Appeals Court Rejects Attempt to Void Zoning Hearings Due to Environmental Advisory Council Involvement

Commonwealth court

UPDATE: May 5, 2011  In an order issued today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied HYK Construction Company, Inc.'s petition for allowance of appeal of the Commonwealth Court's ruling. 

In an important decision for Pennsylvania's Environmental Advisory Councils (EACs), Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court rejected a developer's attempt to void conditional use zoning hearings before a Board of Supervisors due to the involvement of the Township's EAC .

The November 19, 2010 decision in HYK Construction Company v. Smithfield Township (2047 CD 2009), involved an application to construct and operate a concrete batch plant. The EAC participated in the hearings, along with some 75 neighbors and residents.  The developer objected to the EAC's involvement, claiming that it showed that the township was biased and had a conflict of interest. After the Supervisors denied the developer's objections and allowed the EAC to participate, the developer filed a lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas against the Township and the EAC.  The lawsuit sought an injunction to disqualify the Supervisors, prevent the EAC from participating, and to order the matter heard by an independent hearing examiner.  The EAC and Township argued that there was no conflict in the EAC's role in the hearings and that the Common Pleas Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.  The Common Pleas Court held that it had jurisdiction and granted relief to the developer. 

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court reversed the lower court's decision and ordered the developer's lawsuit dismissed. The Commonwealth Court determined that the Court of Common Pleas lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The Court decided that such claims of bias and conflict had to be raised as part of the zoning proceedings and could not be the subject of a separate lawsuit. In addition, it held that it was improper for the lower court to hear the case without including all of the other parties to the conditional use hearing, and in a "clear violation of the Appllants' due process rights",  the lower court had improperly conducted a private, off-the-record investigation to determine bias. With respect to the EAC involvement, the Court stated that: "While EAC is funded by the Township and was granted party status by the Board, EAC is a separate and distinct entity from the Board. The requisite walls of division are in place to overcome any appearance of impropriety."

Finally, the Court rebuked the developer for its attempt to avoid the ordinary hearing and review process of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code:  "We believe HYK's equity action represents an improper attempt to circumvent the mandatory statutory review process. To allow equity jurisdiction to usurp the power of the Board would create infinite challenges to interlocutory determinations and defeat or, at the very least, disrupt the Commonwealth's structure for review of zoning decisions by local boards and governing bodies. If the courts became involved every time a party makes an allegation of bias, the courts — rather than the Board — would be reviewing conditional use applications… [W]e can find no justification for the trial court's exercise of equity jurisdiction in this matter."

NOTE: Charles W. Elliott represented the Smithfield Township Environmental Advisory Council in this case.

 

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