My wife and I were both born in Sewickley Valley Hospital during the month of March. While we have both also lived in other regions of the country for extended periods of time, the bulk of our formative years were spent either in Sewickley, or very close to it.
Just as we existed in the same geographic area for many years without being aware of each other, our memories of the Sewickley area hold different significance for each of us.
I am acutely aware of places that aren’t there anymore – 6 of the 7 car dealerships that existed in the Sewickley of my youth. The old house on Walnut that my mother painted pink and opened as a shoe store in 1974. Carroll’s Music Shop and its owner, the late George Habers. The Sewickley Theater and Bill Wheat.
Across from the the theater was Isaly’s, where in the the summer of 1976 I feverishly scooped ice cream for patrons lined up three deep after All the President’s Men let out.
The Sewickley Herald and all of its locations around town, from the 600 block of Beaver to the Flatiron Building at Beaver and Division, to Hegner Way.
Leslie told me that she misses the majestic Sewickley Elementary School, and remembers fondly the Sewickley Pharmacy at Beaver and Walnut, and in particular its proprietor, the late Joseph Dzurec. She also relayed that by age 5 she was well aware of which businesses she was welcome in, and which ones she was not.
Leslie and I are both in agreement that our favorite place in Sewickley is an enduring edifice that remains a vital, dynamic force in shaping the character of the local community, especially its children – the Sewickley Public Library.
The borough’s signature “Village” business district has been heavy in the throes of change for several years, trying to reinvent itself as an area with unique and trendy retail and restaurant “experiences”, bolstered by unique events – all while trying to maintain a sense of the traditional that appears to be valued by those who call the borough home, as well as by many who visit.
This convergence of ideals and goals is presenting new challenges and opportunities, and is making for some lively interactions, as well as some things that make you go “hmmmm”. This is the first of a short series taking a look at a few of them.
Character Matters, But To Whom?
Full-page ads placed in the Herald editions of February 2 and February 9 signaled the apparent beginning of an effort to garner grassroots opposition to Sewickley Borough’s approval of a condominium development, on land that consisted of vacant houses along Blackburn Avenue and office space along Centennial Avenue between Blackburn and Locust Place – an area colloquially known as “Doctor’s Row”. History buffs may remember that the Herald established temporary quarters in this complex after fire severely damaged their building in November 1972.
According to the October 2016 meeting minutes of the Sewickley Planning Commission, as well as the November 21, 2016 minutes of Sewickley Council, numerous adjacent property owners and borough residents expressed concerns regarding this development, including the height of the buildings, which appear from artist’s renderings to dwarf any other commercial or multi-family structure in the immediate area. Other concerns included parking, light blockage, and a “governor’s drive” for a loading zone.
Both bodies approved the development in the face of this opposition.
Borough Solicitor Richard Tucker advised Council at the January 17 Committee of the Whole meeting that resident John LeCornu had filed an appeal of council’s approval. The initial complaint Mr. LeCornu filed in Common Pleas Court last December can be viewed here.¹
Earlier this month the nonprofit, unincorporated group “Character Matters”, which had purchased the Herald ads in February, filed a petition to intervene¹, or join, the appeal. President Peggy Standish and Secretary/Treasurer Anne Clarke Ronce are listed on the petition, which states that their membership includes “118 individuals who have an interest in the matter of the construction” of the condominium complex. Character Matters and Mr. LeCornu are represented by Pittsburgh attorney Peter Georgiades.
First contacted on March 16, Mr. LeCornu stated that the initial basis for the appeal is the nature in which council conducted the November 21 meeting, which Mr. LeCornu termed a “mob scene”, and that several speakers were interrupted by an attorney for the developer, Zamagias Properties.
According to Mr. LeCornu, the court stenographer’s transcript that he obtained gave a greater illustration of the chaotic nature of the hearing, adding that “3 or 4 speakers were shouted down” by this attorney. A copy of this transcript, and other documents pertaining to the development, can be viewed here.¹
Mr. LeCornu stated that the appeal seeks to invalidate the land use hearing and its findings due to violations of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, related to the failure of the borough to provide adequate space and time for public comment, and to assure that decorum was maintained. If that was successful, they then intended to pursue the development application on its merits, or the lack thereof.
During a hearing on March 20 before Judge Joseph James, attorneys for the developers were granted a motion to quash¹ the land use portion of the appeal. Mr. LeCornu stated on March 21 that he and Character Matters can only challenge the results of the meeting based on the alleged violations of the Sunshine Act, and that the penalties against the borough for such a violation may not invalidate any decision reached during that meeting.
Mr. LeCornu lamented the “adversarial atmosphere” that accompanies many of these public meetings, and wondered out loud why many local elected officials seem unapproachable and aloof. He added that his group lacks the financial resources to pursue any further appeals beyond that involving the Sunshine Act.
Multiple attempts to contact Anne Clarke Ronce were unsuccessful. Character Matters does not appear to have a website, nor a presence on any social media platform.
