While the Upper St. Clair Historical Society has been conducting private tours of the Gilfillan Homestead for more than a year, it is only now trying to legitimize the activity by applying for a conditional use zoning designation to allow visitor parking on the 15-acre farm.
Township commissioners acted uncharacteristically silently Monday night as an outside hearing officer led a public hearing on the conditional use request that could allow for a 40-space parking pad and permit public tours in accordance with zoning regulations.
When Margaret Gilfillan, owner of the property, died in 2001, her will named the historical society as the new owner. But because the society had not sought to have the farm on Washington Road rezoned from single-family to semi-public, it is allowed to conduct only private, invitation-only tours. And visitors have to park across Orr Road in the parking lot of Westminster Presbyterian Church.
Township Manager Doug Watkins said that, technically, activities on the farm, including last year's well-attended community day event, have been on "the edge of the zoning code," but remained overlooked due to both parties' future expectations for the site.
The delay in rezoning the farm is also due, in part, to last year's failed negotiations to transfer from the historical society to the township ownership of the farm and the $1.8 million trust fund used to maintain the property.
Watkins said they were still hopeful that could happen. It would add to the 60-acre park the township created when Gilfillan donated the land around the farm and a $3.4 million trust to Upper St. Clair more than 20 years ago.
"We are considering the transfer of the property to the township," said Jean Brown, president of the historical society, "but it's not going to be all give on the society's part and all take from the township."
Watkins retorted that this was never part of the township's intent and stressed moving forward with the process, starting with the conditional use application.
Engineer Ralph Nicholson, of J.R. Gales and Associates, asked for modifications that would exclude the historical society from using line painting, asphalt, curbs or lighting for the parking lot in an attempt to retain the farm's historic flavor.
The parking area, proposed directly opposite Westminster Church, would use porous concrete to allow for grass growth. Shrubbery and bark paths would define the perimeter of the parking area.
If the conditional use is granted, visitors could access both the walking trail in the park and the Gilfillan Homestead without crossing Orr Road.
The public hearing will be continued March 1.
Jackie Day is a freelance writer.