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Young v. Township of Coolbaugh

March 30, 2007


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James M. Munley United States District Court


Before the court is defendant's motion for summary judgment (Doc. 16). The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

I. Background

This case stems from a zoning dispute in Coolbaugh Township, Pennsylvania. Plaintiff Scott T. Young, a developer, first brought his plan to develop townhouses on 18 vacant lots covering 6.49 acres of land before the Coolbaugh Township Planning Commission on August 21, 2001. (Amended Complaint (Doc. 9) at ¶ 8); (Defendant's Short and Concise Statement of Material Facts (Doc. 18) at ¶ 1) (hereinafter "Defendant's Statement of Facts")).*fn1 Plaintiff had purchased eight cabins from Camp Tegawitha, a nearby site, and he planned to restore them and use them in his development project. (Amended Complaint at ¶ 8). At the time of purchase, these buildings were scheduled for demolition in a contract between the Pocono Mountain Industrial Authority ("PMI") and a demolition contractor. (Id. at ¶ 12). The Planning Commission discussed land use, zoning, road maintenance, and drainage issues related to the plan. (Defendant's Compilation of Evidence in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) (hereinafter "Defendant's Compilation of Evidence") at 7).*fn2 On September 18, 2001, plaintiff sought wavier of an ordinance from the township Board of Supervisors so that he could store these cabins on property he owned. (Defendant's statement Facts, at 2). He explained to the Supervisors that his project was not feasible if he had to construct new buildings rather than use the cabins. (Plaintiff's Answer to Defendant's Short and Concise Statement of Material Facts (Doc. 20) at 2). Considering this issue a zoning matter, members of the Board of Supervisors referred plaintiff back to the Planning Commission. (Defendant's Compilation of Evidence, at 15).

Plaintiff's proposal appeared again at the November 12, 2001 meeting of the Planning Commission. At that meeting, the Commission discussed issues such as "maximum lot coverage, right of way width, water run-off, lot conformance" and stormwater management and drainage. (Defendant's Compilation of Evidence at 18). The Commission also examined other property owners' legal rights to the road planned for the development and the need to conform to township rules in the plan.

(Id.). A Township resident also appeared, raising concerns about the proposed use of the PMI cabins at the site and their relation to other buildings in the area. (Id.). The Commission took no action. (Id.). Instead, the Commission instructed the township's zoning officer to review the plan and zoning compliance report for discussion at the Commission's next meeting. (Defendant's Statement of Facts at 4).

The Commission next discussed Young's plans at its December 10, 2001 meeting. (Id. at 5). Along with the plaintiff, his surveyor Robert Mendola, and township zoning officer Ken Montalbine, the Commission engaged in "a lengthy discussion" of "lot sizes and common walls and firewalls between the modular units, [and] design problems." (Defendant's Compilation of Evidence at 22). The Commission sent this discussion to another room while it addressed the rest of the evening's agenda. (Id. at 23). When the parties returned to the meeting, Montalbine reported that the proposed lots met size requirements, and that the sides would continue to work to resolve design problems and issues related to the size of lots and backyard setbacks. (Id.) The Commission then voted unanimously to accept the plaintiff's development plan. (Id. at 24). After the Commission approved the plan, the Commission's solicitor reminded those present that the Township's Subdivision Ordinance, written before the Zoning Ordinance, required that the Commission address issues like "lot sizes [and] backyard setbacks." (Id.).

Discussion about subdivision planning renewed at the January 14, 2002 meeting of the Planning Commission. (Id. at 27). At that meeting, the Commission addressed road access to certain lots, an issue raised by the plaintiff and his representatives. (Id.). This issue generated considerable discussion, and the Commission unanimously voted to table further discussion until the interested parties had a chance to meet and "discuss the access road, parking lot" and other issues. (Id.). At the Board's next meeting, on February 11, 2002, the Commission again engaged in lengthy discussion of road access to the property. (Id. at 31). The Commission eventually agreed to approve the preliminary subdivision plan, so long as property owners provided documentation that they had eliminated "paper roads" from their lots. (Id.).

