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Deer Creek "Critters" Offered Paths Around Mall

But hike-happy hedgehogs still waiting for word on $25 million subsidy

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If somebody signed a contract promising to give you $25 million, would you ask to renegotiate? Maybe, if after five years of court fights you hadn't seen a dime.

 

That's what's happened to Steve Coslik, chairman of Texas-based developer Woodmont Co. Coslik wants money Allegheny County, Harmar Township and the Allegheny Valley School District promised in 1999, which would go for ramps and road realignments in Harmar. Once he gets it, Coslik wants to flatten a hill, relocate six acres of wetlands and build big-box stores for a mall called Deer Creek Crossing on what is now 245 wooded, trail-crossed acres.

 

The subsidy is supposed to come via tax-increment financing. In a TIF, the county borrows money for a project, then pays it back over 20 years using most of the new taxes that would otherwise go to the county, township and schools. Environmental group PennFuture, though, has held up the project by challenging environmental permits in court, and alleging that the TIF plan is obsolete.

 

On June 8, Coslik came before county council's Economic Development Committee, asking to amend the TIF to take into account both his new site plan and the passage of nearly five years since the original plan was approved. That would answer one of PennFuture's concerns, and Coslik said he has also tried to make the project more environmentally friendly. The new layout features wider buffers around Deer Creek, more replacement wetlands, an adjacent 93-acre conservation area, treatment ponds for parking-lot runoff and 53,000 planted trees and shrubs. Coslik even promised a wildlife promenade. "How do the animals -- I call them 'critters' -- get from one side of the project to the other?" he asked council. His answer: "critter paths" and even critter tunnels.

 

Councilor Dave Fawcett wasn't swayed. He asked how many trees would be cut down (Coslik didn't know), and how much dirt would be moved (6.5 million cubic yards). "It's not just a matter of having a little critter path," said Fawcett, an Oakmont Republican elected at-large.

 

Fawcett tried to amend the resolution to reopen the subsidy, proposing language ensuring that the plan would be reviewed while "protecting the best interests of the public." County Development Director Dennis Davin bristled at that last clause. "If council doesn't have the confidence in us that we're dealing in the interests of the public in this project, then you shouldn't believe anything we say," Davin said. Fawcett's amendments failed, 1-5. The committee then unanimously recommended that the full council vote to reopen the subsidy.

 

Now the games really begin. The Development Department and a committee representing the county, township and school district have to hash out a revised subsidy. At least one member of that committee, Harmar Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Bob Seibert, wants to lop millions of dollars off the subsidy. And once the subsidy plan is reworked, council has to vote again -- an event sure to bring out Deer Creek Crossing's environmentalist foes. "The only thing that would make this project environmentally friendly is not to build it on a trout stream and its surrounding wetlands," says PennFuture attorney Jody Rosenberg. Shoppers and critters may have to wait even longer to find out who gets the paths, and who gets the rest.

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