Post-Coal America and Zoning Law: Taking a Closer Look at Springdale, Pennsylvania

By Simon Jaronski, Staff Writer

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

In April 2022, the Cheswick Generating Station permanently shut down operations.[1] It was the last coal-fired power plant operating in Allegheny County.[2] The former plant, which is technically located in Springdale Borough – less than 20 miles from Pittsburgh – will leave behind a complicated legacy. Ongoing debates about the future of the 56-acre property are contentious, and will likely be resolved in the critical realm of zoning law. 

The cluster of groups sharing responsibility for the remediation of the site (led by Kentucky-based Charah Solutions, Inc.) found themselves in hot water over their actions on June 2, 2023, when they imploded two large smokestacks on the property.[3] Damage to nearby residential homes, along with an excessive amount of dust, raised major concerns among residents and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.[4] Current litigation by Springdale residents seeks to enjoin further demolition action on the property.[5]

Interested groups are split on the zoning question (i.e., how to optimize the land’s use and tax value through regulation). States, operating through their police powers, can grant municipalities and other communities the authority to divide and designate land within their power for various uses.[6] Categories like residential, industrial, commercial, and mixed-use give city planners and other officials the flexibility necessary to strategically develop certain areas or encourage patterns of use with different benefits to the community.[7]

One of the earliest Supreme Court cases dealing with zoning – which became an increasingly necessary exercise of government power in the industrial boom of early-twentieth century America – was Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co.[8] The court held that Euclid (a suburban city of Cleveland) was permitted by the constitution to enact an ordinance based on single-use designations for property, along with height and area restrictions.[9] From then on, there would be no real question as to whether zoning ordinances constituted a taking under the 5th Amendment (by regulating the productive use of property), as governmental entities only needed to show a rational basis for their decisions.

Members of the Springdale Borough Council and its Planning Commission are currently ironing out the details on the use of an overlay mobility zoning district. This unique tool would function on top of the already established utilities/industrial zone and provide more flexibility for future development.[10] Charah has strongly recommended against attempting to use the site in this manner, articulating concerns that the proposed zoning ordinance will affect their ability to sell the property and successfully benefit Springdale.[11] The Heinz Endowments Foundation has provided Springdale with a grant of $150,000 to creatively reassess the potential of the property and the adjoining riverfront district, indicating that the priorities of those with a stake in Allegheny County’s future development are not always in line with organizations like Charah.[12]

Another recent example of this policy in action was in 2021, when the Planning Commission recommended that the Pittsburgh City Council make use of an Inclusionary Housing Overlay District that covers Bloomfield and Polish Hill.[13] The zoning district, meant to incentivize residential developers to offer a target number of units at affordable rates by providing breaks on building restrictions, is also seen by some as an expedient of gentrification.[14] The use of this tool may have negative implications for Springdale as well. 

If formerly contaminated coal sites are merely repurposed for other, perhaps equally dangerous and questionable industrial uses, are the interests of affected communities really being served? An earlier recommendation that the site be used for large battery storage was quickly met with concern by residents.[15] Are zoning innovations (like the use of overlay districts) fruitless anyway if sites like the former Cheswick Generating Station are incapable of being properly remediated for housing or commercial business?

A uniform approach to the issue these former sites present is impracticable, as the exact process of decommissioning, remediation, and redevelopment is outside the federal ambit. The EPA’s guidance on coal power plant recommissioning and legacy management gestures toward the possibility that local zoning schemes (and the flexibility of local governments to amending them) potentially pose a problem to private corporations like Charah and their contractors.[16] After all, the burden of removing coal ash, decontaminating the soil and groundwater, and ensuring suitability for a given type of use varies considerably depending on whether average citizens will frequently be using the property for commercial or residential purposes. 

Springdale’s government faces a difficult choice: whether to heed Charah’s advice and open the area up for further industrial use, or to use some sort of overlay district that allows for creative development at the risk of damaging the property’s value. This predicament is emblematic of the questions that are soon to confront hundreds of cities and municipalities across the United States as they reckon with the future of clean energy. Springdale, the birthplace of renowned environmentalist Rachel Carson, is perhaps a fitting setting for these debates to play out. 




[4] Id.


[6] § 2:4. Generally, 1 Am. Law. Zoning § 2:4 (5th ed.)

[7] § 9:1. General description, 1 Am. Law. Zoning § 9:1 (5th ed.)

[8] 272 US 365 (1926)

[9] Id.


[11] Id.






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