February Digest: Fickleness, Fate, Folly, and the Future

The first months of the new year have brought with them new resolve around our house – a need to renew old efforts, blaze new trails, reset and try to re-energize relationships and living arrangements that too often can grow stale and cluttered.

It’s not been easy, and it doesn’t seem to be shaping up as an ‘easy’ year, especially when considering the craziness being displayed by the new administration in Washington. As the focus here is on local activities, we’ll continue with that, with the knowledge that great achievements start with small moves.

Edgeworth Resident Wins Battle in Tree War, Doesn’t Live to See It

Since this time last year, I’ve been following the dispute between an elderly Edgeworth resident and the borough’s Shade Tree Commission over her right to remove three pin oak trees from in front of her residence on Oliver Road. After repeated denials by that commission, Dolores Bassett took her fight to Common Pleas Court, which found in her favor a little over a year ago.

Edgeworth Borough then appealed that decision to Commonwealth Court, which heard arguments last November. On January 24, the court issued a decision upholding the lower court’s finding in favor of Mrs. Bassett’s right to remove the trees.

The opinion issued by Commonwealth Court is an enlightening read for anyone interested in the historical perspectives surrounding land use, local ordinances governing it, and the intricacies of the law as they pertain to language and precedent.

Among other findings, the court ruled that the applicable section of the borough code pertaining to the removal of trees “applies only by its plain text to those situations where the (Shade Tree) Commission may ‘require the removal of any afflicted tree in the public right-of-way’”.

TheEdgeofWorthMrs. Bassett wanted to remove the trees, due in part to their continued compromise of the sidewalk that the borough required her to maintain in a safe condition. This is different from the borough requiring the tree removal.

The court stated that the borough’s attempt to apply the same section of borough code to this situation – violates the ‘fundamental rule’ enunciated by our Supreme Court ‘that an ordinance must establish a standard to operate uniformly and govern its administration and enforcement in all cases, and that an ordinance is invalid where it leaves its interpretation, administration or enforcement to the unbridled and ungoverned discretion, caprice or arbitrary action of the municipal legislative body or of administrative bodies or officials’”.

In short – how a law is worded really matters. If you need any more evidence, just look at what is happening to some poorly crafted executive orders in Washington.

Borough Councilor Greg Marlovits, who also chairs the Shade Tree Commission, was quoted by the Herald in 2015 that Mrs. Bassett’s issue was an example of the “first-world problems” that consume much of the time of Edgeworth officials. It’s both ironic and unfortunate that the universal ‘problem’ of human mortality serves as a postscript to her victory.

Mrs. Bassett, who had owned the property on Oliver Road for over 40 years, passed away on New Year’s Eve. Her obituary listed surviving relatives from outside the local area.

When asked about any plans that Mrs. Bassett’s heirs may have for her property or the trees, the law firm representing her in this dispute declined comment. Multiple voice mails left for Edgeworth Borough Manager John Schwend were not returned, either to myself or to the Sewickley Herald, which reported on this in their February 9 print edition.

The reticence of both parties likely signals that the dispute has basically ended with Mrs. Bassett’s passing. While I extend my sympathies to her family, I believe it is also important to recognize another recent triumph (see Larry Oswald) by an area landowner over municipal regulations that are ill-crafted and/or poorly administered.

Leetsdale Ordinances (New and Old) Target Renters

In August of last year, Leetsdale Borough Council passed an ordinance that establishes a new system of ticketing both property owners and tenants for violations of borough ordinances concerning code enforcement and conditions of properties, such as snow removal, excessive grass and weeds, and general upkeep.

code-enf-leetsdale-newsletter-sept-2016

Excerpt from September 2016 Leetsdale Borough newsletter. 

The new law provides the borough a self-administered means of enforcing its codes and ordinances, independent of the Magisterial District Court. It also enables borough officials to cite tenants, instead of just the property owner.

This past September I approached Leetsdale Council regarding what I thought were several glaring omissions in the ordinance, related primarily to a citizen’s right to due process of law. There was no procedure defined in the ordinance for anyone who might have the “audacity” to contest a ticket, and how that appeal would be received and administered by the borough.

