Judge reverses Fayette zoning board on former prison site
A visiting judge threw out zoning changes that would have allowed Fayette County to build the scuttled $32 million Justice and Rehabilitation Center in Dunbar and North Union townships.
After a brief hearing, Senior Judge William Ober of Westmoreland County on Wednesday sustained two land-use appeals that challenged variances and special exceptions granted by the county’s zoning hearing board.
He ordered the board’s decisions reversed, finding they were the result of “errors of law.”
In May, the board granted variances allowing the county to build the controversial prison on a lot smaller than the required 150 acres, to plant 143 fewer trees than required and to permit a small section of barbed wire fencing to be visible to the public.
The board granted a special exception allowing the jail to be built on land zoned for industrial use on 18.87 acres of a 61-acre site off Route 119 and Mt. Braddock Road in Dunbar and North Union townships, near Laurel Mall.
Ober said Commissioner Al Ambrosini, who was listed as the petitioner on the application that sought the changes, did not have standing to seek them. “The mere statement of being an agent does not make one an agent,” Ober said. “There has to be a resolution … to permit that.”
Ober said hardships that created the need for the variances were “self-inflicted.”
Rich Bower, a Connellsville attorney who represented North Union residents Evelyn Hovanec and John Cofchin, and Jerrie Mazza and her late husband, Ralph, of Franklin Township in one of the appeals, said Ober’s ruling was appropriate.
“It’s an extremely appropriate decision, with a finding Mr. Ambrosini had no standing,” Bower said.
Cofchin said he’s optimistic the ruling will better the county.
“Justice has prevailed,” Cofchin said. “We feel vindicated in our position.”
Les Mlakar, a Greensburg attorney who represented petitioners Terry and Diane Kriss of Dunbar Township, said the ruling should put an end to the dispute. “The judge put it to bed in a well-reasoned decision,” Mlakar said.
Ober said the zoning hearing board has 30 days to appeal to Commonwealth Court. Wendy O’Brien, board solicitor, declined comment.
Terry Kriss said “it must have been very, very abundantly clear” to Ober that the zoning hearing board erred, noting the judge’s quick decision. Ober said his ruling was based on lengthy briefs filed by the attorneys and other documents, including transcripts of the zoning hearing.
Kriss said the decision is evidence that he and his wife were justified in challenging the board’s decision.
“This whole ordeal cost me and my wife a whole lot of time and money, and it never should have happened,” Kriss said, describing the plan to build the new prison as “ill-planned, ill-conceived and politically based.”
Kriss said he wants the county to solve overcrowding and other problems at the existing jail, but in a manner that is “unpolitical, and for the right reasons.”
Commissioners Angela Zimmerlink and Vincent Zapotosky have since voted to stop all work on the proposed jail, pending a review of other options.
Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or [email protected].