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Zoning board clears way for new Fayette County jail

| Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 3:45 p.m.

The Fayette County Zoning Hearing Board on Tuesday told residents who packed a meeting room that they could take up to 45 days to render a decision on a special exception for a highly controversial $32 million jail.

But less than an hour later, the board approved the special exception for the jail, as well as variances that cover setbacks, the lot size and the planting of trees on the site in Dunbar and North Union Townships.

The approval was made to the dismay of residents who oppose the project. More than 3,000 signed an unsuccessful petition seeking a referendum to halt the plans and start the planning process anew.

Residents had filled the meeting room at the Public Service Building in Uniontown for the four-hour hearing. Most left when the board announced a closed-door executive session on an unrelated matter and members indicated they might not immediately announce a decision on the jail.

Contacted an hour later, board Chairman Robert Guerriere said he and Andre Walters voted to approve the county's requests. Edward Payson dissented. Guerriere declined further comment.

Terry Kriss, a Dunbar Township resident who opposed the requests, denounced the way the vote was taken.

“This decision behind closed doors — not having the guts to face the public — is sickening,” Kriss said. “To shoo all the people away and drop the bad news, that's hiding behind closed doors, like cowards.”

The jail is to be built on an 18.87-acre lot on a 58-acre site off Route 119 and Mt. Braddock Road, near Laurel Mall. The county has a sales agreement to purchase the land for $1.25 million from Fay-Penn Economic Development Council, said county solicitor John Cupp. The deal has not yet closed.

Kriss said his property, which includes the historic Meason House in Dunbar Township, is within 800 feet of the edge of the property for the jail.

Rob Sleighter of Sleighter Engineering said if the distance is measured “building to building,” the Meason House is 1,300 feet from the jail's location, which is beyond the zoning ordinance's required 1,000-foot setback.

The zoning hearing board's vote granted variances allowing the county to build the jail on a lot smaller than the required 150 acres, to plant 143 fewer trees than required and to permit a small section of barbed wire fencing to be visible to the public.

The special exception allows the jail to be built on land zoned for industrial use.

Others who spoke at the meeting included Michael Filoni, vice president of sales and marketing for Carload Express, which operates the Southwest Pennsylvania Railroad. Filoni said building the jail near the railroad tracks will make it difficult to attract rail-served businesses to the area, including those connected to the Marcellus shale natural gas drilling industry.

Evelyn Hovanec of North Union questioned the need to subdivide the site into several plots in an industrial zone.

“Is this going to be an industrial prison?” Hovanec said. “If it is, I will oppose it every way I can. This is a gulag in which you put the prisoners to work cheaply.”

Hovanec noted a leg of the Sheepskin Trail for hiking and biking is to be located near the jail site.

Others who spoke against the variances and special exception noted the area has been strip-mined and undermined and is prone to flooding. A North Union supervisor, Curt Matthews, said the township opposes the jail because it will be within 1,700 feet of homes.

Les Mlakar, a Greensburg attorney who represents Kriss and his wife, Diane, argued unsuccessfully that the variances should not be granted because the county caused its own “hardships” by selecting a site that did not fit the zoning requirements for a correctional facility.

County Commissioner Al Ambrosini, who supports the new jail, said he was pleased with the board's quick decision.

“That was just another step to getting the project completed,” Ambrosini said. “I'm looking forward to moving on.”

Ambrosini said the county will present a preliminary site plan to the Fayette County Planning Commission on Thursday.

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