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South Fayette tries to balance growth with its rural roots

By Patrick Ponticell
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Wednesday, April 23, 2003

South Fayette wants to be extra careful as one of the few Allegheny County municipalities retaining a largely rural character to balance the pros and cons of economic growth.

It is pushing for industrial and commercial development via a tax-exemption strategy. But it also plans to contract with a historical preservation organization to ensure that a tract of farmland owned by the township doesn’t become just another large, cookie-cutter housing subdivision.

The prime property in question is the old Boys Home near Oakdale, and Commissioner Sue Caffrey is leading the preservation charge.

Although conservation-minded (she’s a member of the South Fayette Conservation Group and the Allegheny County Farmland Preservation Board), she is not slamming the door on the idea that part of the 214-acre tract could be devoted to residential development.

“I’m very open to a variety of uses for the property, from total preservation to partial development and partial preservation,” she said. “But under no circumstances do I want to see that property developed 100 percent.”

South Fayette will work with the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation to reconcile the competing forces of conservation and economic development. The township will have ultimate say in what happens to the property, with the foundation providing expertise to help township commissioners make informed decisions.

Most of the tract is leased by the township for farming, Caffrey said. Portions have been farmed at least since 1899, when it became an orphan asylum. Within a year, it became the Boys Industrial Home of Western Pennsylvania under the Rev. John McCleland serving troubled boys with discipline or crime-related problems.

By 1905, the Boys Home site encompassed almost 400 acres. Schooled on-site, the youths farmed the land and raised chicken and livestock. A gym was built at an undetermined time and has interesting architecture worth saving, foundation president Arthur Ziegler said. Although the gym needs major repair, Caffery said the foundation hopes to find a new use for the building.

The Boy’s Home was closed by the state Department of Welfare in 1972, and the property was acquired by the Wesley Institute in 1980. As far as Caffrey can verify, that organization sold the property to South Fayette in 1987 at a cost of $725,000 for 321 acres.

Between 1987 and the early 1990s, the township sold several parcels for residential housing and some land to adjoining homeowners.

“The question has always been, what are we going to do with the property?” Caffrey said. “Instead of making an impulsive decision, I thought it much better to take a more proactive approach and look at all the possible uses for the property before determining its best use.”

Caffrey sent letters last year to several regional and national preservation groups to gauge their willingness to help with site planning. The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation indicated interest. The foundation will cover half of the project cost, the township the other half.

“We’re just trying to help the community get a good conceptual plan,” Ziegler said. “It’s unusual for a community to have this kind of foresight and values.” He described the tract as “beautiful Western Pennsylvania countryside.”

The first order of business is to assemble an advisory committee with representatives from the township, South Fayette School District and the foundation. Ziegler said he hoped to have the committee formed within a month.

Patrick Ponticell is a freelance writer.

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

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