Many home rule communities in Pennsylvania, such as Mt. Lebanon, are required by their charters to release a comprehensive plan every 10 years or so. The plan is intended to serve as a guideline for managing community assets and growth.
In a lot of places, the municipality hires a consultant to develop the plan, and the consultant assures the officials that the plan will be useful, not just a mandated document that sits on a shelf for the next 10 years. The elected officials adopt the completed document and in turn assure the public that the plan is a living document—the last thing it will do is languish on a shelf.
Then real life gets in the way; a few years go by, and before you know it, it’s time for a new comprehensive plan. Anyone know where the old one got to? Yeah, it’s over there on the shelf.
Some towns view a comprehensive plan as just one more item on an ever-longer to-do list and expend only the minimum effort needed to satisfy their charter. In contrast, Mt. Lebanon views its comprehensive plan—especially the current one—as a call to action.
Adopted in October 2013, Mt. Lebanon’s comprehensive plan was prepared by Environmental Planning and Design. The goal was to shape a plan that would be responsive to public priorities and community needs—and ultimately be do-able. As a result, the project took more than a year to complete.
Municipal manager Keith McGill has a personal reason for wanting to make sure the plan remains as relevant as possible: As Mt. Lebanon’s planner in 2012, the plan, as the staff often refers to it, was his project.
Mt. Lebanon’s previous plan, from 2000, was developed using the traditional “inside-out” model, beginning with a steering committee that identified community “stakeholders.” The committee and the stakeholders worked for several months with the consultant and the staff to develop the plan and then presented it to residents for input and fine-tuning.
For the current plan, “We flipped the process to an ‘outside-in’ approach,” McGill says. “We went to the residents first and essentially asked as a municipality:
What do we do well? What don’t we do well? What could we do better?”
The residents’ answers were viewed as the basis of the comprehensive plan. A steering committee was then formed to work with the consultant, and stakeholders were identified. “We said, ‘Here is where the residents are telling us we need to focus. We need you to help us use this to develop our plan,’” McGill says.
Armed with data from the 2010 census, the steering group opted for maximum community input—staffing informational tables at community events, asking residents to photograph areas where they saw opportunities for improvement or change and hosting a community forum where residents could share ideas about land use, infrastructure, development and other issues.
When it was completed, the 126-page plan established five major goals with 14 specific objectives. Municipal Assistant Manager/Planner Ian McMeans currently is conducting a midpoint evaluation of the progress Mt. Lebanon has made toward achieving those goals, and he is responsible for moving the plan forward over the next several years.
Evaluating progress now is important, not only to see what remains to be accomplished but also to decide if some goals might be unrealistic, requiring a mid-course correction.
The goals and objectives of the 2013 plan are:
COOPERATION Look for opportunities to participate in a regional response to address common needs and challenges…Promote community spirit, participation, unity and diversity…Further optimize municipal operational efficiencies, including participating in regional responses to address common needs and challenges.
VITALITY Maintain and enhance the appearance and integrity of the community’s built environment…Become a recognized leader in encouraging and guiding development of quality infill housing and providing adequate housing to meet the needs of the demographics…Encourage strengthened vitality of neighborhoods and business districts.
CONNECTIVITY Ensure pedestrians and cyclists have safe and efficient routes…Focus on connections with transit options and safe movement within the district…Define and evaluate a big-picture solution for traffic congestion…Improve safety, security and appearance in the commercial districts and adjoining neighborhoods… Promote safe and expedient travel for pedestrians, bicycles and vehicles throughout local neighborhoods with improvement measures that address the potential impact on surrounding neighborhoods and business districts.
SYSTEMS Maintain a high level of municipal services and police, fire and public safety protection…Ensure infrastructure demands are balanced with services provided within the community…Promote sustainability and recycling.
RESOURCES Maintain adequate active and passive open space and recreation facilities.
Each objective was paired with short-, medium- or long-term action items.
A number of the 60 action items require cooperation with other municipalities, organizations or entities.
