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