Tonight’s Council workshop was definitely one of the most remarkable meetings I’ve attended since I started showing up on a regular basis in 2009. On a nice summer evening, I am not surprised to see the parking lot filled with cars — there’s usually a Little League game at the park, and many people use the Township lot when the park lot fills up. But I was completely surprised to walk into the Council chamber and notice that the room was filled: there were over 20 faces that I’d never seen there before! The agenda wasn’t particularly remarkable, so I couldn’t imagine why they were there…unless….
Yes, it WAS something I’d said. Richard Sullivan, the president of the Mews II Homeowners Association had contacted me last week to ask what I knew about discussions of zoning changes on Council and wondering whether it would be a good idea to encourage Mews residents to attend meetings. I’d explained that the Council was reviewing the proposed Long Range Comprehensive Plan during Council workshops, and that it would be a great idea for anyone interested in how that plan might affect zoning to show up on a regular basis starting right now. So as I stood at the door looking around in surprise, it was Dr. Sullivan who jumped up to introduce himself, as did several others — I counted 22 in all! And John Denny called out with amusement “I think they’re all here for you, Cindy.”
Of course they weren’t all there for me: they were there because they were interested in finding out how the proposed Long Range Comprehensive Plan would affect zoning around the Mews, and wanted a voice in the process of finalizing the Plan. Some of them had read the Executive Summary of the Plan that I pointed to in May and realized that one recommendation included in the current draft referenced rezoning in the Margery Drive area. So they were interested and concerned…and they came out to make sure they would have complete information on what was being suggested and be able to voice their own opinions about what the Plan should say about that rezoning.
So a “boring” meeting about a document that the Township creates every ten years mostly because the Pennsylvania Municipal Code requires it turned into a lively exchange of ideas and opinions. Everyone was clear, everyone was respectful, and some even verged on visionary. Residents of the Mews made it clear that they were not in favor even of a “transitional” zoning that would permit professional offices in the existing houses: they see it as an opening to more “transitions” that would eventually result in the whole area becoming commercial. Council members empathized, and they are also concerned about related issues regarding traffic at the entrances and exits to Route 28 as well as the Freeport Road/Fox Chapel Road intersection. I think no one is yet ready to propose a particular plan, but the discussion that took place just on this issue was an excellent start to the process of reviewing the entire Long Range Strategic Plan that will take place over the next four to six months.
And that was just the discussion that took place during the “Citizens Concerns” portion of the meeting! During the time actually budgeted for discussion of the Plan, some very interesting comments were made by Council members. John Denny kicked it off by noting that he was disappointed not to be able to identify a real vision of where the Township was headed. He’s interested in identifying a small number of key points that would give residents an engaging view of where the Township is going over the next ten years, and using those points to create a summary brochure that could be distributed to Township residents. He was also surprised to note that the idea of creating a “sustainable community” was not really included in the Plan.
Bart Bodkin noted that the Plan was already out of date: it was first passed along from the consultant to the Planning Commission a year ago, and since then the 2010 census data has become available while the Plan still relies on 2000 census data to substantiate its conclusions.
Bob Smith noted that the Plan seems not so different than the last one, thought it was very unexciting to read, and wondered whether that was because it was an exercise that was required rather than one entered into as an opportunity to think creatively about our community.
John Denny also mentioned that he found the traffic analysis very interesting, especially the data that reflected changing patterns in the RIDC Park area as the mix of businesses in the Park changes from a few large to many smaller. Since RIDC Park has a Pittsburgh address, it’s become attractive to a large number of smaller businesses that see such an address as an asset, and that has introduced challenges that were not envisioned when the Park was first designed.
Julie Jakubec explained to Council members and residents that the Long Range Strategic Plan points to things that we should look at, but that the Plan itself has no force in law. In order for the Plan to take effect, Council will have to vote on ordinances. Specific zoning recommendations will come from discussion of the Plan recommendations.
Next week the Council will continue its review of the proposed Long Range Comprehensive Plan. Judith Spray, the chair of the Planning Commission, will be in attendance to give her insight and answer questions. The Council agreed to continue with a chapter-by-chapter review beginning with Chapters 4 (Housing and Households) and 5 (Socio-economic Profile) since the first three chapters are a review of past history of the Township and previous planning efforts. Julie will be contacting the consultant to request that the Plan be updated with 2010 census figures. And the entire Plan is now available for review on the Township web site with the exception of the maps, as they were deemed to be “too large” to download. I don’t think they’re “too large” though, at least not broken down into several files as I have done, so if you want to download them, I’ve made them available here.