Last month, council approved a policy document establishing an administrative process for tickets issued under the new ordinance. It also includes a requirement that photographic evidence of violations be obtained, and requires an explanation be provided if photos are for some reason unavailable.

Full disclosure – the photo evidence requirement was my idea. Council President Wes James invited my input into the development of the process, which I provided. Not all of my ideas were incorporated into the final document, but I appreciated the opportunity to be able to contribute.

Even if Otto von Bismarck was right about laws being like sausages (“it is better not to see them being made”), local government works better when an informed and engaged citizenry take the opportunity to participate in how their communities are governed. 

While I remain unconvinced of the ordinance’s potential effectiveness, at least those impacted by enforcement will get some reasonable semblance of a fair hearing. 

Additional research into Leetsdale’s ordinances also revealed one that has been on the books for over 10 years, but whose provisions have recently fallen into disfavor due to misapplication elsewhere.

Chapter 230-3, Section F of the Leetsdale Borough Code, enacted in 2006, establishes a mechanism by which a landlord can be forced to evict a tenant after the receipt by the borough of three “disruptive conduct” reports within a calendar year.

This “three strikes” approach fell under scrutiny, and into disfavor, after the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued the Borough of Norristown in 2013 over their application of a similar ordinance that threatened a female tenant and her landlord with eviction and fines over three 9-1-1 calls made for assistance due to the woman’s boyfriend attacking her – the last time putting her in the hospital, due in part to her perceived fear of eviction if she called for help.  

This case, along with similar ordinances in other communities, led to the introduction and passage of Act 200 of 2014, which is “intended to shield residents, tenants and landlords from penalties that may be levied pursuant to enforcement of an ordinance or regulation if police or emergency services respond to a residence or tenancy to assist a victim of abuse or crime or individuals in an emergency.”

Despite the law and publicity generated by the ACLU suit, municipalities continued to attempt enforcement of these types of ordinances, according to a Post-Gazette story from 2015.

Contacted by e-mail in December, Code Enforcement Officer James Ivancik stated the following –

In the years I have been involved with this ordinance in different municipalities that I have worked, it has never been used in the context that it was used in your referenced litigation. It is in place to ensure that neighbors and other persons of reasonable sensibility can have peaceful enjoyment of their premises.

The Borough, the police department and myself are highly empathetic in the use of this ordinance and understand the effects this ordinance may have on the Borough residents.

While I applaud Mr. Ivancik and other borough officials for their stance in this regard, there is no guarantee that this approach will remain in force under future borough administrations. 

Edgeworth’s experience with the courts would seem to send a cautionary signal to governments that do not administer their laws uniformly. One also need look no further than the change of power in Washington for another example.

I hope that Leetsdale council will see these developments as an opportunity to re-evaluate laws that are no longer enforceable, and repeal or revise the ordinances involved.

A Tull Timeline – Property Procurement Becomes a Pivot Point

I’ve been following with interest the arrival of Thomas Tull and his family into the local area. From his purchase of “Muottas” and surrounding acreage in November 2015, Mr. Tull and his representatives have been busy – especially of late.

I’ve spent enough time and space detailing in narrative form the considerable, and sometimes controversial, activities surrounding Mr. Tull’s acquisition of property in the local area. Here’s a timeline of what has transpired over the last 16 months, including recent activity that has more than a few heads being scratched in either curiosity, amazement, or something else:

