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Mt. Lebanon leader questions turf funds

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Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
 

Mt. Lebanon officials set aside $637,000 this month toward installing artificial turf on a pair of playing fields, but one leader said they could have spent the money more wisely.

Instead of spending up to $750,000 toward artificial turf at Middle and Wildcat Fields, a pair of overlapping baseball and softball diamonds in Main Park along Cedar Boulevard, Commissioner Kelly Fraasch said the money should have gone to improve the municipal golf course and Robb Hollow Park.

Fixing up Robb Hollow, Fraasch said, could have released the municipality from state restrictions that prevent it from selling or redeveloping the large, unimproved McNeilly Park at Mt. Lebanon's border with Baldwin Township, where attempts to build fields repeatedly have fallen through.

“I'd talked to Harrisburg about that potential, and they offered some consideration in order to relieve us of that restriction,” Fraasch said. “We're still waiting for an answer from them, and that's what I wanted to do, is wait until we get that answer from the state before spending this money on turf.”

Mt. Lebanon bought McNeilly Park in 2003 for $1.8 million, but used a $200,000 state grant that came with the condition that the purchased land could only be used for recreation.

Estimates for building up to three fields and parking at McNeilly ran from $4 million to $6 million, and the project never could get the four commission votes necessary to pass a bond. The 23-acre lot remains undeveloped a decade later, with a few unofficial trails winding through the woods.

“Swapping” a municipally funded park project of similar value might have freed Mt. Lebanon from that state obligation and allowed it to sell or redevelop the McNeilly property, and Fraasch hoped adding a playing field and trails to Robb Hollow might have fit the state's criteria.

Robb Hollow Park, which wraps around a residential neighborhood along another hillside, has a few walking trails and a bonfire pit but is generally undeveloped, save for a large clearing formerly used to shred and store leaves from the municipality's curbside pickups. Past proposals would have turned that clearing into another athletic field, but commission support flagged as the estimated price tag rose above $1 million.

Many of the same sports groups seeking turf supported plans to add a playing field to Twin Hills Park, which Mt. Lebanon owns over the border in Scott, or the proposal to build fields at McNeilly.

Despite promises that the sports groups would pay for parts of the proposal, previous commissions never could get enough consensus on where to build or how much to spend.

“As interested as we are in providing support and fundraising, it always would have required commission support,” said David Franklin, a coach, resident and advisory board member who has long pushed for field improvements. Under the turf plan, the sports community must raise $250,000 toward the project and work with the Mt. Lebanon School District to establish a plan for maintaining it.

“From a field-sports, development perspective, it doesn't bother me that those restrictions are there on McNeilly,” Franklin said. “There's nothing to suggest we can't develop it five, 10, 15 years from now.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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