Reimagining our Westmoreland” to Revitalize Our Communities

I am invited annually to address the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce membership on issues important to the county. This year, I focused my remarks on some key sections of the “Reimagining Our Westmoreland” Comprehensive Plan to revitalize our communities and better prioritize public resources. The following are my remarks…

It is always a pleasure to be here with you all. I am grateful to the Chamber staff, its board and its members for the invitation. Over the years, I spoken to you in detail about where we are as county and what we’re doing. But this year it is especially rewarding to discuss where we hope to go to ensure our growth, vitality, and, in some ways, our very survival. I believe strongly that the “Reimaging our Westmoreland” plan provides that path.

But first a quick disclaimer, because it can’t be stated enough. Nothing we’re explaining today is mandatory. This is not a government edict. It doesn’t have the force of law. Nor does it restrict the rights of any individual or local government. It is voluntary. It’s also visionary. And it’s going to require cooperation, progressive thinking, and, for some, a break from the past.

“Repositioning Our Towns” is a core objective that while not unique in and of itself is certainly unique to each of us personally. Whether you grew up in a city, borough or village, they are special. They each offer enduring value, history and opportunity. They are the places our grandparents built, our parents worked, and where we grew up – and places our children, and theirs, should be part of and be proud of. And despite their reputations, these core communities still hold more than their share of jobs and generate considerable local, school and county taxes. Giving up on them cannot be an option.

The key is to initiate Investment in Downtowns. Through our proposed planning districts, we’re going to work to prioritize neighborhood centers and downtowns for strategic investments and revitalization. Develop downtown master plans for individual communities to identify specific unique assets. We’re seeking to help communities streamline the development process to remove barriers, perhaps through a model review process, to help ensure consistency and efficiency. We want to incentivize public investment in those towns with a plan and in those areas that are already partners, like our Land Bank communities.

We also seek to Provide Housing Options that meet the needs and wants of all county residents, regardless of their stage in life. We’re proposing housing market studies to identify what’s missing and what’s needed. We are re-evaluating the county’s Tax Incremental Financing policy to permit its use for smaller residential and mixed-use development. There is also the opportunity to work with local governments to amend zoning ordinances to allow for multiple housing types, including the conversion of large structures into multi-family units.

Our core communities are also home to some of the best eats around. So we’re looking to build on those assets and Cultivate Our Restaurant Industry. We want to explore the development of a restaurant incubator and public market to house pop-up restaurant concepts, and help better publicize our already well-established eateries. Whatever you may think of planning, we all need to eat!

While there is no countywide zoning – and no plans to do so – we need to work with communities to Utilize Planning Best Practices, concepts like incorporating SmartCode principals to increase density and impact, and to eliminate decades-old, and sometimes artificial, barriers to investment.

Our fourth core objective is to Connect With Parks and Nature which we know provides so many opportunities for social interaction, physical activity and respite. We’re already connected by 225 miles of trails, including the Great Allegheny Passage. To Enhance Our Trail Systems we’re looking to identify and complete new trail projects to create an even-more comprehensive and well-connected county. We’re already taking action – just this morning approving an agreement for construction along the Westmoreland Heritage Trail in Export and Murrysville. We’re also looking to establish a county trail fund for operation and maintenance. This syncs perfectly as well with the goal of improving core communities, as there is boundless synergy between our trail towns, tourism, restaurants and economic development.

Our Parks must, too, be Welcoming and Accessible. One needs only to visit the accessible playgrounds at Twin Lakes or in North Belle Vernon, or a Miracle Field, to see the value – if not the moral imperative – of people with disabilities enjoying recreation. So in addition to ensuring that we have adequate facilities throughout our area, we also need to work to upgrade and renovate county parks to meet Americans with Disability standards, like we will do with our new Mammoth Slide complex.

Natural land is the most abundant use in the county – more than half of our land area. So while we reenergize those already developed areas, the plan also considers the Preservation of Open Space and Natural Assets. We are trying to develop a model preservation policy, to discourage the conversion of farmland and open space that incorporates concepts like a natural features ordinance. Our partners at the Westmoreland Land Trust are key to helping protect those areas of special interest.

Key, too, to all of this is to Improve and Sustain Water Resources. The plan identifies the need for green infrastructure projects to reduce stormwater runoff, reduce flooding, and improve water quality.

The fifth core objective is to Build Healthy and Whole Communities”. Key to being healthy is removing what’s not. We must build off our successful efforts to Eliminate Blight. We do that by getting more communities to join the Land Bank, implementing blight plans in select areas and by using county staff and resources to help cash-strapped municipalities with technical assistance. We are also exploring a property court to speed resolution of property-related infractions and enforcement. The new Demolition Fund the county began late last year gives us new resources to help and to clear blighted sights for private investment.

Hand-in-hand with blight removal is the need to Invest in Beautification to improve property values. Identifying key gateways, intersections and corridors for improvement to match the character of both the community and county. Beautification may involve Green elements, like community gardens and other public gathering spaces.

While there is no doubt the plan aims to address our aging demographic, we cannot overlook those older residents who call Westmoreland home and those hoping to age in-place. We must have Age-Friendly Communities and Services. We want to engage seniors to better identify their needs and to support senior housing throughout our communities.

Lastly, our plan seeks to take steps to Address Fragmentation between local governments. We have 65 independent municipalities within our border, and there are 10 times that many opportunities for better cooperation. While we respect their sovereignty and local responsibility, we need to find ways to encourage – and I emphasize, encourage – them to work together. After all, a community is really only as healthy as the one next door. And implementation of nearly every strategy in the comp plan relies on cooperation and collaboration. So we’re seeking to establish multi-jurisdictional planning districts to build alliances. And while the county cannot drive local priorities, we do have the technical and resource capacity to help communities arrive at those priorities for themselves.

Each Planning District would feature common elements, then define its vision using the county plan as its guide. Then the county will use its technical staff and resources to partner with the district on a cohesive land use plan. For example, introducing a Design Playbook – essentially a template of design guidelines and pedestrian orientation. It’s a new way of thinking for sure, and one that may require an unprecedented level of cooperation. But we believe it’s one that makes for a more consistent approach to growth while also respecting local autonomy.

This is a lot, I know. I would encourage you to read the plan in its entirety – it’s an amazingly easy read – and continue to be involved and engaged in this ongoing process.

Again, thank you.