After last week’s surprise, I was prepared to be disappointed when a crowd of residents interested in understanding more about the Township’s proposed Long Range Comprehensive Plan did not materialize. But I wasn’t disappointed at all: a dozen residents were there right from the start, and stayed through a relatively slow regular Council meeting so that they could participate in the discussion about the proposed Plan. One of them commented to me in the parking lot as we were coming in that she was back because she had realized the previous week that these meetings were one of the “best kept secrets” for interesting things to do in O’Hara Township. I definitely couldn’t disagree 🙂
As you’ll see from the agenda, there was some approval of minutes, opening of a bid, and reviews of reports that (as usual) the residents in attendance were left to wonder about since copies were not available for review. There was a brief discussion of the status of easement agreements for the Saxonburg sewer project (they are almost ready to go out to residents), and in the course of that discussion we learned that the Township provides free notary services to all residents for everything except auto title transfers. Just out of curiosity I did a quick search of the Township web site to see if I could have found this out without attending this particular Council meeting, but it doesn’t seem to be listed anywhere.
There was nothing on the agenda about the status of discussions with the Guyasuta Volunteer Fire Department, so I asked for an update. The Township is still waiting for the Department to reorganize and approach the Council with a plan, so for now they are not operating. There is a meeting of the Fire Funding and Safety Subcommittee on July 19 at 6pm, so if you are in the district formerly covered by Guyasuta and would like a more detailed update, you should attend that meeting.
The primary business during the Council Workshop was discussion of chapters 4 and 5 of the proposed Long Range Comprehensive Plan. Judy Spray, chair of the Planning Commission, was in attendance to answer questions about the proposed Plan. Betty Elias, a resident of The Mews, spoke eloquently, asking Council members to understand clearly the potential downside of a Plan that recommends rezoning in the Margery Drive area. As the discussion continued, it became clear that no one really knew how “transitional zoning” was defined. Judy Spray mentioned that it was a concept that had been successful elsewhere, but I realized later in the meeting that she meant “in places outside of O’Hara Township” since we have no “transitional zones” in the current O’Hara ordinance.
I took an opportunity to challenge the Council, asking why they were spending time discussing a Plan that they all agree is based on outdated data: the most current census data in the Plan is from 2000, and although some nice statistical work was done to project forward to 2010, projections are only that, and without real data, we’re simply guessing when we draw conclusions. As promised Julie had checked with the Plan consultant, and was informed that the 2010 data will be available in 90 days or so, at which time the proposed plan could be updated. I was a little frustrated with the willingness of the Council to spend time and energy on an exercise that they were most likely going to have to repeat when the new data was available, and in response it was pointed out that this proposed Plan was really only being done to satisfy a State requirement.
At that point I suggested that if this was true, then the Township had already spent far too much time and money on the project and they ought to stop wasting time, approve the Plan as is, and move on to more important business. The Council was a little taken aback by this (as they should have been). My point, of course, is that developing a Plan like this should not be a pro forma exercise completed simply to satisfy a requirement. In our case, it’s a real opportunity to do some strategic thinking about what our community might look like in 10 or 20 years. For instance, Sustainable Pittsburgh offers an intriguing “Rapid Assessment” designed to trigger thinking about issues of sustainability. Rather than spending time questioning exactly which plots available for development in the Saxonburg corridor are referred to in the proposed Plan, why not spend time discussing the questions in Sustainable Pittsburgh’s assessment during these workshop meetings? Take that one step further and encourage as many Township residents as possible to go through the Rapid Assessment and look at the results generated by the community. My husband and I completed the Rapid Assessment ourselves and found ourselves asking questions like “Is it really desirable to eliminate affordable residential units by rezoning the Margery Drive area? Rather than assuming that we should rezone because increased traffic is making it less desirable as a residential area, what policies could we put in place to reduce traffic given the continuing development of multi-family housing in the Fox Chapel Road/Freeport Road area?” It also occurred to us to ask “If the price of gasoline increases to $8 per gallon in the next five years, what policies should we be putting in place to encourage the development of a robust information infrastructure that will allow us to continue to attract a highly educated/high income population that may be more interested in working from home than commuting?” Or “What commercial enterprises could we encourage in the Township (especially along the Freeport Road corridor) that would reduce traffic as we look towards redevelopment rather than new development?”
The Council was quick to inform me that my questions were actually part of the Township’s “Strategic Plan.” And the response to my question about the age of THAT plan was a sheepish admission that it was already ten years old. All I can say is that if you’d like to see your Township Council stop wasting its time on pro forma planning exercises that do little more than employ a consultant to help them look in the rear view mirror and start having some real discussions about the future of our community, it would be a good thing to read the proposed Plan and make a commitment to attend Township Council Workshop meetings where the Plan will be discussed. The Council will take a break in August, with meetings currently on the calendar likely to be cancelled unless there is business that requires a Council vote. So put September 6 on your calendar if you’d like to help the Council be a bit more responsive to your concerns. There’s an election coming up in November and you are going to have the opportunity to choose two “at large” Council members, so now would be a good time to come out and evaluate your candidates.
Along these lines, I’ve been asked by the residents of The Mews to facilitate an information session on how the Township Council process works with specific reference to the Long Range Comprehensive Plan and how it may affect future zoning changes. That session will take place Tuesday, July 19 at 11am in the party room at the Fox Chapel Mews Condominium II at 302 Fox Chapel Road. Come on down if you’re interested in hearing more about what this is all about and how any resident can participate respectfully in the process and ensure that their concerns are heard.