extend to things getting out of control,” he said.

This leads us to the story filed by Rachel Martin for the Pennsylvania Independent.

Ms. Martin’s reporting has a more anti-regulatory tone to it, while including some more entertaining tidbits that other news outlets may have passed on. For example:

In their variance application, the Truchans argue the rule about structures in front yards “should be read in the spirit of which it was written.”

Just because a building inspector might be able to technically shoehorn a given situation into the letter of the law doesn’t mean that’s a reasonable way to apply a law.

Ms. Martin also reported that while township officials were helpful with accessing zoning ordinance information that is apparently not posted online, they refused to discuss the treehouse situation specifically. This refusal to comment was echoed by nearly all of the media reports that I reviewed.

My own experience with Leet officials was a pleasant one. I recently inquired of them if Quaker Heights, a subdivision roughly as old as I am, had a homeowners association, or if any properties had restrictive covenants in place. Assistant Manager Betsy Renkers replied promptly that there was neither a HOA or covenants, and that the township would investigate any complaints received from residents.

They have recently taken this a step further, announcing in their summer newsletter that they have assigned an existing township employee the additional duties of Code Enforcement Officer, and established a complaint process that emphasizes the anonymity of those making complaints, as provided for by state open records law.

This includes the unknown ‘neighbor’ who reportedly started the whole treehouse mess by complaining about it.

521 Hill St

The walkway up to the Oswald residence, along Hill Street in Sewickley Borough.

Mr. Oswald and his Grassy Knoll

By contrast, the lengthy dispute between Sewickley Borough and Hill Street resident Larry Oswald has featured calm, comprehensive discourse from both sides, featured prominently in the local media.

Mr. Oswald comes across as an intelligent, articulate, and resolute citizen with definite ideas on how he wants to use his property. Before and since he was cited by the borough last September for the condition of his yard, Mr. Oswald has calmly stated his case for the continued existence of his meadow – in person to Council, in a letter to the Herald on June 18, and by retaining counsel from a local environmental law firm.

Mr. Oswald’s appeal to Common Pleas Court has included, according, to Council meeting minutes, “an environmental expert from the University of Pittsburgh, a professor from the Department of Biological Services, who indicated that almost none of the vegetation on Mr. Oswald’s property should be considered a weed, and that this type of vegetation provides a strong ecological benefit“. Further review of those minutes has also shown that Sewickley Council has adjourned into executive session on more than one occasion to discuss the case involving Mr. Oswald.

In what could be a response to Mr. Oswald’s challenge, Council has acted quickly to draft and enact a new ordinance governing the legal height and condition of grass, plants, and vegetation in the borough. Council members and Borough Manager Kevin Flannery have been quoted extensively regarding the need for “uniformity“, and for property owners to meet “expectations that we value each other’s property…to enhance our property so the community is enhanced“.

Mr. Oswald’s appeal was continued to a hearing held on June 23. According to his attorney, Megan Lovett, both parties were advised that a decision would be rendered to them by mail, something that was atypical in her experience for a summary appeal of this type.

As of this writing a decision has not been received by Ms. Lovett, who declined to speculate on her client’s chances to win the case, or whether the arguments presented may have influenced Council to ‘fast track’ the new ordinance.

Observations and Conclusions 

Should Miss Truchan and Mr. Oswald be successful in their appeals, what is the long-term plan for their respective projects? Will Elise continue to use and maintain her sanctuary as it (and she) grows older? What will become of Larry’s meadow, along with the rest of his ample abode, when he is no longer physically able to tend to it?

If Mr. Oswald is forced to de-foliate in the name of ‘uniformity’, perhaps he would be willing to exchange the desire to offset pollution and create oxygen, for reducing his own carbon footprint and increasing energy self-sufficiency, along with perhaps that of his neighbors.

Mr. Oswald’s property sits on a hill with excellent exposure to the south and west, ideal for capturing a good portion of whatever daily sunshine our area receives. Cut down not only the meadow, but the big trees along the street as well, and install a healthy, robust array of solar panels.

