Sooner or later, perhaps in five or 10 years, the Southern Beltway will run right through the center of Robinson Township. The consequences of preparing for that turnpike and its accompanying development already are dividing residents.
“As much as I sympathize with people who are afraid of change, that turnpike is coming through, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” said township supervisors Chairman Brian Coppola, who is completing his term after being voted out in November’s election.
During a special meeting Monday, Robinson officials approved long-awaited and debated amendments to the township zoning ordinance and map, despite protests from more than two dozen residents. Those opposed to the new ordinance urged supervisors – two of whom will be replaced in January – to table the discussion and allow the new board to decide what’s best.
Accustomed to large crowds as of late, the board opted to use the Fort Cherry High School gymnasium for the public hearing and voting meeting. Four police officers stood by in case one of the 60-some attendees stepped out of line, but it was peaceful aside from a few verbal tussles.
Coppola said the old zoning ordinance and map were outdated, and changes had to be made to prepare for development that would come with the turnpike. The second leg of the Southern Beltway, known as the Route 22 to Interstate 79 project, will add 13 miles of toll road to the southern end of the existing six-mile Findlay Connector, starting at Route 22 in Washington County and heading southeast in Allegheny County near McDonald to tie into I-79 at the county line.
Few residents denied that the old ordinance needed revamped, but most residents who spoke during the hearing said the new ordinance was fraught with problems and restrictions on their freedom and property rights.
Tim Jones took issue with language in the ordinance that would seemingly restrict the ability of his children to someday subdivide his property, or the parent tract. Coppola countered that the parent tract still can be divided into 10 lots, and the ordinance was designed to maintain larger-sized parcels, not to restrict subdivisions.
Mark Kramer commented that zoning laws determine the future of a township, and he expressed concern about what direction that might take.
“My concern is, do we want our township to mirror Findlay Township? Do we want to go the direction of North Fayette Township?” he asked. “Six years ago, Brian (Coppola), when you came in, you said these townships were mocking us because we were so backward. I can go up my driveway, I can turn left and I can be in as many malls, used malls, abandoned malls in 15 minutes as I want. I don’t want Findlay Township’s garbage dump to encroach into Robinson Township.”
Kramer did, however, thank the board for entertaining his request to change his property, which was zoned in the business district in the first draft, back to a residential district.
Coppola said the first draft of proposed zoning changes was modified after supervisors heard comments during a Nov. 18 public hearing, which drew in more than 100 residents. He said most of the residents’ concerns were addressed in the final version of the ordinance, with the exception of some landowners who wanted their commercial properties to be rezoned into the interchange business district. Coppola said the second draft also ensured that some residents’ properties would not be changed from the rural residential zone.
He explained the zoning use would not change for residents unless the property owner changes. Otherwise, the former zoning laws would be “grandfathered” in for each property.
Supervisors also voted to amend the process by which natural gas drilling companies apply for permits, which was changed from a conditional-use application to a special exception application. Township solicitor John Smith explained that “essentially, it’s a faster process” for companies because the application goes straight to the zoning hearing board rather than through the planning commission.
Smith said the board of supervisors also can get invovled and either support or reject the zoning board’s position.
Regardless of the amount of time it would take, attorney Brian Simmons spoke on behalf of Range Resources and said the company opposed the zoning amendments. Simmons said Range submitted 17 comments after the last public hearing, and he said the “overwhelming majority of comments” were not implemented by the board in the final draft.
Simmons said Range took issue not so much with the changed process, but the way in which the zoning amendments were implemented.
“It’s fairly obvious that what’s happening is a lame duck board attempting to push through amendments to a zoning ordinance that has been under consideration for five years,” Simmons said. “To have two public hearings in less than two months to consider five years’ worth of work is ridiculous.”
Jim Cannon, manager of local government relations for Range, said he wasn’t convinced the new application process would be advantageous to the industry.
“I’m not sure I understood the current board’s argument that the gas companies were the ones complaining about the time (it takes to apply for a permit),” Cannon said. “I think you have to conflate the two. It’s the time involoved with the process, as well as the process itself.”
Range attorney Shawn Gallagher also previously spoke out against proposed overlay districts for oil and gas development, but the board agreed to remove them from the proposed zoning map, or leave it to the next board to consider.
Both incoming supervisors expressed their intent to either repeal or make substantial changes to the zoning ordinance and map that were just adopted.
“Obviously the people aren’t happy with this new ordinance, so we will immediately start to correct all of the issues that everyone has with it,” said Rodger Kendall, incoming supervisor.
“It should not be an inherited problem,” added Steve Duran, also an incoming supervisor. “If they want stuff changed, it should have been done a while ago.”