This is a long story, covering over five years of history and activity in a Sewickley neighborhood. My posts are typically about half this length, touching on multiple occurrences and issues.
This one begged for a slower, more deliberate exploration, if only to illustrate how this little neighborhood got redeveloped, the potential consequences to local property owners, and the integrity of both the hillside they live on and the government in which they put their trust.
Bassett residence, 432 Oliver Road, Edgeworth, circa 2017
432 Oliver Road, present day.
I was surprised at how much of my previous writing has involved local land use issues, and in a relatively short time how much change has occurred with some of those who were involved –
- The former Edgeworth home of the late Dolores Bassett has been transformed by renovation (see photos above). The trees she fought for the right to remove are still in place today.
- Elise Truchan, the girl who built the treehouse in Leet Township, graduated from Quaker Valley this past June. Her mother reports that Elise started college this Fall on the other side of the world – a 4-year degree program at NYU Shanghai. Wow – best wishes for success in what sounds like a true adventure in the making.
- Larry Oswald, who successfully fought Sewickley Borough in 2015 over the right to keep some of his property as a meadow, passed away in January of this year at age 75. Mr. Oswald, who described himself in print as a “very private fellow”, had no published death notice, obituary, or funeral service that I could find. Allegheny County real estate records show that the Oswald property on Hill Street was sold in July.
In a related post on these and other subjects, I simultaneously lamented and celebrated the change that occurs in communities when people pass away, retire, or otherwise move on.
Larry Oswald’s neighborhood was no different in that respect, but certainly very different in others.
Straight Street in Sewickley, looking east from Centennial Avenue toward the steep slope area of the borough. The two houses partially up the slope are fronting Hopkins Street.
National Geographic topo map illustrating this “steep slope” area. The map shows an approximate 60-80 foot change in elevation between Hill and Hopkins Streets. – Allegheny County GIS
As the above illustrations show, this area is one of rapidly changing elevation – so much so that Sewickley Borough recognized the risks inherent with developing it. The borough’s Zoning Ordinance establishes a Natural Resource Protection Overlay for much of this steep slope.
The ordinance defines this designation as “intended to mitigate potential hazards, prevent potential impacts on the region’s water and stream quality and protect private property from potential damages that may occur due to the uncontrolled development of lands with sensitive natural resources”.
It was this neighborhood that Edward Abbott and his new bride Elizabeth came to be a part of, purchasing a house on Orchard Terrace in 2006.
Over the course of the next 7 years, Ed and “Buffy” Abbott began a family in an area with an increasing amount of nearby residential property available for redevelopment. Apparently seeing this, Mr. Abbott sought to create a business opportunity to purchase, remodel, and sell several of these properties.
Mr. Abbott sought the assistance of Stanford “Stan” Southern, a friend and fellow parishoner at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church. In October 2013, Mr. Southern joined Mr. Abbott in the incorporation of Minas LLC. With Mr. Southern as a self-described “silent partner”¹, Minas began the process of property acquisition and renovation with the purchase of the Abbott home the following month.
Ambition and Tragedy
Much of this information has been gleaned from multiple sources, including e-mail conversations with Barbara Cox and others. Links to many of these sources are provided, including a pivotal Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) transcript from September 2018. More about this document later.
During 2014, Minas purchased three more residential properties and a vacant lot along Hill and Hopkins Streets. These properties all share common boundaries with the property of Barbara Cox, who has owned her Hill Street home since 2004. As the below graphic illustrates, these properties basically surround Ms. Cox’s property.
Allegheny County GIS image modified to show properties acquired by Minas LLC in 2014, and their selling prices from the Allegheny County Real Estate website. There is over 70 feet of elevation change in this area.
Minas then started renovating these properties in earnest, beginning with the original Abbott residence on Orchard Terrace. This house sold in October 2015. The Abbotts moved into and renovated 548 Hopkins Street.
The other renovations continued with 547 Hill Street, which included an update of the driveway fronting the structure. This house sold in June 2018.
