Why open discussion in O’Hara Township is important

As I was reading the Post Gazette the other morning, my eye was caught by an article discussing the tracking of water used in drilling operations (Bill Tolland, “Tracking fracking water goes high-tech,” 5/10/11).  It immediately got me thinking about whether the Gas Drilling Ordinance #1239 passed by O’hara Township Council last month made any provisions for tracking of water. Since my daughter is graduating from college in Massachusetts this weekend, it took me until today to track that down. The short answer:  it doesn’t.  In fact, the ordinance doesn’t even mention fracking water.  Nor do I recall the issue of “what happens to the water” ever being discussed.  That’s mostly because there wasn’t any significant discussion of this ordinance in public.  Had Council gone to the effort of actively encourage residents to come out to the two meetings (and especially the public hearing) where our ordinance was introduced (and not discussed), perhaps someone would have noticed the omission and encourage the Council to go back and do its homework a little more carefully.  In this particular case, the technology for tracking water is readily available, and it would have been a simple thing to require any drilling operation in the Township to utilize such technology.  Who knows what else we missed?  I’m only now beginning to understand many of the subtleties of the debate on this topic.

That article also got me thinking about my other “favorite” ordinance, #1237 (…To Provide Regulations of Certain Energy Generating Structures and Facilities… which the Council passed back in February.  I spoke up at the 10-minute-long public hearing to say that I was concerned that the Ordinance (touted by several on Council as making it “easier” for residents to install renewable energy sources) did nothing of the sort.  Since there were no restrictions on, for example, installing solar panels on a roof or a geothermal device next to your house prior to #1237, all that was necessary was the usual construction permit. Now that we have an ordinance there are many additional restrictions, including a limit on the extent of a roof that can be used for solar power. The only explanation for why this was necessary was “safety reasons,” (which still didn’t seem to me as though it needed anything more than the existing construction ordinance) and a comment by a Council member that “it might not look so good to have too many panels.”  Then in March I read “Replacing Your Roof With Solar Shingles” in the Post-Gazette (3/22/11). These solar panels certainly have no safety issues of the kind envisioned by our Township engineer, nor do they have the same aesthetic concerns as the 30-year-old technology that the Councillors had in mind when they created the regulation might engender.  But the way our ordinance is written, a homeowner would actually have to ask for a variance in order to install this new technology.  All because the Council did not go out of its way to inform residents (some of whom might have been aware that the ordinance as proposed was already outdated) that this “enhancement” to the Zoning Ordinance was being discussed.

There’s a primary election coming up on Tuesday.  I’m a candidate on the Republican ballot, along with Bob Smith and Bart Bodkin, both of whom are currently Council members.  If you’re a registered Republican and you agree that we need to be doing a better job of engaging residents in ongoing discussions about important issues, please come out and cast one of your two votes for me.

If you’re a registered Democrat, I’d encourage you to come out and write me in on the ballot. There’s only one other candidate (you get to vote for two), and even if the Democratic party decides that it would be unacceptable to have a Republican representing them on the fall ballot, I think it’s still worth registering your concerns by casting a write-in vote if you agree with my interest in involving as many residents as possible in the processes of our community.

See you at the polls!

Cindy

Council meeting update, sewer project town hall meeting, more

With the primary election coming up and my daughter graduating from college in Massachusetts this weekend I’ve been crazy busy, so this will be a single jam-packed post rather than the two that I intended to do this past week.

At the Council meeting last Tuesday, the main topic was the proposed Long Range Comprehensive Plan.  The committee that created the plan began its work in 2007, and Jeff Pierce, of Olsen & Associates, LLC reviewed the process that was used to create the plan and highlighted some of the key issues.  Of particular interest was the discussion about the intersection of Fox Chapel Road, Old Freeport Road, and Freeport Road, and the Route 28 interchange.  Since the last comprehensive plan 10 years ago conditions have changed considerably, and significant zoning changes will need to be made in order to implement the recommendations included in the Plan.