Beginning with the 2015-19 capital improvement program (CIP) budget, which funds big-ticket items such as road and sewer improvements and large vehicles, capital expenditures have been closely tied to the comprehensive plan. In the current CIP, which is updated every year, 49 of 50 items are related to the comprehensive plan.
“The way the plan is written makes it easier to track the progress of the goals,” McMeans says.
“As we accomplish things, it helps to frame our capital spending.”
In 2017, Mt. Lebanon completed eight comprehensive plan items, including a zoning ordinance update, a Beverly Road parking study, repairs to the ice center and Williamsburg Park, and securing a Safe Communities America designation. By August 2018, Mt. Lebanon had addressed seven more items, among them the release of the historic preservation board’s voluntary design guidelines for the Mt. Lebanon Historic District, a trails plan for McNeilly Park and an uptown public space improvement plan.
“If we haven’t completed a goal, we’ve taken significant steps to ensure its completion,” McMeans says.
Some action items, when completed, help fulfill the plan’s goals in more than one area. The $1.145 million in grant money secured from PennDOT’s Green Light Go program to upgrade traffic signals at the intersection of Bower Hill Road, Firwood and North Wren drives reflects both Connectivity and Cooperation, for example.
The $8.68 million capital improvement project under way at the public works complex on Cedar Boulevard achieves objectives included under both Systems and Cooperation. The project will result in a new salt dome with a storage capacity of 6,500 tons, a storage building for housing seasonal equipment such as snowplows and leaf vacuums, expansion of the public works building and a new Mt. Lebanon Police Department firing range, where other regional police departments also will be able to train.
Also furthering the Cooperation agenda was the addition of Bethel Park to the14 communities in the animal control program, which is administered by Mt. Lebanon Police Department. This required hiring an additional animal control officer.
The September reopening of the Historical Society of Mount Lebanon’s Washington Road location fulfilled the item in comprehensive plan’s Vitality section that called for maintaining and improving the community’s built
Mt. Lebanon gave the society a 20-year lease on the building with the option to purchase it. The three-year, $1.1 million renovation restored the interior and exterior of the building and provided more space for exhibits, lectures and receptions, archives, a library, research and study rooms, and offices.
Sometimes the response exceeds the plan’s recommendation. “Replace ice rink flooring as appropriate and update the municipality’s Zamboni for ice rink use” led to a much more comprehensive overhaul of the ice surface and also the subsurface cooling and reheating systems, done in 2017.
“We had to put more money into that project than we anticipated, but we got a much better facility,” McMeans says.
In 2014, Mt. Lebanon completed a $3.3 million upgrade of the swimming pool, which now offers zero-depth entry, a redesigned bathhouse, new bleachers and shaded areas.
Some of the plan’s objectives have not been accomplished, but not for lack of trying. One of these is “Coordinate transit-oriented development projects and policies with neighboring communities, and identify ways to leverage investment.”
Discussions of possible transit-oriented development (TOD) projects above the Mt. Lebanon T Station and the Castle Shannon Boulevard station have taken place but have never progressed beyond the talking stage.
The Mt. Lebanon site is challenging, in that a developer needs to come up with the right project to utilize the air rights above the existing station and adjoining buildings. The Castle Shannon project, which has fewer challenges, has never gotten off the ground.
TOD is a bit of a waiting game, apparently: “Until one TOD project works, developers will be hesitant to develop one of the more difficult spots,” McMeans says.
TOD remains important but making it a reality clearly will require more time. Mt. Lebanon is taking part in an 18-month initiative through the Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT) to study transit-oriented development in the Pittsburgh region. The initiative kicked off in June.
Much of the 2013 comprehensive plan has come to pass, but there is more to be done—and even though we’re only at the halfway point, McMeans is already thinking about the next one. “We’ll probably send out RFPs (requests for proposals) in 2021 for the new plan,” he says.
McMeans believes the community-based approach Environmental Planning and Design took has boosted the plan’s utility and credibility. The plan’s goals and objectives remain viable, and most of the items in the action plan still can come to be, sooner or later.
“The process bears fruit when you get community buy-in,” McMeans says.