Another property acquired was 601 Hill Street. Shown above, this house is set back a good distance, similar to 547 Hill, but without a driveway.
Barbara Cox, along with her Mulberry Street neighbor Sandra Martin, have been among the most impacted and vocal neighbors with regard to these projects. Ms. Cox summarized her initial concerns as part of a letter to Sewickley councilor Hendrik van der Vaart:
Although I live within 100 ft. of the Hopkins Street property, and I am the person most directly impacted by the situation. I was never given written notification (required by the borough) that a building permit and variances had been requested. Sewickley CEO (Code Enforcement Officer) explained that my not receiving the letter was a mistake…This lack of notification kept us from attending any zoning meetings taking place and voicing our opinions at that time…I was not notified (so) there were no objections.
The vacant land to the immediate left of 548 Hopkins was addressed as 550 Hopkins, and where Minas LLC proposed to construct a house and driveway in 2015. – Google Maps
Minas then began the planning and zoning process to construct a house on the vacant property adjacent to 548 Hopkins, as illustrated above. They received a permit in October 2015 to build a house on this lot, with a variance for a 20 foot setback to provide for a driveway. In early 2016 Minas also received a building permit for interior renovations at 601 Hill.
Up to this point, the borough’s zoning and development process appeared to proceed by design, with the significant exception of the most proximal and affected landowner not being notified.
2016 aerial photo of 601 Hill Street, with evidence of earth movement and debris removal – Google Maps
Construction activity at both 547 and 601 Hill was well underway when Sewickley Borough issued a stop work order in March 2016. According to a letter to Minas from then-Code Enforcement Officer Nancy Watts –
I have become aware of grading and excavation work that was not authorized…This parcel…has slopes between 25 – 40%, according to slope analysis maps. Pursuant to Chapter 27, Part 5, Section 503 (of the Zoning Ordinance), an engineer’s report is required to proceed with any more grading.
Canton Avenue, Pittsburgh – instagram.com @steelcitynews
Percentage of slope reflects the amount of elevation change per 100 feet of distance. By comparison, Greentree Hill on I-376 west of Pittsburgh averages between a 5 and 7 percent slope. Canton Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood is one of the steepest streets in North America, with a 37 percent slope.
In June 2016 the Abbotts also purchased 602 Hopkins Street, adjacent to the vacant lot at 550 Hopkins and directly behind 601 Hill Street.
Later in 2016, Edward Abbott was diagnosed with colon cancer.
Barbara Cox stated that in early 2017 construction workers, who had been accessing the Hopkins Street site from 547 Hill St. and then behind her property, had begun bringing heavy equipment to the site.
During the aforementioned September 2018 ZHB hearing, Ms. Cox testified –
I came home one day, and there was a huge bulldozer in the back of the house, and it was just digging into the hillside…They tore out all of my greenery. And so I asked the gentleman who was renting (601 Hill Street), “What’s going on there?” And he’s like, “Oh, that’s my secret driveway.” And I was obviously very, very upset.
And at that point in time I had decided that I was going to come to the Borough and discuss this. And then a week later I heard Ed (Abbott) was sick. I didn’t feel at that time I wanted to cause more trouble for the family. No one was using the driveway…So I let it go.
548 / 550 Hopkins Street with new curb cut and driveway completion in progress – July 2017. The location of 601 Hill Street is indicated. – Google Maps
550 Hopkins driveway in December 2018 as seen from sidewalk, with nearby addresses labeled. – Sewickley Herald – Tom Davidson
2018 photo of the boundary between 550 Hopkins and 555 Hill looking south, with boulders placed at the property line and a large amount of earth pushed into the neighboring yard. – Barbara Cox
The same boundary and dirt mound, looking north toward 547 Hill St. – Barbara Cox
Review of that same zoning board testimony and other records show that Mr. Abbott, instead of building a house and driveway at 550 Hopkins, elected to excavate and construct a steep driveway down to the rear of 601 Hill Street, with the apparent intent of serving that address instead. He had also leased out the house at 601 Hill.