Sewickley Council moved hastily to establish new rules for grass and plants, possibly in response to Mr. Oswald’s push-back, and received some negative comments from other citizens in response. Let’s hope that the end product of this haste doesn’t become the law of unintended consequences.

Sewickley officials do deserve to be commended for the open, forthright manner in which they communicated their thoughts about the Oswald situation with the media and other citizens.

On the other hand, the actions of some Leet Township officials in not only refusing to discuss the Truchan treehouse, but appearing to actively dodge contact attempts from the media and others, create concerns about transparency and accountability.

Leet’s reported actions in first agreeing to allow the treehouse until October, then switching gears with an order to immediately dismantle it unless the Truchans went through an expensive variance process, smacks of an approach that is inconsistent at best, arbitrary, capricious and possibly vindictive at worst.

That being said, governance in these areas is not easy, especially in an environment where citizen perception of what constitutes an appropriate use of private property is changing, and transparency and accountability in municipal operations is being sought on a greater level by taxpayers.

The Internet has been leveraged by numerous area municipalities as a resource for citizens, but there are varying degrees of service provision. For example, Sewickley and Leetsdale provide complete, searchable online access to their ordinances. Leet Township does not.

Municipalities need to be willing to revisit their ordinances on a periodic basis. What should be a common sense, balanced approach to maintaining community character, while respecting individual property rights, can be lost in misguided attempts to control as much as possible about a citizen’s use of their property.

Mr. Oswald, despite his well-intentioned zeal for ecology over the rarefied aesthetics of his community as dictated by his elected officials, may have nonetheless gone a little bit overboard here.

But who can argue with a kid’s treehouse, so long as it is well maintained?

Best wishes to everyone for equal measures of freedom and understanding.

Enjoy your independence.

Credits – Sewickley Herald Digital Archive

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WTAE Looks At Western PA Fire Service, Finds Inconvenient Truths

Pittsburgh TV station WTAE focused their May ratings sweeps efforts on calling attention to the challenges facing the area’s volunteer fire departments. Action News investigative reporter Paul Van Osdol presented several reports in late April and throughout last month, focusing on several issues:

A 3-part report detailed the differences in response time between those agencies that have paid personnel standing by in station versus those that don’t, and the reasons affecting those disparities. If the words “apples” and “oranges” popped into your head after reading that, you’re not alone.

Additional reports highlighted other touchy subjects, such as fire response politics and the voluntary firefighter training standards in place here, compared to a mandatory certification process in other states such as West Virginia.

The reports on response time generated a considerable amount of feedback. A fire chief in Monaca published a thoughtful, articulate response on his department’s website, and was featured in a follow-up report, along with a story that featured those viewer comments that met broadcast standards for decency.

I say that because there was also a fair share of backlash – a Facebook page urging a boycott of the station garnered numerous “likes”. Comments posted to the station’s social media pages ran the gamut from earnest support for the firefighters to expletives deleted.

WTAE also responded to the viewer feedback in the form of an Editorial, which seemed to be an attempt to soften the impact of their own reporting. Station management also called for hearings at the state level to effect changes at the local level –  changes that, judging from the responses by those with either a stake in the status quo or just opposed to any sort of change, will likely continue to run into roadblocks in the morass that makes up the manner in which we Pennsylvanians choose to be governed.

This series of reports approached its conclusion with an interview of State Senator Randy Vulakovich (R-Shaler), who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness committee. Sen. Vulakovich emphasized, among other things, the need for many of the state’s 2,300 fire departments to merge. Fire Engineering published a story last year detailing the issues and challenges involved in optimizing service to Pennsylvania citizens through consolidation of existing independent departments. Several local fire officials were interviewed.

Throughout the series, Mr. Van Osdol featured interview footage with one of Sen. Vulakovich’s former colleagues – Tim Solobay – who was appointed by Governor Wolf to serve as State Fire Commissioner.

Mr. Solobay, who also serves as a fire line officer in Canonsburg, became available by virtue of his being defeated for re-election to the Senate last November. His appointment has not been without its share of controversy. Governor Wolf was the target of much criticism from media and fire service alike for failing to re-appoint the previous commissioner, Ed Mann, who had served several administrations over the previous 14 years. The bulk of the criticism is aimed at the perceived political motivations behind Mr. Solobay’s appointment.

