An Open Letter to Session Members of the Presbyterian Church, Sewickley
Sewickley resident and attorney John A. Straka III calls on the Presbyterian Church, Sewickley to reconsider the decision to demolition the Coyle property on Beaver Street.
I write to express my profound disappointment over the strategy and tactics you have employed to advance your proposed land development.
As you are all well aware, in August, 2011, Sewickley Borough Council passed an amended zoning ordinance. Among the many changes was to designate "places of worship" and "places of assembly" as permitted conditional uses in the R-1 and R-1A zoning districts - the residential districts in the borough. I think the planning commission and council were reacting to concerns that arose from the use of Osborne Elementary School by Northway Christian Church last year, and that their desire was to be able to control a similar situation if it were to occur with respect to the Quaker Valley Middle School when its significant renovation is complete. Unfortunately, they were relying on the advice of a planning consultant rather than a lawyer, and what they ended up creating was a scenario under which every residential parcel in the borough had become vulnerable to development as a place of worship or assembly. It was exactly the opposite of what they had intended.
I became aware of your Church's plans about a month ago, so I took a look at the ordinance and was shocked to see how it had been amended in this particular respect. After researching the matter and confirming my fears, I sent an email to the borough manager, the borough's solicitor, and the church leadership expressing my concerns about the ordinance and the Church's land development plans. I received a prompt reply from the borough manager, and the solicitor thanked me for bringing the matter to his attention. I have never received the courtesy of a reply from church leaders, nor has anyone from your Church ever communicated with me on the matter despite the fact that I live across the street and know many of you.
Recognizing the egregious error in the ordinance, another neighbor and I sent letters to the Sewickley Planning Commission on March 5, 2012, asking that they take immediate action to amend the ordinance to close this loophole. They did so at their meeting on March 7, 2012, when they voted to recommend this amendment to the Borough Council, which has the ultimate vote on such matters. The first opportunity for the Borough Council to take such action was at its meeting this past Monday evening, 3/12/12. As you know, your Church closed on its purchase of the Coyle property that same day. Recognizing that the Borough Council could vote to amend the ordinance that night, your Church's lawyers submitted three applications shortly before the close of the borough's business day: conditional use; demolition; and reverse subdivision. Predictably, and at the urging of their solicitor, Borough Council voted 8-1 on Monday night to make the appropriate amendment.
What is transparent through this timeline is that your Church can take the action that it proposes only if you choose to capitalize on a blatant mistake in the ordinance, already in the process of being corrected before you closed on the purchase of the Coyle home, and over the strenuous objections of pretty much all of the actual neighbors on Beaver, Thorn and Grant Streets. Are these really the tactics through which you choose to effect your Christian mission? While I do not know it for a fact, it is certainly my impression that the Coyle property was never actively marketed, and that it did not appear on the Multi-List. Instead, I am told that it was "quietly" on the market for a price roughly twice what your Church paid last week, with both parties to the ultimate transaction sharing the same realtor. I live across the street and have an office in the village, and I was unaware that the property was on the market until your Church already had it under agreement.
I have since heard your claims that the Coyle home is contaminated with asbestos and is unfit for any residential renovation. Beth and I are raising our family in a home of similar vintage designed by the same architects. It is an old home, no doubt containing a similar quantity of asbestos (like every other home constructed before 1960), and its idiosyncrasies and limitations are not for every home buyer. However, we loved it when we bought it, and we might just as easily have purchased the Coyle house if it were on the market 12 years ago. At that time, I think my young daughter preferred the Coyle house because it reminded her of the house in the "Madeline" story. I note that the property a few doors down at 56 Beaver Street sat vacant and on the market for a few years before the next young family purchased it. But they did, and I believe the Coyle property deserved the same opportunity.
Sadly, it appears that you intend to make the demolition of the Coyle property an inevitability, as the salvage contractor is cannibalizing the interior finishes and fixtures as quickly as they can be cut out of the building. At some point very soon, you will have created an egg that cannot be unscrambled. That is why I am writing this email at nearly midnight on Sunday when I have been out of town all weekend. You really can still reconsider your action.
As a final point, I note that most of your members of Session appear not to even be residents of Sewickley, let alone to own homes in close proximity to your Church. You must be aware that nearly every real neighbor, as well as an apparent majority of the other residents of the borough, strenuously object to what you are doing. Are you really comfortable attempting to impose your will on us under these circumstances? If so, expect to meet all of my resistance.
John A. Straka III