These records (or the lack of them) also appear to show that the driveway was constructed, the street opened and a curb cut installed, and an older, decommissioned fire hydrant removed, without the necessary permits from the borough to do so. It’s unknown whether or not any required occupancy inspection or permits had been obtained to legally offer 601 Hill for rent.
This construction had a negative impact on Barbara Cox’s property –
When the driveway and parking area were constructed, they leveled a portion of the hill side along the property line…This dirt was pushed into my yard. They leveled their property and re-graded mine, resulting in a small “cliff”… I am concerned about erosion and potential mudslides. I already see erosion on the hill side they have created. Since the work on 550 Hopkins Street & 601 Hill Street myself and another neighbor have had a significant amount of water in our basements.
After the driveway work was “completed”, there did not appear to be a great deal of activity from a development or regulatory standpoint. The Abbotts sold 602 Hopkins St. in late 2017.
Edward Abbott died on May 11, 2018.
Abundant Loose Ends
In the wake of Mr. Abbott’s passing, Stan Southern emerged from his silent partner role to continue the work of Minas LLC. According to his testimony before the ZHB –
Minas, LLC now exists to pretty much help keep Buffy and her kids — her two daughters — in that house at 548 Hopkins, where
they currently live. I would like to get the properties completed and homes sold and get any proceeds from those sales will at this point go to try to keep Buffy and the kids in the house.
The considerable task now before Mr. Southern was to essentially reverse engineer the rough cut of Mr. Abbott’s oversight into something that would pass muster with the borough, the neighbors, and eventually the marketplace.
This began with completing the renovation work at 601 Hill Street, including work on the driveway, which would also require renewal of an expired building permit. This additional activity again drew the attention of Barbara Cox and Sandra Martin, and marked the first apparent awareness on the part of Sewickley Borough as to exactly what had been done.
601 Hill Street in Summer 2017. As part of the extensive renovation the front porch steps have been removed, and a winding path has replaced the front sidewalk. The renovation suggests that the main entry was moved to the rear of the structure. – Google Maps
The project at 550 Hopkins and 601 Hill was in apparent violation of several sections of the Sewickley zoning ordinance. These include:
- Section 503 – Establishes requirements for earth movement in the Natural Resource Protection Overlay, including a Resource Protection Analysis and engineering reports.
- Section 404, Table 1 – Use of a lot for off-street parking only is neither permitted by right or an available conditional use in the R-1 Zone.
- Section 303 – Driveways cannot cross lot lines, and must meet setback requirements from lot boundaries.
Section 1002 also prohibits parking areas in the front yards of properties in the R-1 zone, thus precluding any parking in the very spacious front yard at 601 Hill.
Mr. Southern set about to correct these layers of violation by first approaching the borough to obtain a variance for the existing driveway as constructed. During the hearing for this variance request, ZHB Chairperson James Eichenlaub appeared to offer a potential solution. Quoting the transcript –
MR. SOUTHERN: It’s a large house now. Four bedrooms, three and a half baths. I don’t know how anybody could reasonably move into that house without a driveway. I just don’t see it. It’s going to be very difficult. The only viable option I see for that driveway is to come in from Hopkins Street and cross the boundary line.
MR. EICHENLAUB: We addressed the issue of resubdividing the properties at the time, and he (Edward Abbott) didn’t want to do that, but that’s also a way of relieving this issue is restructuring — so you can redesign the lots —
MR. SOUTHERN: Yes.
MR. EICHENLAUB: — so that driveway could come off of Hopkins and serve, you know, by combining those two lots.
MR. SOUTHERN: I didn’t know that was an option.
The ZHB approved the original plan for a house but denied the driveway request, citing in an October 2018 violation notice that among other things the driveway existed on two separate parcels of land.
It was about this same time that Kevin Flannery announced his retirement as Sewickley Borough Manager.
