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Wyotech housing proposed In Blairsville

| Saturday, May 12, 2012, 2:40 a.m.

BLAIRSVILLE -- Borough Council is considering a new plan for use of borough property along Grandview Avenue, across from the Bobcat football stadium.

Borough Manager Ron Hood said Blairsville officials are just beginning to investigate a proposal received last week from a California company which wants to develop the hilltop near the town's defunct swimming pool as a housing complex for 300 WyoTech automotive students.

At this point, Hood said, Anaheim-based Ambling West wants to lease the site rather than purchase it. He noted that parking would be available at the housing development for public use during Blairsville's home football games.

Councilman Scott Cavender said preliminary plans indicate the housing complex would consist of more than a dozen townhouse units. It's expected the facility would have resident managers and the borough would have representation on a board which would oversee the complex.

"We still don't have all the answers we need" to consider the merits of the housing proposal, Cavender said.

A few residents from nearby MacArthur Street and Ridgeview Circle told council they oppose having such a large student housing facility located near their homes.

Several other residents also complained about loud, speeding vehicles, attributing much of the problem to the ever-increasing number of WyoTech students in Blairsville.

Traffic complaints also have been registered in neighboring Burrell Township, where WyoTech has developed its new campus.

Hood noted Ambling's plan calls for a buffer zone between the housing complex and nearby residential properties: "The houses would be on the back side of the hill."

Also, to help control traffic flow, the entrance to the property would be "one-way in" from Grandview, Hood said. Ambling is proposing to develop a paper alley which would allow students to exit onto old Rt. 22 further east, in Burrell Township.

Recently, the Blairsville Volunteer Fire Department proposed developing a social hall on a portion of the 15 acres the borough owns along Grandview Avenue. But there was no further public discussion of the idea.

Whatever council decides to do with the property, borough Solicitor Matt Kovacik indicated there will be an opportunity for public comment.

If the borough decides to lease the acreage, he noted, the zoning will have to be changed from the current recreational use--a process which would include a public hearing and individual notices to nearby property owners.

If, on the other hand, the borough decides to sell the property, a public bidding process must be followed.

According to a company website, the affiliated Ambling Companies of Valdosta, Ga., has developed both on-campus and off-campus student housing for universities in all regions of the country--including the University of California at Riverside, the University of Delaware, the University of Maryland and Ohio University and Youngstown University in Ohio.

It also develops and manages military and senior housing.

Further information was unavailable from the company at press time.

President Andy Baker said council is expecting to meet with a representative from Ambling to review further details of the Grandview housing proposal.

Baker said he sympathizes with residents who are concerned about increased student traffic. He pointed out, "Once (students) leave the school, they're no longer the school's responsibility. It becomes a civil problem."

Mayor John Zedick said he and Blairsville's new police chief, Dan Hess, are hoping to meet with WyoTech officials and those students who live in town to resolve complaints about driving habits. "If we don't do something, it's going to get worse," Zedick said.

Peggy Kinter, who is a member of the Blairsville Improvement Group (BIG) and the borough parking authority, suggested the town will go through some "growing pains" as it adjusts to the expected influx of thousands of WyoTech students. "Things will never be the same."

"You have to take the good with the bad," she said, noting that residents will have to learn to co-exist with the school's transient students in exchange for the increased development and tax revenue their presence will spur.

East Campbell Street resident Frank Eckenroad said "loud, fast cars" are a problem along his street, particularly at times when students are departing from classes WyoTech still conducts in downtown Blairsville.

But, "It's not just WyoTech," he said regarding the source of traffic complaints. He said truckers also have turned down the residential street, apparently in an attempt to bypass the busy intersection of Market Street, a block further south along Walnut Street.

In one instance, Eckenroad said, a truck snagged a utility line, causing damage to his home.

Eckenroad suggested posting speed limit and "local delivery only" signs on the street "so 18-wheelers don't try to use it as a shortcut."

Kovacik pointed out that the speed limit on all borough streets, unless otherwise posted, is 25 mph.

Baker and Hess asked residents to be patient as the borough police address their complaints.

"We're short-handed," Baker said. With one full-time officer on duty with the Army Reserves, Blairsville's police force currently includes two active full-time officers, excluding the chief, and two part-timers.

Council agreed to advertise for applicants for additional part-time police positions. Hess, who has been on the job little more than a week, said he has yet to determine how many additional officers will be needed.

Hess said he welcomes public input and intends to increase police visibility in problem areas. "Just give me a little bit of time," he said, noting he has been "walking the street to meet and greet people and get to know their concerns."

In another traffic item, Baker said he has received a request for a three-way stop sign at West Chestnut Street, which is one-way, and North Spring Street.

As part of the Southern Indiana County comprehensive plan for Blairsville and four neighboring municipalities, consultant Mackin Engineering will display two proposed maps of the borough in council chambers for roughly the next two weeks.

One of the maps illustrates borough zoning; the other refers to traffic issues and blighted areas.

Hood encouraged residents to stop in and check the maps for accuracy, making note of any needed corrections.

Homer City Borough and Burrell, Blacklick and Center townships also are participating in the planning effort.

County Commissioner Bernie Smith told council he is encouraged about state funding prospects for Blairsville's proposed Main Street project based on a recent "eyeball to eyeball" meeting he and other Indiana County leaders had with Gov. Ed Rendell in Pittsburgh.

According to Smith, the governor was well-acquainted with the Main Street application--which, if approved, would fund a full-time manager for BIG and its downtown development efforts.

"It's just about to come to fruition," he predicted.

Council member and BIG member Mary Ugoletti noted the latter organization is sponsoring a golf fundraiser Sept. 5 at Chestnut Ridge Golf Course and its second annual Night of Comedy Nov. 8 at the Chestnut Ridge Inn on the Green.

Council rejected three bids for improvements at the Blairsville Community Center park, all of which were well over budget. Hood noted the project cost had been estimated at $50,000 but bids ranged between $93,000 and $147,000.

According to Hood, the borough's engineering consultant suggested either selecting a new project or using a state grant of at least $20,000 to purchase materials and having the labor donated or handled in-house.

The alternative would be returning the funding to the state.

Hood indicated a priority among the proposed improvements is addressing a drainage problem in a section of the park. "It gets like a swamp when it rains," he said.

Blairsville Rec Board member Duree Scribe said that panel needs to confer with council on development of a skate park. She said rec officials have agreed to move the facility from the WyoTech Park on the south end of town to the community center park, but the two bodies need to agree on exact placement of the skate area at the latter park.

A $10,000 state grant will provide for paving, drainage and fencing for the project.

Loud music, weed-covered lawns and junk vehicles are among nuisance and health items covered by Blairsville ordinances.

Now borough council is looking for someone who can focus efforts on enforcing those local regulations.

Council voted Tuesday to advertise for a new code enforcement officer, who would work part-time to address ordinance-related complaints.

"If we're going to pass ordinances, we need to see that they're enforced," Masula said, adding, "The police don't have time to do it."

Previously, code enforcement duties were part of the borough manager's responsibilities. But council agreed to relieve Ron Hood of such tasks when he took on the dual role of managing the Blairsville Municipal Authority.

In the interim, code complaints have been assigned to borough police.

Decisions on compensation and a job description for the code enforcement position were pending. Borough officials noted $3,000 has been budgeted for the job this year.

Council appointed new members to two unpaid borough panels.

Susan Whitson was named to the parking authority, while Patrick McElhoes was appointed to one of two vacancies on the shade tree commission.

Further vacancies remain to be filled on the borough's civil service commission and zoning hearing board.

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