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South Hills communities prepare to update 'comprehensive plans'

Matthew Santoni
| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 6:15 p.m.

In Dormont's Hollywood Theater, about 100 residents stuck notes to a giant map of the West Liberty and Potomac avenue business districts.

They filled piggy banks with play money to show how they wanted the borough to spend its limited budget and posed for pictures with a cartoon speech bubble where they'd written their “big ideas” for the borough.

The 10-year updates of several South Hills communities' “comprehensive plans” may conjure images of dry meetings of planners and policy wonks, but events such as last week's “Dream Dormont” activities at the Hollywood show that gathering public input could be fun — while a lawsuit in South Fayette is showing how the plans can carry consequences.

“When the comprehensive plan is done, it will identify a number of ideas the borough should do; things the community would like to see that might be bigger than just the community, that could bring in foundations or business associations,” said Scott Page, principal at Philadelphia-based Interface Studios, which is collecting suggestions for Dormont's first comprehensive plan update since 1995.

“It becomes the template, the guiding document everybody looks to, when it comes time to decide where to spend dollars or where to build.”

While zoning maps and individual development plans determine which properties can host industrial development, apartments, single-family homes and so on, municipalities' comprehensive plans take a wider look to set the town's priorities for development, spending and policy, Page said.

Pennsylvania's Municipalities Planning Code requires that comprehensive plans shall be reviewed at least every 10 years, with copies sent to neighboring municipalities and county planners for review..

“Dormont's kind of lost between Mt. Lebanon and the city; it just gets skipped over,” said Rachel Dudley, 38, an 11-year resident of the borough and co-owner of Dormont Dogs. “I think it would attract more people to open businesses here if they knew there were progressive, forward-thinking ideals.”

She and others shared ideas such as working to better maintain the borough's roads to stepping up code enforcement to preserve the solid housing stock that gradually is attracting new residents.

Mt. Lebanon and Peters are in the midst of updating comprehensive plans.

“We're an older, largely built-out community, so really the emphasis is on how we can continue to improve, how do we keep the business district vibrant and interesting, and how do we accommodate infill development and still maintain the historical character of our neighborhoods,” said Mt. Lebanon planner Keith McGill.

So far, residents' ideas have included making the community more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, and working with neighboring communities and the school district to share services and contracts to save money. A draft of the plan should be posted on the municipal website soon, and could be approved by the commission in August or September, McGill said.

Peters is seeking a plan to help steer projects, said Grant Shiring, land use planner for the township.

“The places that are already built out are looking for ways to freshen up ... whereas in Peters, there's still a lot of open land to be developed,” Shiring said.

“We have to be ready for the development down the road — to adapt to development, more residents, more kids in our schools — and make sure it's proceeding in a way that reflects what our residents want.”

For example, the planners and steering committee heard that Peters residents wanted a “Main Street” or destination sort of development rather than just the shopping centers and parking lots that currently line Route 19, he said.

They wanted to maintain the township's rural and suburban character, but hoped to get more townhouses or condos for older residents seeking to downsize.

When completed, comprehensive plans often include a map of land uses, showing where the communities want to see certain types of projects.

Those maps then are consulted by town planners when considering new projects or zoning changes for approval: If a parcel is in an area designated for rural or low-density development, a property owner will have a hard time getting the zoning changed for a high-density apartment complex, Shiring said.

In South Fayette, a comprehensive plan update approved in April spurred a lawsuit in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas from residents and businesses upset that the Route 50 corridor was re-designated from a “mixed commercial or industrial/residential mix area” to “mixed-office commercial/residential.”

“There was no explanation by the board of commissioners or any other representative of the township at any public meeting on the reason for deletion of industrial uses in the Route 50 corridor from the future land use map,” said Blaine Lucas, an attorney representing the 19 landowners and companies appealing South Fayette's plan.

“Our clients fear that the change in the designation of the corridor in the comprehensive plan signals the future intention of the township to further restrict the use of their properties.”

Only a small area off Mayview Road in the township's southeastern corner was designated as an industrial area.

The township, the lawsuit says, didn't properly notify the county, school district, residents and neighbors when the map was changed for the Route 50 corridor, in violation of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code.

“The impact of the change in the Future Land Use Map ... was to reduce by more than 80 (percent) the land mass of the township being designated for industrial uses,” the suit said. Township representatives couldn't be reached.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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