By late 2018 Barbara Cox and Sandra Martin had become regular attendees at Sewickley Council meetings. After several attempts to get answers about what was going on with the project, they took to the pages of the Sewickley Herald to express their concerns in a November 3, 2018 letter to the editor.
Mr. Southern appeared before Council at their November 13, 2018 meeting to answer questions. He mentioned the possibility of a lot consolidation to address the driveway issue. According to the minutes, after a “lengthy discussion…the situation was remanded to the Code Enforcement Officer and the engineering firms representing both parties“.
Video of this specific portion of the meeting is available here. Councilor Christine Allen, who represents this area of the borough as part of Ward 1, had some specific questions and concerns about the project. Turn up your speaker volume.
It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.
Mr. Southern retained Sewickley attorney John Edson to assist in the approval process. Mr. Southern and Mr. Edson appeared before the Sewickley Planning Commission on December 5, 2018 for a pre-conference to create a reverse subdivision, which would unify 601 Hill and 550 Hopkins into one parcel of land. A second violation notice from Ms. Watts later that month stated “The submitted unification plan shall eliminate some, but not all, of the zoning violations”.
The Herald published one follow-up story on the issue, on December 17, 2018. Councilor John Dunn, who also represents Ward 1 and is Council’s representative on the Planning Commission, told the Herald –
(The planning commission) can’t look past what is in front of us, so what we did was we voted on the fact that if they want to merge those properties, we have given the recommendation to have a public hearing to hear about it.
That hearing was held on January 2 of this year. According to the minutes –
Mr. Southern…apologized for the errors of the past and reiterated that he was working to remediate the issues and that he wants to work with the neighbors to make sure that he complies with all regulations and ordinances.
Ms. Cox and Ms. Martin testified regarding their continued concern for the safety and stability of the slope in the wake of the work being done, as well as issues with stormwater and the interruption and/or diversion of natural springs. Christine Allen also offered testimony.
In response, Commission Chair Nathan St. Germain offered comments that could almost be confused with an attempt at absolution –
Mr. St. Germain explained that it was impossible for the Borough to know what every homeowner does on there (sic) property and that Mr. Southern is working to bring the property back up to code. He is incurring cost to do this and he has taken responsibility for this situation.
Action by the Commission was tabled by unanimous vote, pending numerous items requiring resolution from the borough and their consulting engineers, Coraopolis-based LSSE.
Engineer’s March 2019 rendering of the Hopkins St. driveway project, including drainage plan.
By March, Mr. Southern and Mr. Edson were again ready to approach the Planning Commission. The handwritten minutes of the March 6 hearing, obtained via a Right to Know request, reflect their testimony detailing the features of driveway construction, designed to optimize safety and manage stormwater, as well as remediate Ms. Cox’s backyard.
Ms. Cox and Ms. Martin reiterated their previous statements regarding safety, as well as increasing frustration with the process as administered to this point. Christine Allen also gave what was summarized by the scribe as a “lengthy statement of concern“.
The Commission approved the reverse subdivision, sending it to Council for final approval. Barbara Cox’s frustration with the process also came out in a March 9 email –
The Planning Commission meeting went really bad for us. We tried to ask questions about what could have been done to have avoided this situation. More or less we were told that if we did not like the system “We should step up and volunteer for a committee”. We made the comment that it looked to the community as if it is better to ignore zoning laws. Just do what you want and then the borough will help you fix it. That was not the right thing to say because it really upset them.
A Grudging, Surreptitious Approval
Sewickley Council’s meeting of March 12 was noteworthy in that the new Assistant Borough Manager, Erin Sakalik, was in attendance. It was also significant in the result of the hearing conducted for the lot consolidation resolution. From the minutes –
(Borough Solicitor) Richard Tucker conducted a public hearing: John Edson, Stan Southern, and Elizabeth Abbott spoke in favor of the lot consolidation. Sandra Martin and Barbara Cox spoke in opposition. After the hearing was closed, motion to adopt Resolution 2019-008 by Councilperson Renner died for the lack of a second.
