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City Lumbers Toward Regulations

If a tree falls in the middle of the city, and someone hears it, there's not much they can do about it -- yet

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Pittsburgh's increasingly rural economy was under the microscope again Oct. 14 when City Council found itself discussing the regulation of a growth industry: logging. Council held a public hearing on proposals to regulate or ban commercial lumbering operations within the city limits, 10 weeks after it approved strip mining on a 635-acre site in Hays.

 

The public hearing was spurred by an application to remove trees from a 43-acre parcel, also in Hays, near the intersection of Mifflin Road and Route 885. The city's Zoning Board of Adjustment granted the application, with conditions: Barrett Lumber Co. of Dayton, Pa., can only cut half of the trees of 6 feet or more in diameter, can't cut anything within 75 feet of Mifflin Road, must limit its hours of operation and truck tonnage, and must control erosion. But there's nothing in city law that specifies such restrictions, says Zoning Administrator Pat Ford. That means they might not fare well if challenged in court.

 

Some councilors worry that a logging boom could be coming. "There's a lot of [woods] left [in Pittsburgh], and that's what this city is known for -- our greenery and our trees," says Councilor Gene Ricciardi. He added that trees control erosion, clean the air and absorb pollution. Ricciardi has sponsored resolutions asking the city Law Department and Zoning Board to craft an ordinance that at least mandates the kinds of conditions the Zoning Board put on Barrett Lumber. "I'm going to try to prohibit [commercial timbering]," Ricciardi says, "but that's an uphill battle."

 

A lumbering ban might be illegal because cities must allow all kinds of land uses within their borders -- though they can regulate what can go where. Most of the six members of the public who spoke at the hearing asked for a ban anyway. An exception was Heather Sage, outreach coordinator for the environmental group Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, who just wanted restrictions. "If landowners would have some freedom to harvest trees for economic gain, they may have an incentive to leave that property undeveloped," said Sage.

 

And the lumberjacks? None identified themselves at the public hearing. Michael Streib, a lawyer for Barrett Lumber, says the company is "trying very hard to cooperate" with the city. "I have a feeling that the City of Pittsburgh tried to overburden us" with regulations, says Streib. Responsible timbering, he says, helps maintain the health of a forest, and isn't comparable to strip mining. "If we wanted to build a shopping mall," he adds, "there wouldn't be any trees left!"

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