Commissioner Solobay gave what I thought were largely disappointing answers to most of the questions put to him by Mr. Van Osdol, at one point stating, “I’ve only been in for three months. Give me a chance to work on it“. In all fairness to Mr. Solobay, perhaps former Commissioner Mann could have been approached to give a more comprehensive accounting of what he accomplished in these areas during his tenure.

This series of reports is certainly not the first time that the mainstream media has turned their attention to these issues. The Post-Gazette reported on the issue of staffing and consolidation in 2012, the year after elected officials in O’Hara Township and Edgeworth took direct action with regard to the provision of fire services.

There have also been several controversies with regard to fire departments and their municipal overseers during this calendar year –

  • In January, a house fire in McKees Rocks near their border with Stowe Township brought complaints from area residents who stated that the firehouse in neighboring Stowe is physically closer, but was not initially requested to respond.
  • It seems that the firefighters for the two independent fire departments in largely rural Fawn Township can’t seem to agree on much of anything. Township commissioners are slated to vote on an ordinance that basically attempts to force these departments to work together, under threat of fine or imprisonment.
  • In 1999, three of the five volunteer fire departments in North Versailles Township consolidated their operations. The resulting F.D.N.V. allegedly prefers to work with departments in neighboring municipalities, rather than the remaining two departments within the township.                                                                                       The township is one of the few that provides financial support through a fire tax, which the township commissioners are withholding from F.D.N.V. unless the department adheres to township policy, which requires all township fire departments to work together.                                                                                                                                         The Tribune-Review elected to weigh in on this dispute. In a May 28 editorial, they alluded to the almost Solomonic challenges involved:

It is a correct decision. Is it the right decision?  The answer is more complicated.

The editorial reached a conclusion that seems to resonate with anyone having a             genuine interest in serving the public:

A solution must be reached before this mix of politics and stupidity has deadly results.

I was largely impressed by most of WTAE’s reporting, but in the weeks following their last report I haven’t seen any follow-up, and have grown skeptical as to their resolve in continuing to report on these issues, especially in the wake of the negative comments they encountered.

Unfortunately, the station will likely look toward the next ratings book to measure their success, instead of taking a greater measure from serving the public interest, which is how they qualify for their license to use the public airwaves.

It will also be interesting to see how these disputes are eventually resolved – will the sanctions imposed soften the hardened stance of those bent upon maintaining operating postures that are increasingly unsustainable in this age of reduced staffing and increased response expectations?  Or will the municipalities, faced with an intractable challenge to their oversight responsibility and liability exposure, opt for the examples set by others and impose a “death penalty”?

The answer is not only more complicated – it is critical to creating traction to bring about improvements in the way that critical emergency services are delivered in our region. Our local media has a responsibility to the public to assure that traction is maintained, through continued diligent reporting on not only the failures, but on the successes as well. Our local governments have an obligation to encourage, if not insist upon, reasonably transparent operations by all service providers.

Regardless of tradition, interpersonal conflict, or financial constraint, the expectation that competent, adequately staffed resources will be available to respond at all times to requests for emergency assistance continues to resonate among citizens and the lawmakers that represent them. As citizenry become more focused on government operations, those who continue to shirk responsibility or misplace priorities will find their positions increasingly untenable.

To their credit, many area fire departments embrace minimum standards for training and other benchmarks, and actively practice established incident management techniques, which include utilizing resources based upon objective criteria, such as geographic proximity and/or resource typing. Some are actively pursuing partnerships that transcend tradition, infighting, and the archaic imaginary lines that too often impede the progress toward more efficient governance in Pennsylvania.

Our volunteer firefighters deserve our support and appreciation for their efforts. Those communities that provide that support reap the benefits from responsive departments with members that deliver an intangible, invaluable return on that investment.

In those communities that are struggling to maintain the identity of a bygone age, perhaps it is time for a wholesale re-evaluation of how that community functions, especially with regard to adjacent communities and their respective response organizations.

In either scenario, may common sense and common decency prevail, for the benefit of all.

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