The executive summary is now online and I recommend that everyone spend some time looking through it. Copies of the complete plan are available at the Township offices, but you can’t take one home, you can only look at it during office hours.  I’ve asked several times if the entire plan could be made available online, but have been told that it’s “too big.”  I’m not accepting that argument:  if we can put a 53-page executive summary online, we ought to be able to make the other 11 chapters available, each as a separate document if necessary.  Call the Township office and let them know if you agree with me that it’s inexcusable in 2011 to insist that residents must get their information from a physical book that can only be used in a particular location.  I’ve had a chance to leaf through the entire Plan, and there’s some fascinating information in there that seems a shame to keep generally unavailable to the public.  If I were on Council right now I’d be suggesting not only that we put the entire plan online (and make it visible — I’ll challenge anyone to find it on the Township web site) and have copies available in the Township office, but that we also place copies at the library.  This is public information, and important information at that, and it needs to get the widest possible exposure.  Council will continue to review it over the next several months with an eye towards approving it sometime in the fall.  Hopefully we’ll hear some good discussion and have several public meetings before then.

On Saturday morning I attended the second of two “Town Hall Council Meetings” to discuss the Saxonburg sanitary sewer project.  This was an excellent meeting with a great deal of useful information presented and good give and take between Council and the residents.  This sewer project has about a 20 year history and has been through several iterations.  To make a long story shorter, the original focus was to take the sewage down Saxonburg Blvd. to Route 8.  Unfortunately that turns out to be an extremely expensive and disruptive job that would also require a complicated four-party agreement, so over the years the affected Townships have been reluctant to take on the project.  But at this time something needs to be done:  O’Hara’s three existing pump stations in this area are now nearing their end of life and will not support any further development in the area.

The option being discussed is to create a single large pump station that will replace all three of the old stations and pump the sewage up to Dorseyville Rd. and over the hill to Pleasant Valley.  Even without participation from Indiana Township (who has not yet responded to O’Hara’s proposals), the cost of this option should be manageable.  Homes within 250 feet of the line will be required to tap in, and there will be an additional assessment for the tap in addition to the basic assessment.  We won’t know what the new assessments will be until the bids are in and we find out what grants are available and whether the Deer Creek Drainage basin will participate. Assessments will be based on the number of homes that could be built and the longest possible timeframe under the State special tap provisions so that any new homes built would pay the same assessment as existing homes. There will be a variety of payment options and reduced assessment options based on income.  Indiana residents who have inquired about tapping in have been told that they will be able to do so if they can get their flow to the new station.  Easements will be required, and the Township plans to offer financial assessments to residents who sign easement agreements by an established deadline.

The plan is to start getting easement agreements signed next month with public meetings this summer and in the early fall.  Ideally the Township would solicit bids in late fall with a four month lead time and plan to start construction in the spring of 2012. The project will take 12 to 18 months to complete.

I’m not aware of any written information about this project, so if you would like to know more, call the Township offices during business hours or speak to your Council representative.

Finally, there’s a public hearing and Township Council meeting tomorrow evening starting at 7pm.  The public hearing is to discuss a plan by Fox Chapel Marine to replace their temporary boat maintenance structure with a more permanent structure.  The agenda of the Council meeting is unremarkable aside from a first reading “Amending and Restating Ordinance No. 1219 in its Entirety Enacting and Establishing Rules and Regulations for the Use of Township Park and Recreation Facilities.”  I’m hoping it’s not more about whether we ought to allow pot-bellied pigs to be walked in the parks, but you never can tell.  It’s only a first reading, so residents haven’t been privileged to see the new amendments and restatements.

I won’t be able to attend the meeting tomorrow, and my entire family of substitute note-takers is also committed elsewhere, so if there’s anyone out there who would like to send me an update for this blog, I’d be happy to post it.  It will take at least for weeks for the minutes to be approved, and I’m not sure I could find them on the Township web site after that, so it’s best to be there in person.

Happy spring!

