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West Deer approves drive-in

| Thursday, Jan. 16, 2003

WEST DEER: Supervisors granted unanimous approval Wednesday night to a pair of entrepreneurs planning to build what will be the first drive-in theater to be constructed in southwestern Pennsylvania in 35 years.

The board voted, 7-0, Wednesday to allow partners Mark Frey and George Welsh to begin construction of a three-screen, 500-car drive-in along Route 910 about one mile east of Middle Road.

Scheduled to open on Memorial Day weekend in time for the start of the outdoor theater season, the 30-acre, $1.5 million Starlite Drive-In Family Entertainment Complex also will include a playground and miniature golf course.

"I'm pleasantly surprised," said Welsh, a Hampton deli owner who used to own and operate the Wexford Starlite Drive-In in the North Hills until 1989, when he had to close the theater due to rising land costs.

A dream-come-true for Welsh, the Starlite Drive-In will create about 30 jobs and "put West Deer on the map in a positive light," Welsh said.

"We like cars. We like movies. We like families," he said.

Wednesday night's historic vote was not the first time the supervisors considered the theater.

The West Deer Planning Commission recommended that the supervisors approve the drive-in last year because the property is zoned for special use, making it eligible for commercial and industrial development, including movie theaters.

Due to pressure from residents who voiced their opposition and questions about whether a drive-in fell under the general category of "movie theater," however, the board deadlocked, 3-3, in December, effectively defeating the project.

Supervisor Jim McCaskey was absent from the first vote.

Because of the tie, the board decided to revisit the issue to be fair to the developers, solicitor Michael Yukevich Jr. said.

After hearing testimony from the developers and several of the more than 40 residents who attended Wednesday's special meeting, Supervisors Richard DiSanti, Hal Biehl and Mike Cavanaugh reversed their opposing votes.

DiSanti and Biehl said their concerns about how the drive-in would impact traffic on Route 910 had been adequately addressed by the developers.

Cars will not back up along Route 910 because internal roads in the theater complex will hold 25 percent of its vehicle capacity, project engineer James Venture of Partridge Venture Engineering told the board.

After the meeting, Biehl expressed hope that the proposed drive-in will increase the township's tax base and promote other development.

But neighbors of the project remain concerned that in addition to increasing traffic, the drive-in will bring noise and light pollution, crime and underage drinking. They also said the theater will lower their property values and make it impossible to sell their homes.

"I have no objections to progress," said Dorothy Snyder, 65, who lives along nearby Caitlin Road. "But I don't think this will be the right kind."

Frey said neighboring property owners have no reason to be worried. He said the theater does not generate excess light or noise and that it will be a family-friendly atmosphere with proper security.

"We understand their concerns and will do everything we can to address them," Frey said. "Some we will have to address as things happen, but we think we're going to win the residents over."

If built, the Starlite Drive-In will become the second such theater in the Alle-Kiski Valley. The only other drive-in is the Galaxy along River Road in Parks. Long in decline due to rising real estate costs, the drive-in industry is enjoying a small comeback, with about 16 new theaters opening nationwide since the 1990s, according to the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association.

Resident Jackie Jaros, 32, drives to Butler every summer weekend to catch a film at the Pioneer Drive-In.

"It's a way to bring families back together," Jaros said. "I would much rather be spending my time and money in the township than making the 40-minute trek to Butler."

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