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City Council shelters religious buildings from historic preservation rules – Only owners allowed to seek historic status

By Tom Barnes,
Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 26, 2003

City Council gave approval yesterday to exempting religious buildings from a key provision of the city’s historic preservation law, but the controversy may not be over yet.

Many preservationists expect council to be sued because of its action, which critics claim violates the state Constitution and requirements to treat all groups equally under the law.

“I think there is a 110 percent chance that this will be challenged in court,” said John DeSantis, chairman of the city’s Historic Review Commission and an opponent of council’s action.

Council voted 6-2 in favor of the measure, which was sponsored by outgoing Councilman Bob O’Connor. It says that only the owner of record of a religious building — a church, synagogue, mosque, temple, rectory or convent — can nominate it for historic status.

Under the city’s current preservation law, enacted in 1979, almost any city official or any resident who has lived in Pittsburgh for a year could nominate a religious building for historic status. If the historic status was approved by council, a church or other religious building couldn’t be demolished or have exterior renovations without the approval of the Historic Review Commission.

Many leaders of different religious faiths supported O’Connor’s measure, saying the threat of having a building nominated for historic status was an expensive burden that could force them to spend dollars on buildings instead of people.

Mayor Tom Murphy hasn’t said if he’ll sign the bill. If he vetoes it, six council votes would be needed to overturn the veto.

An opinion issued yesterday by Deputy City Solicitor George Specter said the law was “evolving” in the area of historic preservation and wasn’t completely clear on exemptions for religious structures.

Specter said no other town in Pennsylvania has enacted such a religious exception.

“The courts could discern a middle ground pursuant to which the [O’Connor] bill would be held valid,” he said.

The state Constitution does say that “no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship,” he said, adding, “It is possible that [O’Connor’s bill] could be deemed to be in direct conflict” with that provision.

Council members O’Connor, Alan Hertzberg, Jim Motznik, Gene Ricciardi, Twanda Carlisle and Barbara Burns voted for the measure, with William Peduto and Sala Udin opposed. Burns, who had voted against the measure in a preliminary vote last week, said she also expects a court challenge.

“This is something that needs to be litigated,” she said.

Udin said church members had been bombarding his office with e-mail and phone calls in support of O’Connor’s bill.

“I used to think that organized labor could put on a lobbying campaign, but the campaign for this bill makes organized labor look like the Cub Scouts,” he said.

Udin questioned whether church members understood the full significance of the bill. It takes away the power of ordinary members of a congregation to nominate their buildings as historic, he said, vesting it only in church leaders.

Also yesterday, council approved $50,000 to install concrete barriers along McArdle Roadway to prevent cars from going over the edge. A woman died last month when her car veered off McArdle, went through an iron railing and plummeted some 300 feet.

But Hertzberg said he would work with the Riverlife Task Force and others to develop a more attractive type of barrier, one that doesn’t block views of the city skyline.

Tom Barnes can be reached at or 412-263-1548.

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

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