Cindy

 

 

Township Council Workshop Tuesday night 7pm

The agenda is now available for tonight’s workshop. Of particular interest will be a review of the Township’s proposed Long Range Comprehensive Plan by Jeff Pierce, of Olsen & Associates, LLC. If you’re planning to live in the Township for the next few years I’d highly recommend you come out to hear this discussion.

Also on the agenda:

  • Review of recommended amendments to Township parks rules and regulations. I hope we won’t be discussing pigs in the parks again, but you never can tell.
  • A preview of proposed replacement street signs for the Township.  PennDOT has dictated that all signs must be replaced, and there’s already been some discussion about whether to continue with the current signage or change to something far less expensive but more generic.
  • Proposed dedication to the Township of a sanitary sewer line along Field Club Ridge Rd.  This ought to be routine, but if you live in the area, you may have other opinions so please come out and speak if you do.
  • Several applications for variances and minor land development
  • Discussions of staff recommendations on several contracts including trash and salt.

And, of course, the ever popular “Citizen Comments Concerning Non-Agenda Items” slot will be available for the average citizen to voice his or her concerns.  But you don’t need to do that:  just come to the meeting and listen.  A room full of attentive citizens who ask intelligent questions when appropriate is the best way to ensure that decisions are made with all of the relevant information taken into account.

See you there!

Cindy

Township of O’Hara Passes Marcellus Shale Ordinance

I mentioned in passing my last posting that the Council approved minutes from last month’s meetings on Tuesday night.  One set of minutes* approved was of the public hearing on Bill B8-2011, An Ordinance Amending the Zoning Ordinance To Regulate Gas Resources Development. That’s kind of an obscure title, and since there was only minimal public notice given that the bill was under consideration, you might not realize that this was the public hearing on O’Hara’s very own version of a Marcellus Shale drilling ordinance. There were three residents present for the hearing:  myself, and two other regular attendees.  Oh, and a troupe of Boy Scouts who came to satisfy the requirements for their communications badges.  The hearing lasted less than 10 minutes.  There was only one member of the public who spoke:  me.  All I wanted to know was what the reasoning was behind Council’s decision to permit drilling as a conditional use in residential zones.  Yes, that’s right:  the ordinance authorizes drilling as a conditional use in R1, R2 and the Suburban Manufacturing zones. I received no real response other than “It seems like we need to let people do what they want with their property.”

After the hearing closed, the Council went immediately into its regular meeting. During that meeting, and with no discussion, they approved B8-2011 unanimously, so it’s now part of our zoning ordinance.  That was the second reading, by the way.  The first reading took place in February.  There were only two of us there to hear it.  It passed unanimously (with no substantive discussion) at that meeting also.  And of course no member of the public had access to the text of the proposed ordinance during that meeting:  the Council does not release the text of proposed ordinances until AFTER the first reading.  Yes, that’s right:  our Council habitually approves ordinances that no member of the public has had a chance to review.  There are no copies available at Council meetings.

Now let me make something clear:  I’m not taking a position here on whether the gas development ordinance itself is “good” or “bad.”  There are many reasons why we SHOULD have an ordinance regulating gas drilling in the Township.  In the last 18 months, communities that did not have any such ordinance have found that gas development is causing serious problems over which they have no control.  This past week alone the Post-Gazette reported that Ben Avon and Emsworth voted not to approve a lease signed by the Avonworth Municipal Authority to permit drilling under ACORD Municipal Park.  The City of Pittsburgh has approved an ordinance prohibiting all gas development. Harmar, South Fayette, Cranberry and many other communities are considering or have considered ordinances.  The difference between O’Hara and most of these communities is that in O’Hara, the lack of publicity about upcoming Council action led to no significant public participation. Almost every other community had a least a modicum of healthy discussion and sometimes debate about the issues before an ordinance was approved, and in some cases the public hearing raised public concerns that caused a final vote to be postponed so that the proposed ordinance could be reviewed and revised.

