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North Neighborhoods
O'Hara residents demand council stop church from developing field

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

By Michael J. Dongilli

O'Hara council is up to bat in the battle over St. Mary's field, whether members care to be or not.

Residents who want public use of the field, which is owned by St. Mary Parish, implored council last week to use any means necessary, including eminent domain, to stop the parish from using the longtime baseball field for a mausoleum.

"The minute St. Mary's buries one person in that field, that park will be gone, and I will be the first to move out of this neighborhood," said Jack Claus, leader of about 100 residents attending the meeting.

Council took no action, but listened as residents and parish leaders debated the issue for more than two hours.

The Kirkwood Road field has been used by the public for about 70 years, and O'Hara has maintained it under a verbal agreement with the parish. In the spring of 2001, however, the parish started dumping fill dirt and wood chips in the outfield, and posted "no trespassing" signs, sparking protests from residents and the township that have gone on since.

The issue has become a peculiar church vs. home plate squabble over the best use of the land.

The Rev. Andrew Fischer, parish administrator, said the field was closed due to liability concerns. Residents suspected the property would soon become part of the cemetery which lies across the road, a fact confirmed when parish council member Rose Wega said, "[We've] made a decision and plan to start a mausoleum on the property."

Councilman Jim Habay and township Manager Doug Arndt have had several meetings with Fischer and his predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Manion, to discuss buying or leasing the field. Habay has also appealed to higher authorities -- the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and even the Vatican -- without success.

Habay's brother, state Rep. Jeff Habay, has also found his influence insufficient. "I've made eight calls to Father Fischer and all have gone unreturned," Jeff Habay said. "You can' t have a dialogue with people who don't want to have a dialogue."

Jeff Habay, R-Shaler, is a member of the parish. He urged residents to unify and assured them council has been proactive in the matter.

"I have never interjected myself in eight years on a local issue as a state representative in front of any township until now," Jeff Habay said.

"I am embarrassed by what you have done to this field and with our parishioners," he told Wega and Marilyn Ganster, parish council president.

His brother said it took Fischer nine months to respond to the township's latest offer. "I made a proposal last July; Fischer promised an answer in October," Jim Habay said. "I finally got one at the end of April this year."

But the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Diocese, said Fischer is simply following through on plans established before his arrival, and that O'Hara was given years of advance notice that the ball field would close.

"It's a shame to me that the parish is being made to look like the bad person who provided this [field] all these years and then put the civil authorities on alert a few years ago this was going to happen," Lengwin said.

Evidence seems to back him up.

Lengwin and Ganster both cited a Dec. 2, 1997 letter from Manion to Patsy McKenna -- who was then chairwoman of the O'Hara Parks and Recreation Commission -- stating that "the cemetery would be revoking its permission to use that ball field effective Jan. 1, 1999."

Lengwin said there was even correspondence dating back to the 1980s, when the Rev. Patrick Cooke was pastor, indicating that the parish intended to enhance the cemetery and that the township should start looking for alternative space.

Core sampling tests were done in 1990 to determine construction feasibility.

The cemetery averages about 200 burials a year.

Fischer was not at the meeting, but Ganster read a letter from him. "The time has come that expansion of the cemetery is necessary to meet the needs of the people in the area," the letter said. "It is our hope that O'Hara Township will be able to find a parcel of land suitable for additional playgrounds."

"For a cemetery our size, it's odd that we don't have a mausoleum," Fischer said in a later interview. "You would not consider ours a little country cemetery. We have the most active parish cemetery in the diocese."

Fischer said the field is attractive to the parish for the same reasons residents like it: It's a big, flat space, something at a premium in O'Hara's Parkview neighborhood.

Arndt confirmed the McKenna letter, and said he remembered her trying to work out a solution.

He said he does not feel eminent domain is appropriate, though "that will be a call council will have to make."

Fischer said he is disappointed that residents would call for legal action when the parish has permitted free use for so long.

"I just think about the good will of the church over these many, many years," Fischer said. "The church let the township use that really out of good will and generosity, and now we need it, and just not now but in the future because people will continue to die."

Claus said residents have conducted town meetings over the past month at the Parkview Volunteer Fire Department to discuss ways of taking possession of the property, and settled on eminent domain as the best option.

He showed council photos of an overflowing dumpster and mounds of debris, conditions that have persisted since the signs were put up.

Recently, Jeff Habay called for full investigations by the county Health Department on potential rodent infestation and the state Department of Environmental Protection on possible illegal dumping.

The cemetery was cited for improper grading and erosion control late last year, mostly for its own dumping of dirt and wood chips. Bob Robinson, township engineer, said those piles were the result of operations at the graveyard, and that the problems have been resolved.

"I think it was pretty obvious that the pictures taken in June were at a time when the dumpster was overflowing and that's a concern," Robinson said, but to his knowledge no illegal dumping is occurring and the cemetery is violating no ordinances.

Cemetery Manager Don Radocay said someone did dump some concrete behind the property without permission recently, and that there are always people "sneaking in" to use the dumpster.

Radocay said both agencies Jeff Habay contacted are welcome to inspect. "If there's something wrong, I want to know about it," he said.

He said he had yet to hear from either authority.

Residents were unstatisfied.

"I'm a new resident to the Parkview area and one of the things that interested me in moving into that neighborhood was the number of children that lived there," said Christina Madden, who lives on Linwood Avenue and has two children.

"I saw the field thinking that was something the kids would be using, and it was an attraction to me. I was looking for somewhere close where I could go with my kids and wouldn't have to drive to another township or area in order to do that.

"I want to go somewhere where I can walk with them and they deserve to have that, as do all the kids in this community."

What Parkview lacks is prime open space for parks. The neighborhood was developed long ago, and is one of the municipality's smallest areas.

The township recently completed a study of its parks and Arndt revealed the preliminary report recommends acquisition of property in Parkview as a priority. He just doesn't know where.

"The staff hasn't looked at individual properties available in the area as of yet, and no one has come into my office suggesting any that are for sale."

Claus recommended the former Kaminsky property at 832 Parkview Blvd., a six-acre parcel with about three acres flat enough for a field.

Arndt and Robinson disagreed, saying only one acre was park-worthy, not enough space for a ball field.

Michael J. Dongilli is a free-lance writer.

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