After months of public debate, Churchill Council approves controversial Amazon development
The Churchill Borough Council voted to approve an application for a controversial proposed Amazon development at the site of the former George Westinghouse Research and Technology Park on Tuesday night.
Council members voted 5-2 in favor of the development. Adam McDowell and Norma Greco were the only members who dissented. Both cited concerns that Hillwood Development Company, the Texas-based real estate developer behind the proposal, did not adequately address the potential negative environmental ramifications of the project.
The decision came after 14 meetings and over 57 hours of hearings and public comment.
Council President Jay Dworin, who voted to approve the application, called the hearings a “challenging” process. He noted that although some council members were frustrated with what they saw as lax environmental requirements in Churchill’s conditional use code, he believes the project does meet borough code.
“There is a very, very difficult space that we have to tread,” Dworin said. “We must find what is best for the future of Churchill.”
Hillwood is expected to invest $300 million in the development. The site is expected to generate about $11 million in annual tax revenue for Churchill, the Woodland Hills School District, and Allegheny County.
That money is desperately needed, said Council member Kevin Collins, who also voted to approve the application.
“In the 20 years since Westinghouse shut down their facility, the borough millage has doubled,” Collins said. “There will be future infrastructure requirements that will need to be paid for. Without commercial tax revenue, the future tax onus will be owned by the residents of Churchill.”
The council did add conditions to the approval. Trucks from the facility will not be allowed to travel south on Greensburg Pike or Beulah road, nor will they be permitted on Churchill borough roads. They will also be banned from idling outside the facility. The borough is also requiring the owner to pay for post-construction studies to identify further issues. It also asks for a “guarantee of future minimum property tax revenue of $2.5 million per year for ten years,” Collins said.
Some residents and members of Churchill Future, a group that has vehemently opposed the development, say they will continue to fight against it.
“The fight is not over, and I do think we have the legal case to proceed,” Sandy Fox, a Churchill resident, said at a press conference after the vote. Fox said a group of residents has retained a lawyer, who also represented them during the hearing. He plans to file an appeal on their behalf.
Throughout the months-long process, many residents and Churchill Future members have criticized the proposal. The warehouse on the 133-acre site would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which they said would increase air pollution, traffic, light and noise in their neighborhood. Many are also opposed to removing 1400 mature trees and acres of green space on the property and have voiced concerns about how the removal could impact stormwater in the area.
The developer disputes these claims and provided studies on traffic, air pollution, light pollution and noise during the hearing process, though some residents claim the studies are not accurate.
Groups of residents have often gathered outside the Churchill Borough building to protest the warehouse and highlight the negative environmental impacts it could have on the area.
“A distribution center — especially one of this magnitude — is unquestionably inappropriate for our location,” said Churchill resident Murray Bilby. “A distribution center does not belong in a residential community.”
Some also questioned the plan’s economic benefits. According to estimates, the facility would employ between 1,000 and 1,500 people full-time. Eric Grotzinger, the only Churchill resident who spoke in favor of the development, said the facility could provide “thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue over the new facility’s life span.”
He also noted that State Senator Jay Costa, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and others support the project.
But Churchill resident Garin Ardash said that needs to be weighed against increased infrastructure demands, added pollution and more traffic. He said people considering living in Churchill might be dissuaded by a distribution center in the neighborhood.
“People may want to move to Churchill—it’s a desirable place,” Ardash said. “They likely won’t want to move to Amazonville.”
Other residents echoed Ardash’s concerns and said the development could drive down real estate prices in the area.
More than 30 residents asked the council to reject the application on Tuesday before it was ultimately approved.
In a statement after the vote, Fitzgerald said “This is going to be a substantial development, not just for Churchill, but also for the residents in all of our eastern suburbs. It’s particularly exciting for these communities that haven’t seen as much growth as other areas of our county.
“This site has sat vacant for two decades but is now being brought back with potentially thousands of jobs, particularly for Woodland Hills students, allowing residents throughout those communities the benefit of economic growth.”
But residents say they’ll continue to fight back.
“The complex is clearly best suited to an industrial park, and in fact, there is no justification for foisting this abomination on us here,” Churchill resident Steve Frank said after the vote. “Please also know: there is plenty of fight to be fought, and we will continue to hound the powers that be in every legal and moral way possible.”
Hillwood will next need to file a land use application and continue securing permits before any work can begin on the site.