Author's note: I wrote the following story about a year back and posted it on Barnestormin. A bit later, I thought it was imprudent to have such a one-sided story on my blog, and I deleted the post. But now I think that the story is worth repeating, given the massive landslide caused by construction work at the proposed site of a Wal-Mart along Rt. 65.
Despite the protests of community groups across the country, the malling of America continues unabated, with the big box retailers leading the race to develop the strip mall of the future. In Pittsburgh’s North Hills, community leaders are considering changing the area’s name to North Malls, to simplify things for shoppers.
But some in North Hills are fighting back.
Avalon resident Bob Keir, spokesman for Communities First, a grassroots group opposed to Wal-Mart building a new store in Kilbuck Township on the old Dixmont State Hospital property, said that his group isn’t giving up, despite a recent ruling against them by PennDOT director Allen Biehler. He recently rejected an appeal by Communities First that had argued that PennDOT underestimated the amount of traffic that would go to the Wal-Mart development’s driveway off of Route 65. Communities First had argued that the increase in traffic on Route 65 and Interstate 79 would be far greater than PennDOT had estimated. Despite the fact that the grassroots nonprofit group has 400 members from four North Boroughs municipalities, PennDOT officials wouldn’t even recognize that the group has standing to question the development.
“While Communities First is legitimately concerned about the impact of commercial development on neighborhoods and local businesses, the Department’s highway access regulations are not intended to address those issues,” Biehler said in his ruling. “Rather, those provisions implement the Department’s power and duty ‘to regulate the location, design, construction, maintenance and drainage of access driveways … for the purpose of security, economy of maintenance, preservation of proper drainage and safe and reasonable access.’ (Emphasis added.)”
In English, that means that PennDOT only was considering the merits of the driveway to the development, which would be on a partially wooded hilltop alongside Route 65, near the I-79 junction, and not considering the merits of the development. Biehler added that Communities First members had provided no good argument at all:
“Further, although afforded a hearing, Communities First presented no evidence that it (or any of its members) was actually affected by ‘the location, design, construction, maintenance, [or] drainage’ of the access authorized by the permit in dispute,” Biehler wrote.
Keir said the issue is on the back burner while Communities First huddles with its lawyer. But Keir appeared as adamantly against the Wal-Mart as always. He noted that the approved driveway plan has some potholes in it. “The [traffic plan] does not include Sewickley Bridge, and it does not include Camp Horne Road,” he said. “PennDOT approved a flawed plan, using old data.”
Keir contends that PennDOT officials also ignored the evidence that Communities First’s former consultant presented to them. “We hired a guy who’s done millions of dollars of work for PennDOT, and he said the plan was awful,” Keir noted, adding that engineering consultant David Freudenrich said PennDOT used a 1997 formula to determine the traffic that would result from the development. “PennDOT issued the highway occupancy permit, and our engineer said he had to resign… PennDOT ignored everything we gave them, then they interfered with our traffic consultant,” he said.
Freudenrich works for McGuire Group, an engineering firm that does millions in work for PennDOT, Keir noted.
Communities First has spent $130,000 on consultants and legal fees, but it is not giving up, Keir said. “Our next step might be to sue PennDOT in Commonwealth Court.”