Mon Valley Towns Looking To Revitalize Turn To Zoning Codes

Feb 29, 2016

In the Monongahela Valley, communities that saw their economies boom with the steel and manufacturing industry in the last century continue to feel the bust from those industries’ decline. But as Pittsburgh’s economic position strengthens, many Mon Valley towns are looking for ways to spark their own revitalization, and zoning plays a key role in that endeavor.

Michele Harris, code enforcement and zoning officer for the Borough of Charleroi, said she doesn't like her job.

“I’m the bad guy," she said. “I’m the one that people don’t want the phone calls from me or the letter from me and they end up with citations if you don’t listen to me. I’ve lived here a long time so I’ve made a lot of friends, and I’ve lost a lot of friends over this job.”

Charleroi is a community of 4,000 on the Monongahela River. Its zoning code - the rules that determine the physical layout and character of a town - has been dormant for around 50 years, but they’re updating it now. Harris said the public’s input guided the decision making, from putting a drive-through at a bank in the business district to allowing chicken coops on residential property. The biggest change is how they treat the land along the river: right now many riverfront towns in the Mon Valley, including Charleroi, zone the area for industrial uses.

“The new zoning we have a redevelopment district along the river because we really would like to embrace our riverfront," Harris said. "We do have some industry down there but also if someone wants to come in and do something different they can.”

The borough plans to add docks, upgrade a boat ramp and clear trees from the waterfront so there’s a better view of the river.

Then there's the business district to consider.

Dan Santoro with the civil engineering firm Herbert Rowland & Grubic said many shopping districts need updating; built during municipalities’ heydays, they’re now oversized and underused, resulting in a patchwork of empty storefronts. Santoro is helping Charleroi update its zoning. In the 1960s, he said, no one could have imagined today’s shopping habits.

“These downtowns are struggling to reinvent themselves because (when) we shop, we procure our services in different ways than we once did when these communities were once built, so that’s a challenge," Santoro said.

That’s just one reason why zoning ordinances should be a living documents, said Patrick Shattuck, director of real estate for the Mon Valley Initiative, a nonprofit working to revitalize towns and boroughs.

“These should be constantly looked at and examined by your planning commission because you can update an ordinance, you can modify an ordinance at any time," said Shattuck.

But it’s not just about making a place for new types of businesses, he said. It’s about strengthening the very fabric of the towns.

The Mon River flows for 130 miles, from Fairmont, W.Va., to Downtown Pittsburgh. It was vital to industry in the 1900s and old codes reflect that period. Many towns along the river are zoned like layer cakes: the water, then factories and mills along the river banks, a business district beyond, and above that, residential housing.

But these days the riverfront is considered a recreational and aesthetic asset. To take advantage of that shift in perception, Shattuck said towns need to change their zoning rules. He asks residents to imagine a terrible fire destroyed the town.

 “And nothing existed, and we were to lay this community out anew," Shattuck said. "And I think that we need to separate ourselves from any particular person and any particular point in time and say what is the best thing for a healthy community?”

That self determination is what has Harris optimistic about Charleroi’s future. She said the change in zoning isn’t just to attract new blood, it’s for the people who already live there.

“They have something to be proud of. The town it was very prosperous and then when that prosperity left many, many years ago, the town kind of depressed," said Harris. "And hopefully, I’d like to see them have pride in where they live.”