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Battle over houses heats up – Group says council went against the law when it repealed subdivision OK

Pittsburgh Post GazetteBy Jan Ackerman,
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Thursday, February 08, 2007

Emotions are running high between historic preservationists and a nonprofit organization that wants to build seven houses on a vacant parcel behind Munhall’s historic library.

Officials of the Mon Valley Initiative are convinced that Munhall council violated state zoning law when it voted to repeal its approval of a subdivision they want to build in the Library Estates neighborhood.

John Bixler, executive director of Mon Valley Initiative, said the organization had gotten legal advice and believed borough council erred when it rescinded approval of the subdivision Jan. 26.

“The rescission was illegal. We have the right to build,” Mr. Bixler said.

Munhall Councilman Michael Terrick doesn’t think that is the case. He said council approved the subdivision, with the understanding that Mon Valley Initiative would comply with historic district standards that were part of a separate ordinance.

“They are hanging their hat on a technicality,” he said.

Munhall’s solicitor, Louis Silverhart, is researching the issue and will have a legal opinion for council, probably this month.

Mr. Bixler cited a letter from George Janocsko, an Allegheny County solicitor, which was read to Munhall council before its vote.

Mr. Janocsko’s letter said Pennsylvania’s municipal planning code prevents local governments from changing local zoning, subdivision and land use ordinances once a subdivision has been approved.

Mr. Janocsko said any attempt by council to amend the borough’s historic district ordinance to include the MVI property would contradict the “plain and clear prohibitions of the municipal planning code.”

As a result, he said, the adoption of the ordinance would provide Mon Valley Initiative with strong legal grounds to sue the borough for a denial of permits and other authorizations.

At a rancorous Jan 26 meeting, council took two actions, voting to expand an existing historic district to include the two-acre tract where Mon Valley Initiative wants to build the houses and to repeal the subdivision approval it had given to MVI.

Several days before the meeting, MVI officials applied for the building permits for the four-bedroom, 21/2-bath houses, which will sell for about $130,000. Mr. Bixler said his organization had every legal right to do so, given that the subdivision had been approved.

That action angered some members of Munhall council, who accused the principals of Mon Valley Initiative of trying to circumvent the desires of council to impose historic requirements on the new development.

The controversy centers on a vacant tract in lower Munhall, behind the historic Carnegie Library of Homestead in a neighborhood called Library Estates which used to be home to mill superintendents.

The neighborhood is mixed. In recent years, some people have bought some of the old mansions around the library, fixed them up and installed globe outdoor lighting. The neighborhood now has its annual Christmas house tour.

Mr. Bixler said the new houses that MVI plans to build would be more expensive than most of the existing houses and would not harm the historic quality of the neighborhood.

Neighbors disagree, saying the new vinyl homes are not appropriate for the area.

Opinions aside, it looks as if the real issues might have to be resolved by the courts.

(Jan Ackerman can be reached at or 412-851-1512. )

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: 412-471-5808  |  Fax: 412-471-1633