So here’s my suggestion. Read the ordinance.  Read up on Marcellus Shale issues.  Decide for yourself whether you think the ordinance is appropriate for our Township.  And if you don’t think it is appropriate, come out to the regular Township Council meeting on May 3 at 7pm at the Township building.  It won’t be on the agenda (we actually don’t have an available agenda yet so there’s no way to know what WILL be on the agenda), but the agenda always includes an opportunity for public comment on “non-agenda items.”  Step up to the mic, give your name and address, and tell your Council what you think.

If you can’t make it to the regular Council meeting on May 3, there’s another one on May 10.  Come anytime.  Hear what’s going on.  Encourage your Council to do a much better job publicizing their business.  Encourage them to make all documents to be discussed in public at every meeting available to the public at LEAST at the meeting if not on the Township web site before the meeting.  No more “first readings” of any ordinance with no intelligent discussion.  No more “public hearings” that last only 5 minutes because no one knows they’re scheduled. No more of Council declining to explain their thinking on issues because their lawyers tell them “it’s not required.”

Every Council member needs to be accountable in public to every one of the residents in his or her district (or at large).  The Council responds to people who show up, so if no one shows up, there is no pressure to be accountable. That’s why I’m writing this blog and running a Council campaign:  I want to see us develop into a community that engages in intelligent discussion about major issues.  If I can manage to make it to more than 80% of the Council meetings just to hear what’s going on, I’m hopeful that many of you can find time to make it to at least three or four meetings  a year and become comfortable with the process of citizen participation.

Hope to see you on May 3 right at 7pm!  Citizen comments are often first on the agenda…

Cindy

* I can’t find minutes available on the Township’s web site since the re-design. If anyone knows where they are, please drop me a note and I’ll link them here.

April 12 Council Meeting and Workshop Update

This meeting was a great example of all the reasons we ought to attend these meetings: when the agenda looks boring and empty, there are often hidden treasures that you’ll never hear about unless you’re there:

  • Under “Concerns of Staff” Township Manager Julie Jakubec mentioned that the State apparently has a new program that will allow residents to acquire abandoned property adjacent to their own yards as a “side yard” at reduced cost for the property and with waivers of some of the usual transfer fees.  I didn’t catch all of the details,  but watch “The Herald” for an advertisement.  Or we can wait a month until the minutes of this meeting are approved and publicized and check back then.  I hope it won’t be too late: I think I heard Julie say that only two such applications can be approved per community.
  • At the beginning of the workshop session, Julie asked the Council if they would be willing to listen to an unscheduled presentation on the Aspinwall Marina project from Susan Crookston.   Susan is a dynamo of a young woman who noticed the property available on the river in Aspinwall, envisioned it as a park, asked a friend who happened to be a landscape architect to draw up a plan, and then began figuring out who she would have to work with to make the project happen.  To make a long story short, not only was she able to answer technical questions from the Council with more confidence than most developers evince when seeking approvals, Susan also announced that she and her friends have already raised $1.2 million of the $2.3 million needed by October to acquire the property.  They’re looking for a “naming gift,” so if you or anyone you know might be interested, give the Township office a call and have them put you in touch with Susan. There’s also a bit more detail on the project in this short article from last November’s Herald.
  • The most exciting item that was actually on the agenda was a discussion of the Township Long Range Comprehensive Plan.  There has been a long-range planning commission working since May of 2007 to develop the plan.  The final plan with all comments incorporate is almost ready.  The Township Manager plans to make an executive summary available on the Township web site, and a full copy of the book containing the plan is available now at the desk during business hours.  It was strongly suggested to Julie that it would be a good idea to make the entire plan available electronically.  This is something that we really ought to at least browse through before it comes up in front of Council.  Its intent is to provide a look at where the Township stands now in areas ranging from population to commerce to land use to sewers, roads, and other infrastructure, to cultural and recreational resources, and beyond.  Then it projects these forward ten years into the future and makes recommendations for zoning changes, improvements to infrastructure, and so on to meet the needs identified by Township residents and consultants hired by the planning committee to assist with the process.  Cranberry has an interesting long-range plan available on the web that you might want to look at to get an idea of what’s included.  And let’s all encourage our Township Manager to make our own plan available electronically. Julie seemed concerned that it might be too difficult to create a PDF, but maybe she could call Cranberry and find out how they did it 🙂