In other news from the meeting, there was a bit of followup on something that I was remiss in reporting from last month’s meetings. At the June 7 Council Workshop, John Denny opened the meeting by introducing a resolution to withdraw funding from the Guyasuta Volunteer Fire Department, effectively decertifying it and preventing it from taking calls. John has been part of the Fire and Public Safety committee, working with all of the departments to ensure proper fire coverage for all residents. Part of that discussion included changes to “run cards” that determine which departments are called first for assistance based on the address of the affected property. Certain changes to the run cards for Guyasuta were a condition for receiving Township funding, and John had discovered that despite assurances to the contrary, changes that should have been made more than a year ago had not yet been made. He believes that this potentially jeopardizes the lives of children (since FCAHS was part of the affected area) and other residents. He moved to suspend funding until there was a leadership change, the changes were made in the run cards, and a coordinator was identified to work with the neighboring fire districts. The motion was approved unanimously.
Former Council member Dempsey Bruce is a member of one of the other fire companies and happened to be sitting next to me, so during the break taken immediately after the vote, I asked him to explain what this was all about. He told me that the fire chief for each department was responsible for telling Allegheny County 911 dispatch the order in which neighboring fire departments should be called when assistance is required. The Chief at Guyasuta was in the habit of calling Oakmont or other non-O’Hara departments before calling Fox Chapel, Parkview or Pleasant Valley. This caused significant response delays to residents and businesses, so the Council had requested the “run sheets” to be updated. When John discovered that they had not been, he informed the Council, and the Council voted to suspend funding as an indication of its loss of confidence in Guyasuta leadership. During the suspension neighboring companies from Blawnox, Aspinwall, Fox Chapel and Sharpsburg are covering Guyasuta’s territory. A complete press release from the Township is available here.
At the June 14 Council Meeting, Julie updated Council on the Guyasuta situation. Fire call zones and run codes had been immediately re-worked with various fire departments in the area. O’Hara’s other fire departments have repaired and learned to operate Guyasuta’s aerial truck, and calls in Guyasuta’s area have been effectively handled by other departments. A consulting firm, Matrix Inc. had been asked to assist with the Guyasuta company reorganization at a fee of $175 per hour. In order for Matrix to get involved, the cooperation of the Guyasuta company would be required. Julie reported that to date no request for such assistance has been received.
Julie also indicated that she was moving forward on forming a group of experienced firefighters from O’Hara and surrounding areas to assist Guyasuta with the reorganization. A member of the Guyasuta department happened to be sitting next to me, so I asked him whether the Company wanted such assistance. He hesitated and then told me he could not comment, so I stood up to ask the Council that question and was informed that there had been no request from Guyasuta for such assistance.
Turned out that I had hit the nail on the head with that question: the next speaker was a lawyer for Guyasuta Volunteer Fire Department. He reminded Council that the Company was a private not for profit organization that has assisted the community for sixty years, responding to 80% of the Township’s calls. No prior complaints had been received and the department has been held up as an example at various forums. The Department and its members dispute Council statements and actions, and feel that at least it would have been courteous to give some notice in writing. He also mentioned that the Guyasuta chief had been arrested for assault and now was suspended and no longer participating in fire company activities. The lawyer claimed that run cards had been submitted as far back as last August and that Allegheny County 911 had been using them. He pointed out that in any case, the Township may have the right to withdraw funding, but since the Department is a private organization, the Township does not have the right to dictate leadership or organization. The Department would be willing to discuss return to service on reasonable terms. Council member Bart Bodkin proposed an immediate meeting, and Julie indicated that that such a meeting could happen on June 16.
An update on this situation at the July 5 workshop indicated that there was still no significant communication between the Township and the Guyasuta Department. Council member Brian Kozera mentioned that there had apparently been some inappropriate and harassing remarks aimed at Julie and police chief Jim Farringer posted on the Guyasuta web site, but that they had been quickly removed. Bob Smith reiterated that the Township would be happy to assist Guyasuta with a reorganization if the members were amenable, and also commented that there had been no negative feedback from the public to date.
Tonight’s Council workshop concluded with a comment from Council member Mark Rothert that the vegetation along Saxonburg needs to be trimmed. Julie pointed out that this is a State maintained road, and that if O’Hara just “takes care of it” then the State will assume that it will always be “taken care of” rather than maintaining it as they should. She will call the DOT and mention that this is a “potentially hazardous situation” and see if she can get them to deal with the problem immediately.
That’s all for this week. Thanks again to those from The Mews who came out in force to participate. I think many were surprised to find that the process and the discussion were far more interesting than they imagined, and I hope that many will continue to come out to participate in the review of the Long Range Comprehensive Plan and begin to understand a little more about how our government works. Several mentioned that it might be good to have some informal sessions where citizens can review the chapters of the Plan that will be discussed by Council at each meeting so that we can come to the meetings prepared to contribute intelligently to the process. If we get something going on that, I’ll let you know here and encourage you to bring friends. Or just show up at the Council meeting next week and be as pleasantly surprised by the process as those who came tonight were. I’ll look forward to seeing you next Tuesday at 7pm!