  • November 2015 – Thomas Tull, as the Three Rivers Trust, purchases “Muottas” and surrounding acreage in both Edgeworth and Leet from Dr. and Mrs. Harlan Giles for $5.5 Million.
  • December 2015 – Mr. Tull creates controversy by filing for a demolition permit with Edgeworth Borough to take down the historic house.
  • January 2016 – Perhaps in response to the community outcry, Mr. Tull announces his intent to move “Muottas” to another site on the property, and build his new house on the site of the old one.
  • March – May 2016 – Mr. Tull makes purchases additional properties for $1.5 Million that will connect his existing land to Camp Meeting Road.
  • June 2016 – Operations begin to clear trees and construct a roadway connecting Camp Meeting Road to the site of the proposed construction and house-moving.  
  • July 2016 – Leet Township’s Zoning Hearing Board, before a standing-room audience, conducts a hearing July 11 on the application by Mr. Tull to establish a “gentleman’s farm” on his acreage in the township. 11 days later, the application for a variance to build the farm is withdrawn, but construction of a sugaring shack and an apiary continue on a portion of the property near Walker Park.
  • August 2016 – Mr. Tull purchases “The Farm” in Robinson Township, Washington County, for $3.65 Million.
  • January 2017 – The new farm operation, re-christened Rivendale Farms, is profiled at length along with an interview with Mr. Tull in a January 8 Post-Gazette story. Mr. Tull describes the property as a “working farm”, and indicated that his family would not be residing there. The operations as described in the P-G story certainly give that impression. 

Along with that reporting was information that most, if not all construction activity has ceased at the “Muottas” site –

          “We love the Sewickley community but when it became clear that some of the things we wanted to do wouldn’t be a good fit, we pivoted out of that,” Mr. Tull said.

           A foundation was also poured for a new modern house for Mr. Tull, his wife Alba and their three children. In November, Mosites Construction Co. stopped building the house.

           “It was going to take three years to build,” Mr. Tull said. “I am out of the business of building homes.”

  • February 2017 – The P-G reported on Valentine’s Day that Mr. Tull purchased the nearly 15,000 square-foot house built by Glen Meakem in 2007 along Woodland Road in Edgeworth. This house was built on the site of the 1854 Thomas Leet Shields house and surrounding outbuildings, which were demolished for this newer construction.

Included with this reporting is information that Mr. Tull intends to place the relocated “Muottas” and surrounding acreage on the market “soon”.

This does not include the sugaring shack or apiary, which are on a separate 42 acre parcel with the owner listed as 76CHSUGAR LLC. This may refer to the reported partnership between Mr. Tull and former Steeler Chris Hoke in the operation of this facility, as well as Rivendale Farms.

The latest P-G story included recent photos of “Muottas”, moved to a new foundation but missing the large porch that adorned the house in its original location. Perhaps this will be restored in the future by whomever acquires the house.

One can hope that those in the community that remain committed to historic preservation will continue to monitor activity involving this property, and that more local governments will seek to codify the preservation of historic properties within their boundaries.

The saga of acquisition, construction, relocation, and now what amounts to abandonment is almost dizzying in both the speed and expense involved. Along with the now-postponed construction of the new house where “Muottas” once stood will likely come the cancellation of significant sewer improvements for the property and through the Lark Inn Fields subdivision of Leetsdale.

Despite all this, I wish the Tull family a warm welcome to the Sewickley Valley. Hopefully they will enjoy Mr. Meakem’s house as much as they would have enjoyed their own. Perhaps when we take in a movie at the Tull Family Theater, or enjoy a breakfast that includes locally sourced honey and pure maple syrup, we can then truly appreciate the contributions made by their arrival to this area thus far.

The Future at Work

As it happens, we actually did get to see a movie during opening weekend at the “Jethro”. As one who remembers when Sewickley lost its movie house, having one again will hopefully enhance the character of the community for years to come. I’ll have more to say next time.

img_20170208_014643.jpgAs readers of the Herald have been reminded by full-page adsimg_20170218_072940.jpg in recent weeks, “character matters“. I’ll have more to say about that as well in the weeks ahead.

Sewickley’s future is inexorably tied to its past – we all need timely reminders of this fact.

To conclude on a positive note, this corner has also followed with interest the exploits of Leet Township teenager Elise Truchan, and the saga of her treehouse.

This week’s Herald features Miss Truchan making the most of her experience, by teaching others about doing the same.

Congratulations to Elise for continuing to make lemonade out of the lemons served up by her local government. Well done.

Best wishes and Godspeed.

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