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660-acre site in Hays could become Pittsburgh's largest park

| Thursday, June 9, 2016, 10:06 a.m.

Beaver County businessman Chuck Betters agreed to sell 660 acres of land to Pittsburgh for $5 million — a fraction of what it might be worth — and the former mining and industrial site could become the city's largest park, city officials said.

The move was hailed Thursday as a “gift” on par with those more than a century ago by philanthropists Mary Schenley and Henry Clay Frick. Their land donations led to the establishment of large parks in their names.

The city intends to designate at least 90 percent — if not all — of the rolling, heavily wooded land in Hays and Baldwin Borough as public parkland, officials said. If all of the land is preserved as such, it would be Pittsburgh's largest public park. Frick Park totals 644 acres.

“It cannot be overstated how significant this gift is for the city of Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers in the region. It's an amazing property,” said Heather Sage, director of community projects at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

“Mr. Betters should be honored,” said former state Sen. Jim Ferlo, who is on the board of the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Betters, who did not return a call from the Tribune-Review, didn't have philanthropic plans for the site when a group he headed bought it in 2003.

“(Betters) hoped that this will contribute to the quality of life of the city,” said William R. Newlin, the largest minority partner in the group led by Betters and his family.

Betters proposed a horse racetrack, a casino and other development once he strip mined the site for remaining coal. The state Department of Environmental Protection rejected his mining plan, and he failed to win a thoroughbred racing license from the state.

“His plan was just deficient in dealing with the site's many challenges,” said DEP spokesman John Poister.

Poister said Betters wanted to remove coal and fill in the mined areas, along with several valleys and streams, to establish a flat surface for development. Among the problems was the slide-prone soil on much of the site. The soil closely resembled that of the former Dixmont State Hospital site in Kilbuck, where Wal-Mart planned to build a Supercenter before a 2006 landslide dumped more than 500,000 cubic yards of dirt, rocks and trees onto Route 65 and adjacent Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. DEP also questioned his ability to replace wetlands that would be destroyed, Poister said.

The URA approved a series of resolutions Thursday related to acquiring the property, of which 642 acres are in Pittsburgh's Hays section and 18 acres are in Baldwin Borough.

Among the resolutions, the agency will conduct an environmental study of the site, parts of which were mined for coal around the turn of the 20th century, then again in the 1970s. A small portion was used for slag dumping. URA will seek as much as $2.5 million from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to offset its costs. It also plans to seek funding from local foundations, with help from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Allegheny Land Trust.

Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto, said the city does not expect much environmental remediation to be necessary.

URA intends to study whether to develop housing on a small portion of the site, which has been known as Hays Woods and is home to six streams, a waterfall and a broad range of wildlife, including bald eagles. Although privately owned, the site is a popular destination for hikers and nature-lovers.

Robert Rubinstein, the URA's acting executive director, said appraisals of the site are “expected to come in at three to four times or greater” the $5 million the agency is spending to acquire the site.

Sage opposed Betters' development plans more than a decade ago when she worked for the environmental group Penn Future. She said she is glad to see the site will remain largely in its natural state.

“Its highest and best use really and probably is as a public green space, and there are a number of realities that make it tremendously hard to develop the site,” Sage said. “I'm not surprised at all by this announcement. Chuck Betters is a businessman, but he's a really smart guy and he cares about his legacy. This is the gift of a lifetime.”

Tom Fontaine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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