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A look back: Protest delayed new highway work near Belle Vernon

| Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Part 1 of 2

The story was relegated to Page 2 of The Monessen Daily Independent on Monday, Sept. 15, 1952, in a brief account of the regular monthly meeting of North Belle Vernon Borough Council.

It reported that a delegation of residents who would lose their water service when work began on the new Route 71 Super Highway through North Belle Vernon attended council's meeting to discuss their predicament and seek possible help.

The new highway is now known as Interstate 70 and the land affected 61 years ago was located between what now exists as the Belle Vernon and North Belle Vernon interchanges.

“The anticipated action was discussed at great length and from every angle with the borough attorney, A.J. Morell, giving legal advice,” the newspaper story about the NBV meeting said.. “At the conclusion of the discussion, council voted to join with some of these residents in some type of action to prevent the interruption of the service or the loss of it. The exact method has not been decided upon.”

Governmental officials, the construction firm hired for the highway project and people throughout western Pennsylvania quickly learned in emphatic fashion what course the concerned citizens would take on Monday, September 29. Approximately 20 residents of Ferncliff, Grant, First, Highland and Johnson streets set up a human barricade on Grant to protest the removal of water and natural gas lines serving their homes, a preliminary step in building a section of relocated Route 71 through their neighborhood.

Reporter George Hess of The Daily Independent said in his Page One story that the North Belle Vernon residents picketed the start of the road construction project because they were “anxious to protect investments in their homes.”

“No one molested the embattled North Belle Vernonites, who are being led by North Belle Vernon Borough Councilman Tony Stringhill, in their fight against the loss of gas and water service,” Hess said. “Their appearance across the road apparently succeeded in any steps being taken to remove the utility lines and also created slight confusion in reports from a utility representative and the road builder.”

Fred Fundy, a longtime resident of North Belle Vernon and a 1952 graduate of Bellmar High School, recalled that the protest site “looked like a virtual Tent City.”

“It was something to behold,” said Fundy, whose mother, the late Mrs. Assunta (Santoro) Fundy, was among the women protestors. “The contractor had all its large earthmovers lined up and ready to start making the very deep cut of earth to make way for the new highway. But the women, and others who supported their cause, were camped out shoulder to shoulder to prevent that from happening.”

An employee of The Peoples Natural Gas Co. told the newspaper he was locating gas lines “in case they are broken” by the contractor's earth-moving equipment.

Bernard Mashuda, a partner in the Frank Mashuda Construction Co. of Gibsonia, said that the pickets “are holding up operations” but said that “it's a problem for the state Department of Highways to take care of. It's beyond my control.” He also said that the work of making a cut 92 feet deep and 350 feet wide at Grant Street could be “held up considerably” unless the pickets were withdrawn or removed.

The picketing citizens, however, were undeterred and determined to stay put.

Stringhill, spokesman for the group, reiterated a pledge that the utility lines would not be removed unless “they use bulldozers to move us out of the way.”

He also criticized North Belle Vernon Borough Council for “not studying the matter more thoroughly” when a preliminary survey to locate the road was made.

“If they had been more careful, this never would have happened,” he said.

The councilman told Hess he did not receive a reply to a letter he sent to the Public Utilities Commission and a telegram dispatched to Gov. John S. Fine over the weekend to ask for aid.

The North Belle Vernon residents were up in arms because the Municipal Authority of Belle Vernon wanted to end services permanently in the neighborhood because of the cost of replacing lines after the road was finished, while the gas company had indicated that it might be able to restore services when the road was finished but would be unable to provide gas to 11 homes while the work proceeded.

It didn't take long for the protesters to catch the attention of the powers-that-be.

After only 24 hours of picket duty on Grant Street the disgruntled residents were visited by Francis M. Brady of Uniontown, construction engineer with the state Department of Highways, on Sept. 30. Notice of Brady's visit was given by George Bloom, secretary to U.S. Sen. Edward Martin (R-Pa.).

The Daily Independent reported that Martin was contacted about the plight of the North Belle Vernon families by businessmen William Vizza, William Mascara and Harold Toner, members of the Belle Vernon Chamber of Commerce, which had taken an initiative to help the residents.

The newspaper reported on Wednesday, Oct. 1, that Brady offered assurances to the North Belle Vernon group that their water and gas supplies would not be shut off as a result of the highway construction project. He said steps “will be taken” to ensure continued service of those utilities.

Brady also said that Mashuda's company had been instructed not to remove the water lines.

“However, if the lines have to be moved to allow the road work to proceed, the contractor will have to provide temporary lines to serve the 11 homes affected,” The Daily Independent reported.

The newspaper also said that Brady expressed surprise that Peoples Gas had sent the families notices a week earlier that gas services to their homes would be terminated when work on the road began.

In addition to saying that the utility “knows it has to move the lines,” Brady said that his department would demand that temporary gas service be provided.

“They've done it on all of our other road jobs and there's no reason why they can't on this one,” Brady said. “Our right-of-way division will take up the matter as soon as I get back to Harrisburg.”

Ron Paglia is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.