By Nick Lewandowski
For The Almanac
The Mt. Lebanon commission tabled a controversial zoning change for a property near the border of Brookline on March 11 after a raucous three hours of citizen comments. This came complete with loud applause, interjections from the crowd and even booing as commission president Kristen Linfante demanded the audience refrain from interrupting speakers or commission members.
The zoning change relates specifically to a property at 2904 Castlegate Avenue in Brookline, most recently known as the Bradley Center. The resolution would change the property’s zoning designation from R-2 to R-4, paving the way for large residential housing units. Currently, Oxford Development Company and Green Development plan to build 120 apartments on the property. These would be split evenly between affordable housing for seniors and $300,000 for-sale units.
Brookline residents are concerned the zoning change could eventually open the property up to low-income, Section 8 tenants, which could lead to an influx of crime. Residents claimed this had already occurred with several other large-scale developments in Brookline. In addition, they are concerned about the increased traffic associated with the project, as well as possible issues related to mine subsidence.
Ben Kelley, project manager with Oxford, assured critics the development process would be open and transparent. He said residents in the Oxford project would be subject to income, age and credit restrictions.
“This project is going to require extensive review from Mt. Lebanon and also Allegheny County,” Kelly explained. “Our reputation is based not only on being a good company, but also being a good steward in the community.”
Despite Kelley’s assurances, the Brookline residents remained skeptical. Dan Dugan said he was frustrated because he felt he didn’t have a voice in the process. “You said you tried to communicate, but you posted a notice on a property we’re not allowed to enter,” he said. “This is my only forum. I don’t like getting mixed messages from people I can’t vote out of office.”
Commenting on the decision to table the motion, commission president Linfante expressed a continued commitment to transparency. “I recognize some of you may not trust us,” she said. “I hope through additional dialogue made possible by tabling this we can gain your trust.”
A contingent of recent home buyers from Mt. Lebanon also lined up to deliver broadsides at the commission, speaking to protest what they have dubbed the “Newcomer’s Tax.” The so-called tax refers to 150 recent home purchases being assessed at their sale prices for real estate tax purposes. Residents said in some cases these values are 40 percent higher than neighbors with near-identical properties. They feel the practice unfairly targets the very families Mt. Lebanon will depend on for future growth.
“When members of our group met with the commission, they were told it was ‘easier’ to go after newcomers,” resident Jason Margolis said. “So the municipality decided to go after new home owners.” He said ultimately this practice would discourage young families from moving to Mt. Lebanon as prospective homebuyers learned of it.
Commissioner Dave Brumfield responded saying Mt. Lebanon is broadening the scope of its reassessments to prior years, back to 2006. He also said residents had the option to a appeal their assessments based on documentary evidence such as independent appraisals and comparable properties.
“We did!” replied a chorus of voices.
Not one of the individuals present had won his appeal.