According to Ms. Cox, “Todd Renner said ‘well they will just take us to court’. The attorney for Minas LLC said ‘We will see you in court‘”.
In the days that followed, it appeared that Council’s demurral was indeed not the end of the story. Reached in May, Christine Allen stated that Council’s Solicitor had informed them that a refusal to take up the resolution for a vote was not the same as disapproval, and the resolution could go into effect without a formal vote. Ms. Allen also stated that Mr. Edson had challenged her to recuse herself from voting, due to her publicly-stated concerns during the planning and zoning process.
By the beginning of April, Marla Marcinko was beginning her tenure as Borough Manager, and Erin Sakalik was settling into several operational areas, including code enforcement and zoning.
As Council’s April 9 meeting approached, Barbara Cox remarked on information she was receiving regarding the next move by Council –
I heard that the borough solicitor may feel that this does not need to go to court. That the board maybe able to vote on this again. I am not sure of any of the details. Again, Sandra and I learned about this late last night. I have checked the agenda for the meeting Tuesday night. I do not see Minas listed. Sandra Martin and I are going to attend, to see if we can learn anything.
Indeed, the published agenda for this meeting made no mention of a vote on the matter. Yet the minutes of the meeting show that after emerging from executive session just before 11:00 PM, Council voted to approve the reverse subdivision – 5 in favor, 1 opposed, with 1 abstention, 1 recusal, and 1 absent. The meeting adjourned shortly thereafter.
From their apparent effort to keep this approval vote quiet – even from those directly impacted by the decision – Council’s administration of this process can’t help but raise questions, even among those with a greater understanding of the issues at hand.
Contour map with the newly unified parcels highlighted in red. – Allegheny County GIS
Transparency Issues Cloud Process, Impede Accountability
When I began researching this over a year ago, the first steps I took were to review some of what had already transpired at the ZHB. Seeing no minutes posted online, I filed a Right to Know request for electronic copies of ZHB minutes for part of 2018, and the Resource Protection Analysis for the driveway project.
The borough’s reply included the following –
As an initial matter, the Sewickley Borough Zoning Hearing Board (“Board”) does not keep minutes. Instead, a court reporter transcribes every meeting. The transcript is not delivered to the Board unless the Board orders it. Accordingly, your request for actual minutes is denied.
The borough stated that it did possess a copy of the September 2018 transcript, and allowed a later request to review it at the borough offices. In order to receive an electronic copy of it, however –
…you are responsible for the duplication fee imposed by the Borough’s stenographer…(who) has informed the Borough that an electronic copy of the transcript would cost $313.50 (114 pages x $2.75 per page) and a hard copy mailed would cost $323.50.
The borough cited the state Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) as justification for the cost of this document. This is in apparent conflict with the fee schedule issued by the Pa. Office of Open Records (OOR) in accordance with the state’s Right to Know Law (RTKL).
Seeing a discrepancy that needed to be clarified, I filed an appeal of the borough’s decision with the OOR in December 2018. They ruled in my favor in March of this year.
The OOR concluded that if the borough possesses the transcript, the matter in question has been adjudicated, and the transcript is being requested by someone not directly involved in the proceedings, it must be treated like any other public records request. The transcript that I received is referenced several times in this post.
Another disparity exists between the MPC and the Pa. Sunshine Act, which applies to “any state or local government body and all sub-units appointed by that body that perform an essential government function and exercises authority to take official action or render advice”. This includes Planning Commissions and Zoning Hearing Boards.
While the MPC requires ZHBs to have a “stenographic record of their activities“², the Sunshine Act also requires them to have written minutes of their meetings. These must include “the time, date, and place of their meetings; the names of the members present, the substance of all official action taken during the meetings, and a record of how each individual voted. The minutes also must list all members of the public who participated in the meetings and a summary of their comments.”
Sewickley’s Planning Commission has written minutes available for their meetings, many of which are published on the borough website.
