Oakmont talks behind closed doors on proposed gas station
By Tom Yerace
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013, 1:30 p.m.
Oakmont residents wanting to hear how the borough will respond to the Speedway gas station proposal were shut out of those deliberations on Monday.
Council said little about the issue publicly and adjourned behind closed doors to discuss it in a private, executive session.
That was done despite an objection by the Valley News Dispatch that the action allegedly is not allowed under the state's Sunshine Law and, as such, would violate the law.
Speedway, an Ohio-based gasoline station/convenience store chain, has proposed building a large facility at the former Lieberth and Sons car dealership along Hulton Road near the bridge. The property is now vacant.
On July 8, more than 80 residents packed council chambers and overwhelmingly opposed granting a conditional use for the estimated $3 million development.
Borough officials have said, however, that a gasoline station/convenience store is allowed in that zoning district, though council can impose “reasonable conditions” on the development.
Residents' concerns included:
• Potential dangers to public safety, particularly for Riverview High School students who walk across the road, and traffic snarls caused by cars and fuel trucks making left turns into the property;
• Damage to other businesses, primarily gas stations now in the borough;
• Disruption of the neighborhood behind the property because of the trucks and additional traffic, noise, and damage to the streets;
• A potential increase in crime caused by people hanging out at the 24-hour facility.
On Monday night, council acknowledged receipt of a petition from William DeTurck of Morris Street, located behind the property.
The petition opposing the Speedway plan was purportedly signed by 406 people. DeTurck conceded that some nonresidents signed the petition because it was posted in public places but said 80 to 90 percent are Oakmont residents.
The petition cited the same concerns and asked council to impose a ban on large truck traffic on the streets behind the property including West Woodland, Potomac and Morris, limit the hours of operation and reduce the development's size.
Matt Provenza, who owns a house on West Woodland, told council, “I don't know how these fuel trucks are going to get in there.”
Dinesh Mittal, who operates the Sunoco gas station next to the Speedway site, repeated his fear that Speedway will put him out of business.
“They opened that Sheetz in Verona, and our business is already cut in half,” he said.
Council President Thomas Milberger said council asked for and received a 45-day extension from Speedway for making a decision, which must occur at the continuation of a special meeting on Oct. 7.
Milberger said council would be discussing the Speedway issue in executive session with its solicitor, Robert H. Shoop Jr.
A Valley News Dispatch reporter objected. He said discussion of that matter and two others listed on the agenda did not fall under the exceptions permitted by the Open Meetings or Sunshine Law and presented a copy of those exceptions to Milberger.
The other items included consulting with Shoop on a conditional-use application for the Kacin Edgewater development plan, and the confidentiality of executive session guidelines.
Under the law, public agencies like council can meet in sessions closed to the public for five specific reasons. They include: employment matters such as hiring, firing, promoting or disciplining any prospective or current public officer or employee; collective bargaining or labor relations issues; the purchase or lease of real estate; consultation with an attorney or professional adviser on lawsuits or issues on which identifiable complaints are expected to be filed; and to review and discuss business, which if discussed in public, would violate a lawful privilege or confidentiality protected by law.
Milberger said Shoop provided an opinion that the executive session is allowed.
Shoop said no lawsuit had been filed regarding the Speedway or Kacin applications.
“There is a case out there now that says a discussion on conditional use is permitted in executive session,” Shoop said.
When asked whether he could cite the case, Shoop said he didn't know this issue would arise.
“I cited it in a memorandum to them (council) and I don't have it right now,” Shoop said.
Council then went into the executive session.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, could not cite a pending case that fits Oakmont's situation.
She said there's a case out of Berks County now under appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but that it does not involve conditional-use applications.
On the reasons cited by Oakmont Council, Melewsky said, “They don't sound like a clear fit to me.”
“Any deliberations of agency business must be done in public unless one of the narrow exceptions apply,” she said. “The situation you describe doesn't sound like an appropriate use of the litigation exception. Elected officials need to be very cautious about that.”
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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