That’s all for this meeting.  Pretty good for an agenda that inclined one to say “Nothing important on the agenda,” eh?  Don’t forget about the meetings on the Saxonburg Boulevard Area Sanitary Sewer Project on April 26 (7pm) and May 7 (9am)! They’re not on the Township web site yet and the Council minutes where those meetings were discussed won’t be coming out until they’re approved next month.  But at least you heard about it here and can call the Township office for details 🙂

Township Council Regular Meeting and Workshop, Tues 4/12/11 @ 7pm

The agenda is now available for the upcoming Council meeting and workshop. Of particular interest:

  • During the regular meeting the Council will approve minutes for last month’s meetings. When the minutes are posted on the Township web site I’ll write about them here.  It usually takes only a month for the Township to let residents know what transpired at a meeting.  But it’s always better if you can be there to observe the discussion for yourself.
  • Here’s a big one:  during the workshop session there will be a discussion of the timetable for adopting and approving the Township’s “Long Term Comprehensive Plan.” I’m sure we’ll all be interested to hear about this.  From the way the item is listed it sounds like there’s already a recommended plan, but as far as I know it is not yet available to residents and maybe not even to the Township Council.  So come on out and let’s see if having enough of us turn up for such a discussion encourages council members and staff to share what they know with those of us who vote and pay taxes.

Looking forward to seeing you at the meeting.  I’ll have yard signs in my car, so if you’d like one, be sure to ask me.  I’ve been encouraged by the number of people who have already seen one of the few that are out and contacted me directly.  It’s a good start, but more would be better.

Cindy

April 5 Township Council Meeting Update

There were a few items of more than passing interest discussed at the meeting Tuesday night:

  • Stephanie Flom reported that the fundraising for the new community center building is just about half complete.  In addition there are discussions underway with the YMCA that could result in a partnership that would bring an indoor pool and associated Y programs to the new facility to augment the already vibrant cultural programs.  She also mentioned that the new library will be opening on April 30.  Check the library web site for more details.
  • There was a brief discussion regarding enforcement of the provisions of the zoning ordinance covering parking of trailers and boats.  The general consensus is that the ordinance needs to be updated since there are places in the Township where it is not possible for residents to park these vehicles except in their driveways, and that is technically prohibited.  The ordinance is currently being enforced only when the Township receives a specific complaint, and even then “enforcement” is often simply some encouragement to the neighbors to work things out appropriately.  This will continue until the next major overhaul of the zoning ordinances when this and other pending changes will be addressed and the entire ordinance updated.
  • The item on the agenda regarding energy cost savings turned out to be of particular interest to me.  Not because it offered anything of value in and of itself, but because it didn’t:  it was an item that never should have made the agenda in the first place.  Energy Savers, Inc. turns out to be one of many providers of electric power in the Commonwealth, and their approach to “team” with Township was really an effort to get the Township to send out advertising to residents regarding their services.  Since they ARE just one of many, it’s pretty clear that we shouldn’t be doing this. Nor should we be even telling Township residents about all such vendors in a non-biased way as one council member suggested.  It’s simply not a Township function.

    But one great thing came out of the discussion:  Stephanie Flom pointed out  that the library really IS a resource for information, and that they would be interested in planning a community-wide “energy fair” with a full-blown program that could include players like Energy Savers discussing their programs as well as “green” builders and home renovation experts presenting a variety of ways to make your home (and life) more energy-efficient.  It’s nice when all the right players are in the room and something like this springs to life!