The ZHB, by the borough’s own admission, does not, relying instead on transcripts that may or may not be available to the public. Ms. Cox and Ms. Martin were thwarted in an attempt to view ZHB proceedings from 2014 and 2015, because the borough did not have a copy of the transcripts and did not take written minutes.
This had the effect, whether intentional or not, of concealing the board’s activities from citizen review, in apparent violation of the Sunshine Act.
Unfortunately, the OOR cannot by law investigate complaints of violations of the Sunshine Act. As it stands now, a citizen can only assert a violation during the meeting where the violation is occurring, or file a complaint in Common Pleas Court within 30 days of that meeting. An example of this is LeCornu et al v. Borough of Sewickley (2017).
To the borough’s credit, their website now includes minutes for the September 2019 ZHB meeting – the first such published minutes in at least two years. It’s a trend that needs to be continued, lest a citizen initiate that complaint process again.
The borough also claimed that a Resource Protection Analysis did not exist for the driveway project. I requested this a second time in September and received a document that contained the required analysis, marked as received by the borough in September 2015.
This document was prepared for the original project at 550 Hopkins – a house with a dedicated driveway. The borough apparently permitted its use for the application to retroactively approve what was actually built – the driveway to 601 Hill Street.
The Aftermath and The Future
Views of the driveway project, with nearby addresses labeled – December 2019
Cox property looking north, November 2019. The boulders and dirt mound have been replaced by a retaining wall. The remaining dirt has been reduced. Per Barbara Cox, this is the result of soil erosion only. – Cox photo
Rear of Cox property, looking south, November 2019 – Barbara Cox photo
Shortly following the April decision by Council on the lot consolidation, Code Enforcement and Zoning Officer Nancy Watts announced her retirement, effective in May.
The minutes of the May 14 meeting of Council included the following –
Stan Southern…spoke about the installation of a driveway at 550 Hopkins Street. He was informed by Nancy Watts that a building permit would be issued for his driveway before she resigned. He inquired as to why the permit was not issued.
Marla Marcinko clarified her prior discussion with Mr. Southern and stated that she has not yet reviewed the voluminous file yet. She spoke about the engineer’s stormwater management reviews and grading requirements. In her opinion this is land development (emphasis mine) because it impacts the borough’s stormwater system.
Ms. Marcinko stated what should have been made clear very early on in this process, backed up by monitoring of the project by borough officials – before things were done that should not have been.
Contacted in May, Stan Southern reiterated his commitment to working with the borough, its engineers, and the neighbors to get the project completed in a safe manner. He stated that Edward Abbott made “bad assumptions” with regard to the project, and that he was “painstakingly” working with Ms. Marcinko and providing Council with frequent updates.
Mr. Southern stated his goal for Minas LLC was to get any remaining properties sold, and “close up shop“.
Mr. Southern has also stated publicly his desire to help repair the damage to the Cox property. Per Barbara Cox, this has consisted of offering to provide landscaping services and ground cover.
In an e-mail from early September, Ms. Marcinko stated “All the requirements for land development were met and a building permit was issued for a driveway”. On September 24, Barbara Cox advised me that construction equipment was back at work on the site.
Ms. Cox appears to have come away from this experience with a lesser opinion of local government –
I am very tired of the entire situation. Sandra and I really tried. We really thought the borough would be outraged by what had been done. When in reality we feel we have been treated like villains and dismissed.
No appeals are going to be requested. The attorney fees are too high. I have more or less been told wait until something happens then contact a lawyer.
Ms. Cox also stated she is frustrated with what has been offered in comparison to the problems she is seeing, along with a lack of coordination and proper documentation of any proposed work to be done.
She wants to assure that she and adjacent property owners are protected now and in the future, and that she and Ms. Martin “felt and still feel that the situation is unsafe“.
Hope Amidst the Bureaucracy
It is legal to raise chickens in Sewickley last I checked, and it became apparent that a flock of them were coming home to roost with regard to these events –
- A developer attempting to utilize his land and comply with established laws and codes, despite previous activity on the property that appeared to flagrantly disregard those rules.
