Plans for development in Murrysville may damage historic sites, opponents say

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Two development proposals in Murrysville have run headlong into the issue of public stewardship of historic sites.

Council discussed the Staymates property on Round Top Road and a Revolutionary War-era cemetery on Deer Valley Lane at a meeting Sept. 18

As in many communities, Murrysville works to balance green space with rapid commercial and residential development. There are 14 parks in the municipality containing about 1,000 acres.

The Westmoreland Land trust, a conservation organization, has been working for about three years to connect Duff Park and Pleasant Valley Park with a walking trail.

According to land trust board member Betsy Aiken, Westmoreland County helped the trust acquire a $166,000 matching grant in 2010 from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to expand Duff Park.

"The plan has been to use the grant to acquire three properties, of which the 21-acre connector parcel is the last and largest piece," she said.

The connector property, owned by John Manno, will cost $125,000. The grant fund will provide $85,000, and an additional $40,000 will come from the municipality.

But the proposed deal requires the municipality to give the Manno family 7.35 acres that is part of a historic piece of property known as the Staymates Farm.

The farm was donated to the Girl Scouts by Bessie Staymates in 1972, and changed hands several times before being donated to the municipality in 1977.

The Manno family also owns 10 acres of the original Staymates property.

While the transaction would not affect the historic log house and barn there, local historian Carl Patty said, it does include an area that in 1758 served as a camp for George Washington and Gen. John Forbes.

Nearly a hundred years later, William Staymates bought the property, including the log house and barn that had been built near the camp in 1785.

"We have been derelict in our duty as stewards of this historical property," Mr. Patty told council. "You can't put a monetary value on this property. It has a great deal of historical value. There are only so many places that can say George Washington was here.

"We have one of them. Are we willing to give it up for the benefit of a hiking trail? That is the question," he said.

Several council members and audience members objected to giving away the additional Staymates property. "Why didn't we just buy the connector property as a straight sale?" asked Councilman Jeffery Kepler. "The connector property has merit, but introducing the Staymates property is a leverage play that I don't appreciate. Staymates is a different game."

Council President Joan Kearns said losing a large portion of the property would destroy its historical context.

"We'd all be willing to look at a park connector, but not at the cost of losing Staymates. This has been sprung upon us and on the residents of Murrysville, she said."

Ms. Kearns said the proposal would not be on the voting agenda for next month.

The grant opportunity will expire at the end of the year, but Ms. Aiken said the Land Trust would apply for an extension.

The Manno family did not return calls to comment.

Also at odds with growth and development is land referred to as the Armstrong Cemetery.

Council appears to be considering a subdivision proposal from John Cherry at 4082 Deer Valley Lane that would include the remains of a cemetery that is the burial site of French and Indian War heroes.

Virginia Beatty, Mr. Cherry's neighbor at 4088 Deer Valley Lane, told council the land once belonged to her parents and grandparents.

"I am sure the old Armstrong cemetery is on his property." Ms. Beatty told council. She pointed out its location near Mr. Cherry's house on a map of the proposed subdivision. She also told council gravestones at one time were on the property and may still be there.

Mr. Patty continued to provide historical information.

"This cemetery has six people in it, including Col. John Armstrong and his son John Armstrong Jr. Armstrong Sr. fought in the French and Indian War and with George Washington in the American Revolution," Mr. Patty said.

In fact, Armstrong was known as the Hero of Kittanning for his successful raid on an Indian village in 1756.

After fighting at Brandywine in 1777, he later served as a representatives to the Continental Congress. Armstrong County bears his name today.

Mr. Patty said that about nine years ago, he used a metal detectors to identify the perimeter of the old cemetery and fence.

The request to subdivide the Cherry property was put on hold until the exact location of the cemetery could be determined.

"If we can determine where the cemetery is and it is on his land, then Mr. Cherry will have to abide by state law regarding private cemeteries," said council President Joan Kearns.

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Tim Means, freelance writer:


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