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McKeesport council rejects MASD request to rezone for school

| Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011

After a failed motion to table McKeesport Area School District's request to build a school on residentially zoned property, city council denied that application.

In a 4-3 vote, councillors rejected a conditional use application to allow construction of an elementary/intermediate school on R-1 zoned property at 1500 Monongahela Ave.

After a public hearing Tuesday, more discussion at council's caucus session and comments preceding Wednesday's voting session, Councilors Richard J. Dellapenna, Dale McCall, A.J. Tedesco and Darryl Segina voted against the application. Council president Michael Cherepko, vice president Loretta Diggs and V. Fawn Walker-Montgomery voted in favor.

During Tuesday's proceedings, engineers and district officials explained the 25.687-acre property falls on the line between McKeesport's 10th Ward and neighboring White Oak. And while White Oak's R-1 zoning is defined to include schools as a permitted use, McKeesport's ordinances require conditional use approval of such projects.

McKeesport Area School District is in the process of pursuing an eminent domain acquisition of the property, known as the Buck estate, from current owner Robert DeTorre.

Cherepko said he requested a motion to table council's consideration of the district's conditional use application until the eminent domain process is in motion.

"It's not proper to give a variance to an applicant that is not a current property owner or speaking on behalf of that property owner," Cherepko said after the meeting.

McCall made a motion to table, and that motion failed for lack of a second.

Those who voted in favor of the motion said they did so because they want to support the educational needs of students in McKeesport Area School District.

"We heard a lot of opinions last night about taxes, land and eminent domain," Walker-Montgomery said Wednesday. "I'm going to vote yes, and the reason is the children. This district has looked at a lot of sites, and if we keep prolonging it, the children are going to have no place to go."

Per a memo issued by the district to council, the application's approval would have been valid only if eminent domain proceedings are successful.

Segina said he would not support any plan that requires an eminent domain acquisition from an unwilling property owner.

"I don't like eminent domain," he said. "I don't like government taking over property. Taking that property away, I think, is inconsistent with the liberties of our Constitution."

DeTorre reiterated his comments from Tuesday's hearing and expressed his disgust with the looming threat of eminent domain.

This time he clarified that his role is not to argue whether McKeesport Area School District should operate three elementary/intermediate schools, but rather the idea of losing his property for one of those buildings.

"If I may say, I'm for the school, too," he said. "It's just where they're putting it. There's a lot of other options for the school."

Cherepko told DeTorre the eminent domain process is out of the city's hands.

"You'd be getting a state-of-the-art facility, and you're still going to keep your home," Cherepko said.

While emphasizing that he understands DeTorre's frustration, he asked how it could be right to consider eminent domain acquisition of city properties that include small homes that may be all some families have, when the district has an opportunity to acquire land that has yet to be developed.

Prompted by questions from Tedesco, DeTorre said he has dollars invested in plans to subdivide his property and sell lots for a residential development. He said he could guarantee a housing development if his property is not taken for the proposed school.

City and district officials confirmed a conditional use application can be revised and resubmitted as the district seeks state approval of its construction plan, and as legal proceedings determine the future of the Buck estate.

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