- An administrative process at the municipal level that appeared to function poorly in terms of notifying adjacent property owners, responding to citizen concerns, monitoring construction activity, and enforcing existing regulations.
- Nearby residents that are justifiably once bitten, twice shy, and distrustful of their government in the wake of its response – or lack thereof – to their concerns.
- A vacuum at the top, where decades of largely effective day-to-day management was suddenly absent, and new permanent replacements were just coming on board.
- A system of documenting public meetings that prevented citizens from leveraging laws designed to provide access to the proceedings of an accountable government body.
- Elected representatives who act upon potentially controversial issues in a manner that appears designed to deny citizens the opportunity to learn about them beforehand.
A Post-Gazette editorial from May advocated for revisions to the state’s open records law –
The RTK measure was signed into law in February 2008. It’s time for an update. Give it some teeth — real consequences for violations. Expand it to include a records retention protocol. And make the state Office of Open Records responsible for punishing violators.
Any revision to the RTKL should also include making the OOR responsible for punishing violators of the Sunshine Act as well.
There is much more work to be done to assure that citizens have proper access to their government and how it makes decisions.
Like the possible remedies that may be available to Barbara Cox, this is often out of reach for a great many citizens who cannot afford legal help to navigate the process.
The same can be said for the events detailed here. The fundamental processes of government should not be held at arm’s length from the people, awaiting the highest bidder.
Since the departure of Mr. Flannery and Ms. Watts, Sewickley has taken important steps to assure that the continuity of critical borough operations is not compromised by the resignation of a single individual.
The hiring of Ms. Marcinko, who brings impressive experience to the position, feels like a coup for the borough and its citizens. It seems fortunate that fate and family brought her from a position where she appeared to be greatly appreciated, if the reporting of the Altoona Mirror is any indication. Along with Altoona, Ms. Marcinko has managed in places as varied as West Deer, Zelienople, Penn Hills, and Wilkinsburg.
Ms. Sakalik also brings solid managerial experience with her to those areas of borough operations that appear to need it most.
Another significant change was to contract an outside entity to administer day-to-day code enforcement and zoning activity. If the monthly reports posted to the borough website are a valid barometer of performance, Harshman CE Group is providing competent, comprehensive service to this point.
If recent council minutes are any indication, however, some residents are less than pleased with the level of scrutiny employed by Harshman personnel in performance of their duties. Allegations of “targeting” have been leveled.
I get mixed feelings when I read about these things. On one hand, it’s important that code enforcement personnel be responsive to complaints from citizens, but at the same time they need to be reasonable alongside the diligence that is expected of them.
I am reminded of the diligence displayed by Sewickley Heights Borough in defending their existing zoning law against open defiance in the ongoing Dundee Farm dispute. Related documents indicate that the reports of citizens played a large role in establishing the case against the farm and its owners.
I am also reminded of Dolores Bassett, Elise Truchan, and Larry Oswald – three citizens who wanted to do something with their property not out of defiance or neglect, but in the spirit of independence, innovation, and liberty that are among the best parts of being an American.
Zoning regulations and municipal ordinances need to reflect both sets of values. This balance is not easy, but is essential if government is to remain relevant to its citizens, and respect for both the rule of law and individual liberty are to remain benchmarks of government of, by, and for the people.
Lastly, participation in and access to our government is a right and responsibility of every citizen – especially at the ballot box.
We need look no further for a relevant example than this most recent general election. Incumbent Sewickley councilor John Dunn lost his re-election bid to six-year “newcomer” Julie Barnes.
Whether or not Mr. Dunn’s approach to this 5-year odyssey contributed in any way to his being replaced is anyone’s guess.
Best wishes for a pleasant holiday season.
¹ Sewickley Borough Zoning Hearing Board Hearing Transcript, Sept. 4, 2018
² Pa. Municipalities Planning Code, Section 908(7)