Secret Project Meets Resistance

WHEELING – Citing possible risks of what he termed the city’s “first mountaintop removal project,” Patrick Cassidy asked the Wheeling Planning Commission Monday to deny a zone change request for 95 acres of hillside in the Woodsdale area.

Commissioners agreed, voting 6-1 – with Councilman Don Atkinson opposed – to deny the zone change request sought by GC&P Development LLC, a company owned by Wheeling resident Kevin Coyne and Pennsylvania resident Doug Grayson. Atkinson had instead asked for the matter to be referred to the commission’s zoning committee.

Coyne and Grayson, through their attorney, Jamie Bordas, sought to have the zoning for 194-196 Bethany Pike and the wooded area behind 250 Bethany Pike changed from residential to C-2 Commercial. Bordas said the commercial zoning designation would allow the owners to shop the property to interested tenants.

Just what would be located on top of the hill overlooking Woodsdale turned out to be the question of the evening.

“You will look up and see, what, a shopping mall, a rock quarry – what?” Cassidy, former chairman of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., wondered in addressing commissioners. “This will destroy the historic ambiance of the Woodsdale area.”

Bordas told commissioners the public setting was not proper for discussing the specifics of the proposed commercial project.

“In divulging too much in a public forum, that puts the project at risk,” Bordas said.

Grayson added, “A lot of people here probably want to talk about site plan issues. We are not there yet.”

More than 125 people packed into a standing-room-only Wheeling City Council Chambers to learn about the project.

The meeting lasted for about three hours, during which more than a dozen residents addressed the commission.

Many in the audience cheered when, at the end of the evening, commissioners denied the zone change request.

The matter is not at an end, though. Tom Connelly, assistant director of the Wheeling Community and Economic Development Department, said City Council will have the final say, as he noted the planning commission merely makes suggestions to council.

He said the matter should appear on council’s agenda during a meeting scheduled for April 2.

“Council has the final say. If they uphold the commission’s recommendation that the request be denied, they could apply again,” Connelly said of Coyne and Grayson, though he said this new application could not occur until November.

Noting the number of concerned Woodsdale residents on hand, commission Chairman Howard Monroe said, “This is the largest crowd I have seen at a planning commission meeting in the 10 years I have been doing this.”

Speaking first in favor of the zone change, Bordas said, “We have to look at opportunities. This is something that will promote Wheeling.”

Commissioner Russell Jebbia, who also serves as the city’s public works director, asked Bordas if all 95 acres needed to be zoned commercial, or if some could remain residential.

“It is a bit like asking someone to go out to dinner without knowing what is on the menu,” Bordas said. “In a responsible manner, this land can be very beneficial for our city moving forward.”

Following further discussion, Commissioner Barry Crow asked Bordas how Coyne and Grayson’s property would be accessed. Bordas said the West Virginia Division of Highways would decide this matter at a later date.

“I cannot recall us entering into a zone change without knowing what it is going to be,” Crow, a former city councilman, said after Bordas continued to withhold the specific scope of the project.

Connelly read aloud a letter of support sent to the commission by the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce that stated, in part, that the “project as defined” would greatly benefit the city.

“If the chamber was here, I would ask them how they know it will benefit us,” Monroe said in reiterating the mystery project.

Commissioner John Clarke asked Connelly what would happen if Coyne and Grayson found oil, gas or coal once they started removing the hilltop. Connelly said he would need to consult with City Solicitor Rosemary Humway-Warmuth regarding how the city’s zoning code would apply to such a project.

Woodsdale resident Wendy Scatterday opposed the zone change because of the neighborhood’s “beautiful backdrop.” She also said the 95-acre area is roughly equivalent to all of Woodsdale.

“I am sorry that they did buy property that was residentially zoned,” Scatterday said, announcing she would oppose any development of the property, even residential.