Herald Absent Once Again…
Alongside any alleged misfeasance on the part of Sewickley Borough and its appointed and/or elected officials is the lack of media coverage of these events as they happened, and continue to occur.
The Herald did report on the proposed development in July 2016, and again in early October. The latter story included concerns regarding a seemingly questionable, one-person Zoning Hearing Board ruling, along with some of the same issues expressed during subsequent government meetings.
I can find no other Herald reporting on those Planning Commission and Council hearings, or the vocal opposition related to both the project and the approvals granted.
Mr. LeCornu stated that as of March 21, he had not been contacted by any Herald reporter regarding the appeal.
This issue represents to me one of the most visibly contentious involving local government in recent memory – an issue in which the Herald, for as yet unexplained reasons, has been essentially mute.
After Trib Total Media announced layoffs and the closure of some of its weekly newspapers last September, Herald News Editor Bobby Cherry sent a mass e-mail in early November that sought to address rumors that the Herald would be among the weeklies being shuttered. He wrote, in part:
We know local news is important. In the last several weeks — and especially within the last few days — I’ve heard from many readers who have been concerned the Herald was closing. They all indicated how important the Herald is to them for knowing what’s going on in our community — from news to events to sports, etc.
There was one common theme among all of their messages. Here are just a few examples from people:
» “I wouldn’t know anything that was happening locally without the Herald.”
» “I’d never know what was going on in my own town!”
» “Where else would I find out what’s going on in Sewickley?”
No other publication or service regularly reaches as many people in the Sewickley Valley as the Sewickley Herald.
While that last statement may be true, multiple attempts to reach Mr. Cherry in the last week via e-mail and voicemail messages were unsuccessful.
What good is such a pervasive local publication if it fails to consistently report on those issues that so many citizens seem to be concerned about? This isn’t the first time in recent years that the Herald has appeared to drop the ball with regard to controversial decisions made by municipal governments. There needs to be a consistent commitment toward assuring that the Herald is represented at as many official meetings of municipal government as possible.
On the positive side, it does appear that more emphasis is being placed on doing exactly that. The March 16 Herald included reporting on a decision by Sewickley Council that smacks of the questionable if not incredulous, given the controversial issues and significant public dissent in recent months.
Reporter Matthew Peaslee did a good job of making comparisons to other local governmental bodies and their meeting schedules, as well as getting input from a well-known media law advocacy group.
If Sewickley chooses to respond to heightened levels of public involvement by reducing the number of opportunities for the public to learn about and participate in their government, what message does that send?
Sewickley Council, to its credit, seems to do a competent job of trying to preserve much of the historic character of the borough. Sometimes those efforts seem to defy explanation, especially with regard to recent larger projects. The borough approved the Elmhurst development over neighborhood opposition, and fought one resident in court for several years.
I believe that the character of the borough does matter to them, but character doesn’t pay the bills. When a project that promises a healthy property tax potential comes along, many things must be weighed in the balance of maintaining the kind of community Sewickley desires to be. The question remains if their efforts will be found wanting in the eyes of citizens.
“Where else would I find out what’s going on in Sewickley?” By the very nature of the technology available to distribute information via the Internet, the answer is literally lots of places – one reason that print media is finding it hard to stay relevant. Most local municipalities deserve credit for maintaining some form of robust web presence – even tiny Glenfield Borough offers a comprehensive website that is regularly updated. Several are included in the sidebar of this blog.
Instead of buying full-page ads in the Herald, Character Matters could have retained a marketing consultant, who could have built a website and e-mail domain, created social media pages, and developed an e-mail newsletter. Smaller, less expensive print ads referring interested readers to the website and social media could also have been added to the mix, to cover all bases.
This combination has the potential to reach more citizens than just print advertising, and also affords the ability to provide frequent updates, solicit participation and/or funding support, and most importantly retain greater control of the message being delivered.
Just as ignorance of the law is no excuse, neither is a lack of knowledge regarding the manner in which local government conducts business. While Sewickley officials may have engaged in questionable conduct in certain aspects of this land use approval, concerned citizens have the ability to learn more about those operations through online resources such as the Civics and You PA site, and the Sunshine Act information page.
As it stands now, any barometer for community outrage may very well be related to the eventual (if not inevitable) construction of the complex. Should Sewickley residents begin to react negatively as the condo buildings begin to rise, I’m wondering if those feelings will translate themselves into a grassroots activism that can be harnessed into political action – much as we are seeing around the country in response to the election of Donald Trump.
Should such feelings indeed materialize, it may be advantageous for groups such as Character Matters to focus their efforts on effective organization, as well as candidate recruitment for the next municipal election cycle.
It will be interesting to see how citizens, their local government, and our local journalists react to those opportunities in the months ahead.
To be continued…
¹ LeCornu v. Borough of Sewickley, Allegheny County Department of Court Records
Sewickley Valley Historical Society, Nicholas Theis (Elementary School Photo)