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Veterans Place moving forward with Penn Hills tiny homes development

After legal battles dating back to May, an organization aiming to build a tiny homes community for homeless military veterans can proceed with its plans but could face another appeal.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James said in a Dec. 5 court filing the Penn Hills Zoning Hearing Board properly granted a use variance to Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard to build a community center as part of its tiny homes community along Jefferson Road.

Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard in March sought a variance to complement its project — which will feature 15 to 17 homes, a garden, greenhouse, pavilion, walking trails and a stormwater retention pond — with a community center described as a “group care facility.”

The zoning board eventually granted the request despite pushback from some residents. Robert Paganico, 71, said the community center might bring large buses and vans, making the residential property more like a commercial property — which he doesn’t want.

“I don’t like it. I never did,” Paganico said. “That (community center) is going to cause all kinds of traffic, bring in a lot of people into a small area. We don’t have the room. There are so many other places in Penn Hills they can go.”

Paganico and his wife, Trona, appealed the municipality’s decision to grant Veterans Place a variance in May. The couple argued the variance was improperly granted because they see the community center as being a commercial building. The property is zoned residential, making a variance necessary.

In court filings, the zoning board defended its granting of the variance for the community center by saying construction of typical residential homes on the site was “impractical if not impossible.”

According to the zoning board, the site was a former sewage treatment facility, and the property’s fill was not properly compacted. The property also has an underground sewage line running through its center, making the construction of traditional homes with basements impossible.

“But the property can be used for what it’s zoned for, residential. And by Veterans Place’s own admission, the property can be used for residential purposes in accordance with the zoning ordinance — yet the board still granted them a use variance to have a commercial building,” said Anthony Sosso, the Paganico’s attorney.

Sosso said he believes the case has grounds for an appeal to Commonwealth Court, but he hopes his client and Veterans Place can come to an amicable agreement.

Barring another legal battle, the next step for Veterans Place is to submit the $5 million project’s site plans to the municipality’s planning commission for approval, which it plans to do as soon as possible.

“We’re hoping mid- to early spring to start (construction),” said Marlon Ferguson, executive director of Veterans Place.

Ferguson said he is hopeful the judge’s decision means an end to the legal battle, which has delayed the project by about a year.

“The core of the community center is to provide veterans with additional resources to be sustainable. We’re hoping (the community center) will be the additional resources for the veterans and also for the community,” he said.

He said he hopes the community center, which could be as big as 7,000 square feet, will include programs on cooking and healthy eating, civics, politics and stress management, among other topics.

“I firmly believe it’s a win-win for everyone involved,” Ferguson said.

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, or via Twitter @dillonswriting.

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