  • Not much new on the Saxonburg Boulevard Area Sanitary Sewer Project.  There will be two “Township Council Town Hall Meetings” held at the Township Building on Tuesday, April 26 at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, May 7 at 9:00 a.m.  They’ll be announced as Council meetings so that if four Council members attend,  the requirements for announcing an official meeting will have been met, but the only item on the agenda at these meetings will be the sewer project. If you use Saxonburg Boulevard on a regular basis and certainly if you live in that corridor it would be a good idea to attend one of these meetings.  Understanding the need for the project and understanding how it will be executed will help us all to be a little more patient with the disruption that the implementation is bound to cause.  There are also interesting financing and property issues attached to the project, and it’s always good to be aware of how our local government is dealing with these types of issues.

Next week:  Township Council meeting on Tuesday, April 12 at 7pm.  No idea what the agenda will be, but when it becomes available I’ll attach it to the calendar item (in the calendar on the right).

See you at the next Council meeting!

Cindy

Yard signs are here!

Yes, they’re here, and if you want one for your yard I’ll have them at the Township Council Workshop meeting this evening. Not only do they say “InformedOhara.com”, they also say “Cindy Harris” and “Township Councillor at Large” 🙂

Township Council Workshop Tuesday, 5 April at 7pm

The agenda is now available for tomorrow night’s workshop meeting .  Of more than passing interest:

  • Stephanie Flom, Director of the Boyd Community Center will give an update on fundraising for the new community center building.  This is of particular interest because the Township has been holding $1 million in funding to fulfill a pledge to help with the new building for several years now (I think perhaps five).  I wish more residents would show up to demonstrate their support for this project. Some members of the Council have indicated in previous meetings that they may not be willing to be patient much longer as the fund raising campaign moves slowly forward.
  • Continued discussion of parking of boats and trailers on residential property. Does this affect you? If so, you should be there to listen and perhaps comment.
  • A discussion about potential savings to Township residents from Energy Savers, Inc. I’m not sure exactly what this is all about even after looking at their web site, so I’ll be interested to hear.
  • Discussion of the Saxonburg Boulevard Area Sanitary Sewer Project.  If you live in this area and especially along Saxonburg Boulevard it would probably be a good idea to pay attention to this ongoing discussion — it’s a BIG project! Tuesday, April 26 at 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, May 7 at 9:00 a.m. have been suggested as possible times for Town Hall meetings with residents.

I’ll be there and hope to see you too.  Make sure to come up and say “hi.”  If you can’t identify me, ask your Council rep to point me out.  If you don’t know who your rep is, maybe it’s time to find out 🙂

Cindy

A small start

I realize that as a single concerned citizen I can’t possibly do everything that I’d like to see done.  In fact, I can’t even talk our Township officials into doing things I think they ought to be doing to keep residents informed and involved.  But I can take a few small steps along those lines, so I’m going to start with something I understand:  a calendar.

The Township DOES have an online calendar that you can peruse that has all Township committee and board meetings listed, but it takes a lot of effort to find out what issues are going to be discussed and then to locate the minutes of the meetings afterwards.  I’m going to do my best to add all the information that I can find for each Council meeting, workshop or public hearing to the events in a Google calendar.  That way you should be able to come here (or to your own private iCal or Outlook calendar), click once, and have all of the information at your fingertips.

You’ll see that calendar at the right of every page on this site.  It’s actually a public calendar on Google, so you can subscribe to it and even have it appear in your iCal or Outlook events if you like.  For now I’m going to include only information on Township Council events (such as meetings and workshops) and events that I become aware of that encourage Township residents to get involved with their Council representatives and candidates for the open seats.  After all we’ve got a primary coming up in May, and if you don’t know who the candidates are and what they stand for, it’s going to be difficult to motivate yourself to get out and vote in the primary.

If you think that this is not enough or that I’m too slow to get relevant information onto the calendar, feel free to drop me a note offering your assistance.  That’s what my campaign for the Councillor at Large seat is all about: getting more people interested in and involved with our local government.  If you have 30 minutes a week you’re willing to give, I’ll bet we can find something productive to do together.

Cindy