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JOSEPH J. PETERS AND MARIE H. PETERS ET AL. v. COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA (01/29/76)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: January 29, 1976.

JOSEPH J. PETERS AND MARIE H. PETERS ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, DEPARTMENT OF FORESTS AND WATERS, APPELLEES

COUNSEL

Thomas M. Garrity, Wisler, Pearlstine, Talone, Craig & Garrity, Norristown, Burton Spear, Renninger, Spear & Kupits, Doylestown, for appellants.

Francis J. Tarquini, Mabel Ditter Sellers, Ambler, for appellees.

Jones, C. J., and O'Brien, Pomeroy and Manderino, JJ. Eagen, Roberts and Nix, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Pomeroy

[ 465 Pa. Page 373]

OPINION

We here consider a challenge to the legality of condemnation by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for state park purposes of farm property owned by the appellants.

On December 30, 1970, as part of the land acquisition plan for the Evansburg State Park Project in Montgomery County, the Department of Forests and Waters*fn1 (Department), on behalf of the Commonwealth, filed a Declaration of Taking condemning 49.4 acres owned by Doctor and Mrs. Joseph Peters and their children. Except for the Peters' tract, which is known as "Skippack

[ 465 Pa. Page 374]

Creek Farms", all the land for the Evansburg Project was acquired by the Commonwealth under the Project 70 Land Acquisition and Borrowing Act, Act of June 22, 1964, Special Sess., P.L. 131, No. 8, 72 P.S. § 3946.1 et seq.*fn2 "Skippack Creek Farms" was also to have been a Project 70 acquisition according to preliminary notices received by the Peters from the Department. Ultimately, however, it was condemned pursuant to the then effective Section 1806(b) of the Administrative Code of 1929, Act of April 9, 1929, P.L. 177, as amended, 71 P.S. § 466(b).*fn3 That section empowered the Department of Forests and Waters,

"[f]or the purpose of promoting healthful outdoor recreation and education, and making available for such use natural areas of unusual scenic beauty, especially such as provide impressive views, water falls, gorges, creeks, caves, or other unique and interesting features, to acquire, in the name of the Commonwealth, by purchase, gift, lease, or condemnation, any lands which, in the judgment of the department, should be held, controlled, protected, maintained and utilized as State park lands . . ."

To the Declaration of Taking the Peters filed preliminary objections alleging procedural irregularities and challenging the power of the Department to take their land under Section 1806(b). After a hearing, the court of common pleas of Montgomery County dismissed the preliminary objections, and this action was affirmed on

[ 465 Pa. Page 375]

    appeal by the Commonwealth Court. We granted allocatur limited to consideration of the extent of the Department's authority to condemn under § 1806(b). We now affirm.

The Commonwealth Court interpreted § 1806(b) as empowering the Department to condemn land for park use either for the purpose of promoting healthful outdoor recreation and education or in order to make available for such use areas of unusual scenic beauty. Appellants' main contention is that such an interpretation does violence to the plain meaning of the words of the statute. Claiming that the purpose clause of the statute is clearly cast in the singular, they argue that a plurality of purposes may not be created by the courts under the guise of statutory construction. They insist that the Department's authority to condemn is limited strictly to lands of unusual scenic beauty which would serve to promote outdoor recreation and education. As further support for their interpretation, they point to the strict construction which is due statutes conferring the power of eminent domain. See Statutory Construction Act of 1972, 1 Pa.C.S. § 1928(b)(4) (Pamphlet 1973). Because the evidence established that their farm property is not of "unusual scenic beauty", appellants conclude that the Department is powerless to condemn it under § 1806(b), notwithstanding that the property, according to uncontradicted testimony, has a number of "interesting features that would lend themselves to the Department's program for state park development" (N.T.150a).

In resolving this conflict as to the proper interpretation of § 1806(b), our task is, first, to ascertain the intention of the legislature in enacting the provision, and then to construe it in such a way as to effectuate the legislative intent. Statutory Construction Act of 1972, 1 Pa.C.S. § 1921(a) (Pamphlet 1973); Commonwealth v. Rieck Investment Corp., 419 Pa. 52, 213 A.2d 277 (1965); Davis v. Sulcowe, 416 Pa. 138, 205 A.2d 89

[ 465 Pa. Page 376]

(1964). When statutory language is unambiguous and conveys a clear and definite meaning, resort to the rules of statutory construction is unnecessary. When, however, the statutory language is unclear or susceptible of more than one reasonable construction (which we think is the case here), our attention must turn to other considerations. Primary among such considerations in this case are the object of the legislation, and the consequences of the two possible interpretations.*fn4

We find appellants' reading of the statute unduly restrictive and inconsonant with what we discern as the legislative intent underlying § 1806(b). By the terms of § 1806,*fn5 the Department, since its inception, has been charged with responsibility for the creation, maintenance and operation of our state park system. As an indispensable aid to the creation of a park system, the Department was authorized by § 1806(b) to acquire land suitable for park use. Without doubt, lands of unusual scenic beauty containing unique and interesting natural features of the sort mentioned in the section are conducive to activities long associated with park use. But not all, or even most, of the activities customarily conducted on park lands are dependent upon the presence of "water falls, gorges, creeks, [or] caves." Open fields, sloping valleys, tree covered hillsides and streams possessed of no singularly distinguishing characteristics are nonetheless particularly

[ 465 Pa. Page 377]

    well-suited to common healthful outdoor recreational and educational pursuits such as outdoor games and sports, hiking, camping and picnicking. While these activities may, on occasion, be enhanced by the unusual scenic beauty of the place where they are conducted, restriction of them to such sites would undoubtedly curtail the frequency, and often the possibility, of their enjoyment. "Strict construction does not require . . . that a statute be construed as narrowly as possible, or that it be construed so literally and without common sense that its obvious intent is frustrated." Pittsburgh School District Condemnation Case, 430 Pa. 566, 570, 244 A.2d 42, 44 (1968). It seems obvious that the restrictive reading of the statute for which appellants contend would retard rather than promote the development and use of state parks, and we cannot attribute to the legislature an intention to limit the types of sites that may be acquired to those possessing "unusual scenic beauty". We agree with the Commonwealth Court that a condemnation pursuant to § 1806(b) may be undertaken for either of the two purposes which we find in that provision, viz., to promote healthful outdoor recreation and education and to make available for such use land of unusual scenic beauty.

Appellants also contend that the Department is precluded from relying on § 1806(b) as authority for the taking when it had originally informed them that the land was to be a Project 70 acquisition.*fn6 To allow condemnation of their property under any authority other than the Project 70 Act, they say, would undermine the purposes of that legislation which contains guidelines for the protection of property with historically significant characteristics*fn7 allegedly like those of the Peters' tract.

[ 465 Pa. Page 378]

We find this contention to be without merit. The substance of appellants' position is only that the Department eventually elected to proceed under one available statutory authorization to condemn rather than another, which appellants believe would have been more advantageous to them as condemnees. In our judgment, this course of action neither demonstrates arbitrariness*fn8 nor in any way derogates from the power and authority of the Department to proceed as it did.

Order affirmed.


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