Menu Contact/Location

Church landmark exemption OK’d – City Council gives proposal slim preliminary approval

By Timothy McNulty,
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, February 20, 2003

A slim majority of Pittsburgh City Council members tentatively approved exempting religious structures from the full weight of the city’s historic designation law, after beating back a proposed compromise plan.

In a 5-3 vote, council approved a change that will allow only the owners of churches and other religious structures to nominate their buildings for historic designation.

Once designated, any exterior renovation or demolition of a building requires approval by the city’s Historic Review Commission. Currently any city resident can nominate structures, along with the mayor, council or members of the Historic Review or city planning commissions.

Religious leaders, led by the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, lobbied for the change, saying nominations by non-owners infringed on religious business and increased their building maintenance costs.

Preservationists countered that the religious structures are vital parts of Pittsburgh history, there is little proof of cost burdens, and it would be illegal, under city law, to give religious groups special treatment.

The council members who preliminarily voted in favor of the change were Twanda Carlisle, Alan Hertzberg, Jim Motznik, Bob O’Connor and Gene Ricciardi. Barbara Burns, William Peduto and Sala Udin cast negative votes. A final vote is set for Tuesday.

Carlisle, of Homewood, was the swing vote.

In behind-the-scenes deal-making Tuesday, she blocked a bid to fast-track the legislation and hold the final vote today. Then yesterday she considered voting for an amendment by Udin that would have held off the bill even longer.

Diocesan officials have long complained that city residents have used historic nominations to block decisions to sell or demolish churches. So Udin introduced an amendment yesterday that would prevent residents from nominating any structures, including churches and other buildings, but still allowing the mayor, council and the review and planning commissions to nominate them.

The amendment would have required the city to hold more public hearings and studies over several weeks — effectively blocking the church legislation, since O’Connor, the measure’s main sponsor, would have to resign by then to join the Rendell administration — but Carlisle refused to wait. She voted against holding the bill and it was approved.

The councilwoman liked Udin’s idea but said she sided with ministers in her District 9 community who did not want city oversight of their buildings.

“The government needs to step back from that situation and let churches handle church business,” she explained later.

Should council finally approve the bill Tuesday, it would go to Mayor Tom Murphy for his signature. O’Connor said Murphy’s executive secretary, Tom Cox, has assured him the mayor will approve the legislation, but officially the administration is saying it has to give it more review.

The mayor has 10 days after he receives bills to sign or veto them, or let them become law without his signature. It takes six council votes –one more than the legislation currently has — to override a veto.

That means the fate of the legislation and O’Connor’s remaining days on council are still unclear, though with Carlisle’s vote they are looking closer to being finished.

Right after the noontime vote yesterday, O’Connor left the council table to confer with diocesan officials attending the meeting. Carlisle followed, grasping O’Connor’s arm.

“You owe me big time,” she said.

Tim McNulty can be reached at or 412-263-1542.

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

100 West Station Square Drive, Suite 450

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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