Penn Hills council approves Vocollect rezoning request, 3-1
Penn Hills council voted Nov. 5 in favor of a rezoning request that could pave the way for expansion of the Vocollect business on Rodi Road.
Council voted 3-1 — Deputy Mayor Sara Kuhn was absent and Councilman Gary Underwood cast the vote against — in favor of developer Joseph D'Andrea's rezoning request for just under 10 acres of property.
D'Andrea was requesting a change of zone from R1-A (residential) to M (mixed-use) and C (conservation), in order to construct an office building that will allow Vocollect to consolidate its employees and offices into one location.
The company, which produces voice-recognition software, currently has an office in Monroeville, and those employees would come to the Rodi Road location if the expansion is realized.
“The question is not, ‘Wouldn't it be great for Vocollect to bring 150 jobs here?'” said Jonathan Kamin, an attorney with Pittsburgh firm Goldberg, Kamin & Garvin, which represents several residents who live near the rezoned property. “The question is, ‘Is this spot zoning? Is it contract zoning?' The question is, ‘Are those uses compatible with your R1-A neighbors?' We say no.”
Both Kamin and attorney Michael Frachioni, who is not representing area homeowners but lives on Gramac Lane near the rezoned property, said their position was that council's decision amounts to spot and contract zoning, both of which are prohibited under the Pennsylvania Municipalities Building Code.
Kamin cited a letter from Allegheny County officials noting their opinion that the rezone could be considered spot zoning, and Frachioni said he felt the rezoning and potential new construction would “overcrowd the neighborhood and create physical blight, which goes against the language in your own municipal zoning ordinance,” he said.
Kamin noted that “D'Andrea is under no legal obligation to deliver on the things he has promised,” and cited a variety of permitted uses under mixed-use zoning that include a sheet-metal plant, a car wash or a fast-food restaurant. Planning director Howard Davidson said that site maps provided by D'Andrea are merely “illustrative,” and the final site plans would go through the Penn Hills Planning Commission.
Kamin also said the recently-constructed traffic signal at Rodi Road and Maple Lane — the lack of which had been a major roadblock to Vocollect's expansion plans — was a substantial change that in his opinion should require D'Andrea to submit a new application and undergo the public hearings which would accompany it.
Vocollect public relations manager Susan Muttart declined to comment on the vote, referring questions to D'Andrea. While D'Andrea owns the property, Vocollect Inc. is listed as the applicant on the rezoning request, “on behalf of Joseph and Enrichette D'Andrea.”
Bill Cullen, a Ridgecrest Drive resident who lives about 100 feet from the existing Vocollect property, said he has experienced a variety of flooding and drainage issues, including a French drain that continuously moves about a gallon of water per minute.
“It wasn't like that 25 years ago when I bought the property,” Cullen said. “And the only common denominator is Vocollect.”
Gramac Lane resident Robert Denove said the rezoning “will sacrifice and eliminate the reasons we bought (our) property years ago.
“This has been called a ‘win-win' situation — it's not. It's a win for Mr. D'Andrea because of the construction. It's a win for Penn Hills because of the additional taxes. But it's a lose for the residents,” Denove said.
Mayor Anthony DeLuca said council's decision was not an easy one.
“One of the things we have to look at going forward is that there are commercial properties and uses up there,” he said. “Do we want to continue bringing businesses into Penn Hills? Because things need to change.”
Frachioni said he supports businesses coming into Penn Hills, but not if it means changing the character of a property which has been zoned residential since 1957.
“I'm not a ‘not-in-my-backyard' type of person,” Frachioni told council. “But when we moved into an R1-A district, we knew what the rules were, just as Mr. D'Andrea knew what the rules were when he moved in.”
Greg Swatchick, part of a group of residents who have opposed the Vocollect expansion from the start, said he has confidence that a legal challenge can be mounted.
“The people who live in the area, in baseball terms, are really batting .1000,” Swatchick said. “Every time the planning commission approved something, it was challenged and overturned. It was appealed, and the original ruling was upheld.”
D'Andrea's attorney, Pete Nychis of Pittsburgh firm Griffith, McCague & Wallace, said he's happy to see the rezoning finally come to a vote, but does not expect this to end objection to the project.
“Based on what was presented tonight, I'd expect additional (legal) challenges,” Nychis said. “Hopefully not, but I wouldn't be surprised.”
Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or firstname.lastname@example.org.