Officials holding out hope for preservation of Pittsburgh Cut Flower land

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Officials associated with the effort to purchase and preserve an expanse of acreage in Richland are disappointed that a pending sale of the property has fallen through. But, hope remains that talks will be rekindled.

“This is not the outcome we were wanting as public officials. A lot of our township residents shared the vision (of land preservation) for the property. We’re hoping something will turn around,” said Richland Manager Dean Bastianini.

The Allegheny Land Trust, based on Sewickley, announced on April 3 that a pending deal for the purchase of 180 acres off of Bakerstown Road had fallen through in the 11th hour after months of negotiations and fundraising that had yielded almost $2 million — much of which may have to be returned to donors.

Christopher Beichner, president and chief executive officer of the land trust, said his agency was shocked to receive an email from the attorney representing Legacy Landings LLC in New York "stating there were internal issues with the partners and the property was no longer for sale. They said the issues were confidential.”

Sam Mermelstein of Legacy did not return phone calls to his office.

The property once had been used by Pittsburgh Cut Flower, a greenhouse operation from about 1910 to 1990.

About three years ago, the Allegheny Land Trust began efforts to acquire the property which has been under a federal order to clean up the site because of asbestos that had leeched into the ground from piping on the land.

An agreement to purchase the property for $1.4 million plus reimbursement for “reasonable” cleanup costs had been struck. But, as the property owner worked to remove deteriorating properties and to clean the soil of chemicals, disagreements arose over what “reasonable” constituted. The costs initially had been estimated at $1 million then, at one point, had risen to a point about double that.

The land trust had hoped to close the deal last summer then had delayed until December then were working to set a new close date when the negotiations broke down. Mr. Beichner said a verbal agreement was reached in late March for a total of $2.4 land acquisition and cleanup costs, combined. The closing was to be held in June. But, a few days after that verbal agreement was struck, Legacy declared the property no longer for sale.

The land trust is interested in buying the property for several reasons, including the belief that it is important to the preservation of the region’s watershed. The land is located at the headwaters of the Montour Run tributary to Pine Creek, one of the cleanest tributaries in the watershed. Maintaining most of the property green and undeveloped would ensure that the tributary remains unpolluted. A small portion of the land fronting Bakerstown Road was to be developed in a “sustainable” way — either with businesses using solar energy or a solar farm.

Mr. Bastianini said he believes the trust’s vision for the property “is the highest and best use of the land” but he conceded that the deal was between two private entities and that “there are no good guys or bad guys here. Both parties made a good faith effort and worked hard for many months and, for one reason or another, they weren’t able to reach an agreement. We’re really disappointed. Our state and federal officials are disappointed. They worked hard to secure grant funding for the project. Our community is disappointed. But, none of us were party to the negotiations and this is just what happened. Maybe down the line, something will change and they’ll start talking again,” Mr. Bastianini said.

He said the land is in better condition than it was before the talks began because Legacy has cleaned it up. “It had really been an eyesore and now that’s been removed,” Mr. Bastianini said.

The vast majority of the land is zoned for low intensity residential, meaning that each dwelling unit must have a 3/4-acre of land. A small section most immediately near Bakerstown Road is zoned for neighborhood commercial uses.

Mr. Beichner said the land trust made several concessions during negotiations, including giving up several acres of property close to the roadway. Some 17 acres on the north side of Bakerstown Road was not to be part of the deal — a change that was agreed to by the trust in December. Then, as part of the verbal agreement in March, the land trust agreed to give up five acres on the south side of Bakerstown Road.

Some $1.9 million had been raised by the land trust, about have from state funding and half from private and foundation contributions. The land trust board had agreed to go into the market for gap funding to reach the verbal agreement of $2.4 million.

What portion of the money raised will have to be returned is unclear. “We’re in the process of trying to get approvals to repurpose the money. We’re asking the state as well as donors. We just don’t know,” he said. Some 350 individuals from the Richland area had donated about $65,000. Letters went out from the land trust asking if the contributors wanted their money returned.

Mr. Beichner said he hopes the land owner comes back to the table. “The closest infrastructure is four miles away. We’re hoping they see that the deal we agreed to is a good one for everyone involved,” he said.

Meantime, the land trust in February bought 8.5 acres of wooded land east of the Pittsburgh Cut Flowero property, paying $85,000. The land trust said it remains committed to creating a greenway from Richland to North Park. “We’re keeping our eye on other properties in the area. We’re not giving up our goals,” Mr. Beichner said.


Karen Kane: kkane@post-gazette.com or at 724-772-9180.

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