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Map of O'Hara looks as though someone forgot to connect the dots

Wednesday, January 09, 2002

By Susan Jacobs, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Tom Powers can trace his family history in O'Hara back to the 1780s, when one of his ancestors became the first settler there. In those days, it wasn't called O'Hara, it was just part of Indiana Township.

Today he lives on Powers Run Road in the eastern section of O'Hara, named to honor his family. The eastern section is just one of five separate chunks of land that make up the township and that, at first glance, have no logical connection.

If Powers wants to visit James O'Hara Park in the western half of the township, for example, he either has to cross the width of Fox Chapel or take Route 28 through sections of Pittsburgh, Aspinwall and Sharpsburg.

Powers refers to the fragmented horseshoe shape of his hometown as "geographic roadkill."

Over the past seven years, he has devoted himself to working with a group of fellow residents to research and write a history of O'Hara, which includes the evolution of the township's strange configuration.

"It's like somebody splattered a can of paint on the wall and nobody bothered to clean it up," he said.

O'Hara's two largest sections lie to the east and west of Fox Chapel. Six Mile Island in the Allegheny River is another section, and two more are made up of property along the exit ramps for the Highland Park Bridge and an odd triangle of land bounded by Aspinwall and Fox Chapel.

It wasn't always like this. When O'Hara was founded in 1875, it was, with the exception of Six Mile Island and Sycamore Island, a single piece of land. But that didn't last long.

In 1892, Sharpsburg decided to expand and took a chunk of O'Hara. That same year, Aspinwall incorporated, taking another chunk. Later, each municipality would take more land.

In 1908, the city of Pittsburgh annexed property for its water filtration plant, and in 1925, Blawnox incorporated, taking more land from O'Hara, including Sycamore Island.

But the biggest blow came in 1934, when Fox Chapel formed and essentially divided O'Hara in two.

While the other annexations had been small pieces of land along the riverfront, Fox Chapel took about a third of the property that had been O'Hara. Later, Fox Chapel took more.

In a process that stretched over 55 years, the neatly shaped municipality became a map maker's nightmare, leaving sections of the original township as disconnected islands surrounded by a tangle of municipal boundaries. The land might have become even more divided were it not for a law passed in 1947 that made it more difficult for municipalities to annex land.

Until then, if the people who lived on a patch of land voted to annex themselves to another municipality, they could do so. The new law required the consent of the town that would lose the property, Powers said.

A challenge to serve

Powers said the towns decided to break away from O'Hara in large part because they thought they could govern themselves more effectively.

In some cases, residents were frustrated that they paid taxes for municipal services that often didn't reach them because of the size of the township.

In its early days, O'Hara was run by a group of farmers, whose concerns were different from those of the suburban and industrial communities growing up along the riverfront, Powers said. Those differences didn't end with O'Hara's last official division.

In 1954, a group of residents of part of the eastern section of O'Hara contemplated forming their own borough, which would have divided O'Hara into six pieces.

Andrew Weil, a lawyer who later would become O'Hara's solicitor, was one of the residents of Oak Hill Manor who explored forming their own borough.

"We were investigating if it would be practical to form a separate municipality and whether we should," Weil said.

The residents of Oak Hill, many of whom were World War II veterans who had swept into O'Hara with the post-war suburban boom, disagreed with O'Hara officials about how the township should be run.

The residents thought the township should be headed by a manager and wanted changes in the zoning laws, which the officials refused to grant. In the end, the residents struck a deal with the leaders that they would remain part of O'Hara if the township would go along with their requests.

"They began to get the message," Weil said. He and his neighbors wielded enough political influence to affect the direction of the community.

In the end, O'Hara hired a manager and moved the township building from the far western corner of the township to a more central location on Fox Chapel Road, where it remains.

Weil said that in his decade or so as O'Hara solicitor, the divided sections of the township provided some challenges.

"It does present some problems," said Doug Arndt, O'Hara manager. "It just makes it more difficult to provide services."

Public services such as snow removal have to be strategically planned to reach all areas of the township with the shortest amount of time spent driving through other municipalities.

"You spend a lot of dead time driving," Councilman Joe Frauenholz said.

O'Hara also has to make a greater effort than most municipalities to distribute public facilities, such as parks and community centers, throughout the township so they are accessible to everyone.

"The lack of contiguity causes some people to feel that the benefits of one part of the community represent a detriment to other parts of the community," said Jim Zaenger, a longtime councilman. "People try to make political hay out of it."

He believes most of the township is served well by public services, despite its odd configuration.

Powers doesn't believe that O'Hara's shape interferes with its functioning.

"It's more of a geographic anomaly than any kind of a barrier to commerce," he said. "When you see it on the map, it looks a lot more difficult than it is."

Driving the width of Fox Chapel, for example, takes only a few minutes and is not a big deal, he said.

Where's the line?

A bigger problem may be confusion about where O'Hara ends and Fox Chapel begins.

Compounding that confusion is the fact that several institutions in O'Hara use Fox Chapel in their names, such as Fox Chapel Plaza and Fox Chapel Yacht Club.

Ruth Weir, secretary of the O'Hara history book committee, recalled hearing of newcomers to O'Hara who thought they lived in Fox Chapel and discovered where they actually lived only when they went to Fox Chapel to pay their municipal taxes.

"It amused a lot of us," she said.

Some may prefer to say they live in the affluent borough of Fox Chapel.

Powers said the name Fox Chapel evokes images of upper-class living in the English countryside, while the name O'Hara just doesn't have the same ring to it.

Although the name Fox Chapel may sound as though it were conceived by a real estate developer, it actually has humble roots.

The descendants of John Fox, a local farmer, leased part of his land to a Methodist church and asked that the congregation call itself Fox Chapel.

Powers said Fox Chapel started showing up in the names of all sorts of institutions that were regarded as upscale before the borough of Fox Chapel was formed.

"It's almost like an advertising campaign," he said.

Weir became involved in efforts to draft O'Hara's history in 1975 for the town's centennial.

"We wanted the two sides of the horseshoe to realize they were two sides of the same municipality," she said.

It doesn't seem likely that O'Hara will reabsorb any of the municipalities it once contained.

"There's no real way to clean it up without a lot of legal hassle," Powers said. "It's a case of people giving up their autonomy. They might not want to do that."

Weil said he would be surprised if any of the municipalities consolidated.

"There's no interest that I know of," he said.

So, for now, there will continue to be some confusion about where exactly people live or work. For instance, the National Torch Tip company is in O'Hara near the Highland Park Bridge.

Last week, the business had a water problem and needed the municipality to shut off its water supply, so manager Scott Hopkin called O'Hara for help but was referred elsewhere.

After placing calls to several municipalities, he found out that water for the business comes from Aspinwall.

"It just seems strange to me that this strip of land is O'Hara," Hopkin said.

For Powers, that's just the sort of fodder that makes O'Hara's history worth writing.

"It really is a civics lesson for anyone who wants to study government," he said.

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