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Hot Zone 

click to enlarge On the left are opinions written by two former members of the zoning board over the past three years. On the right is the only opinion written and signed by chair Wrenna Watson. - CHARLIE DEITCH
  • Charlie Deitch
  • On the left are opinions written by two former members of the zoning board over the past three years. On the right is the only opinion written and signed by chair Wrenna Watson.

In mid-July, City Council voted to approve a dozen of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's appointments for city boards and authorities -- without interviewing any of the candidates. 

What has that hotly contested move, supported by a slim 5-4 majority, led to? Among other things, critics say, it has created a Zoning Board whose chair has written only one opinion in three years -- and whose other two members have no experience at all. 

"We just threw out two people with 50 years of zoning experience to replace them with two people [who have] none," says city councilor Bill Peduto, who voted against the appointments.

The Zoning Board meets weekly to hear appeals and decide whether to grant exemptions to city zoning ordinances, which set limits on the type of construction that can take place in city limits. In June, Ravenstahl chose to reappoint its chair, Wrenna Watson, while replacing the board's two other members, David Toal and Alice Mitinger. 

Watson has written just one legal opinion since joining the board in 2006: a dissenting opinion in support of a highly controversial electronic billboard on Grant Street sought by Lamar Advertising. Ravenstahl had supported the billboard, which became a lightning rod of criticism last year after close ties between Lamar executives and a former city official, Pat Ford, came to light. 

Mittinger wrote a much lengthier opinion, opposing the billboard, while Toal recused himself, citing unrelated work he had done for Lamar. "It's clear that Watson had a higher allegiance to the mayor's office," says Doug Shields, city council president.  

"Toal and Mitinger had written hundreds of opinions -- Watson wrote one," says Peduto. "If I were [Toal or Mitinger], I would feel cheated." Peduto says he's also troubled by the fact that Watson's opinion, unlike most such rulings, cited no legal precedents for her conclusion. "The only thing I can judge [Watson] by is her one opinion," he says. "And in that, I find it troubling that there was no case law cited."

When asked about her output as a board member, Watson told City Paper, "I'm not going to respond to that."

"For the three years I've been chair of this board, the work has been done satisfactorily," says Watson, who also chairs the City Planning Commission. "I don't make decisions based on influence by others."

"[Watson] chairs two of the busiest boards," adds Gabe Mazefsky, the city's policy manager. Criticism of her output is "funny to me," he adds. "It's not relevant" to her overall performance.

And Toal, for one, defends his former colleague. "I'm not sure it's fair to say, 'Oh, [Watson] only wrote one opinion,'" he says. "She did have a role in all the opinions.

"All of them were worked over and commented on by all the board members," he continues. "She participated as fully as the rest of us." (Mitinger did not return phone calls for comment.)

In fact, Watson is now the Zoning Board's most experienced member -- which also troubles Shields and Peduto.

Toal has worked in zoning law for roughly 30 years; Mitinger has practiced zoning law for about 20 years. Neither of their replacements, Kirk Burkley and Manoj Jegasothy, have a background in the field.

By law, they don't need any. The law requires only that at least one of the Zoning Board's three members be a lawyer, and both Burkley and Jegasothy are attorneys, though neither specializes in zoning.

Still, says Peduto, "You won't find another municipality that would hire a bankruptcy lawyer" to handle zoning matters.

"Do I have as much zoning experience as Alice Mitinger? No," says Burkley, who is also a member of the City Planning Commission. But "I am familiar with the zoning code."

Burkley says that while he usually focuses on bankruptcy law, his work occasionally touches on zoning issues, especially "when dealing with commercial or residential developments that have gone south." And "when you're a good lawyer," he adds, "this stuff's not rocket science."

Similarly, Jegasothy specializes in corporate and civil litigation, and says that while "It is true that I don't have a zoning practice," the work of the Zoning Board "comes down to the interpretation of the law." And that skill transfers from one area of law to the next.

Critics of the two new appointees, Jegasothy continues, are ignoring a crucial fact: Because they are not zoning lawyers, "We don't have conflicts of interest" that might arise if their own clients came before the board.

"If I am someone heavily involved in zoning law in Pittsburgh, how often will I be conflicted?" echoes Mazefsky, who says Burkley and Jegasothy have "very impressive" résumés. "There are a lot of positives [critics] are ignoring."



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