At that meeting, plaintiff informed the Commission that PMI would soon destroy the cabins he intended to use for the development, and the Commission's solicitor agreed to call PMI and vouch "that substantial work has been done on the above referenced project." (Id.). The Commission also authorized the solicitor to write to PMI about the progress made on the project. (Id. at 32). The Commission did not vote, however, to accept any development plan that included the restored cabins. A unanimous vote also approved plaintiff's request to extend the deadline for the project until the March 19, 2002 meeting. (Id.). The Commission also approved a motion to forward the planning module for the development to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. (Id.). When the Coolbaugh Township Board of Supervisors met on February 19, 2002, the Board approved the Commission's recommendations for an extension of the deadline for plaintiff's project and for forwarding the planning module to the DEP. (Id. at 34-35). The Supervisors also discussed with plaintiff his efforts to obtain documentation on paper roads from property owners. (Id. at 34-35).

The Planning Commission met on March 11, 2002. At that meeting, the Commission unanimously approved plaintiff's request to reduce a right-of-way along the property. (Id. at 41). The Commission also granted plaintiff's request to extend the deadline for approving the project to June 19, 2002. (Id. at 41-42). Questions about the suitability of the buildings that plaintiff intended to use for the project arose. Brandé Mark-Falzett, who owned proprety adjoining the proposed development also addressed the meeting. (Id. at 42). She questioned the fire safety of the cabins plaintiff proposed to remodel, asking whether the structures contained creosote. (Id.). After discussion, plaintiff promised to explore the creosote situation and report both to the Planning Commission and Mark-Falzett. (Id.). The Board of Supervisors met on March 19, 2002 and approved unanimously the Commission's reduction of the right-of-way along the property, as well as plaintiff's request for an extension of time until June 19, 2002 to complete the application. (Id. at 46).

The Planning Commission again addressed plaintiff's proposal on April 8, 2002. At that meeting, the Commission discussed the Township engineer's comments about easements for a maintenance area, subdivision of the lot, and design of the streets in the project. (Id. at 56). The Commission unanimously approved a motion to waive the township's cul-de-sac and turnaround requirements. (Id.) After these discussions, the Commission tabled the proposal. (Id. at 57).When the Board of Supervisors met on April 16, 2002, that body unanimously approved the Commission's granting of a waiver to plaintiff of the Township's cul-desac and turnaround requirements. (Id. at 60).

The Commissioners' discussion of the plan continued on May 13, 2002. At that meeting, plaintiff submitted a new plan. (Id. at 68). The Township Engineer had reviewed the plan, and reported that deed information was incorrect on that document. (Id.) The Commission also approved a motion to grant plaintiff a waiver from city requirements for an easement around detention basins. (Id.). The Commission then unanimously recommended to the Board of Supervisors that they approve of plaintiff's plan for subdivision and land development. (Id.) This approval came with conditions; the Board had to approve the easement waiver, the information on the deed had to be corrected, the planning module approved, and a driveway occupancy permit issued. (Id.). Public comment that followed focused on the concerns of nearby residents that the project violated township density regulations. (Id.) The Commission explained that the issue had been addressed by the Zoning Hearing Board and that the Board found the project met legal requirements. (Id.).

When the Board of Supervisors met on May 21, 2002, the Supervisors refused to approve the requested easement waiver. (Id. at 73). After a discussion, the Board took no action. (Id.). Residents who lived near the proposed project continued to raise concerns about the structures plaintiff planned to use for the development. Frank Falzett, an owner of adjoining property, assisted by his attorney, urged the Board not to grant the request for a waiver. (Id.). Falzett complained of "poor planning, the cabins having creosote, having asbestos" and other matters. (Id.). George Westervelt, Falzett's attorney, requested permission to sample the buildings for creosote. (Id.) He offered to sample the material himself and provide the Board with the results. (Id.). The Board agreed to table the matter until the next meeting, when a report on creosote could be heard. (Id.) The Board also decided to have the town solicitor and engineer review the decision of the Zoning Hearing Board regarding disputes about the suitability of common walls on the project. (Id.). At the meeting, plaintiff informed the Board that he had a June 15, 2002 deadline to remove the camp buildings or face their destruction. ( Affidavit of Scott D. Young (Doc. 21) (hereinafter "Young Affidavit") at ¶ 24).

The issue next appeared before the Board of Supervisors on June 4, 2002. At that meeting, Brandé Mark-Falzett's attorney, George Westervelt, complained again of the project's poor planning and argued that no waiver of ordinance requirements should be issued. (Id. at ¶ 21). In a divided vote, the Board approved a waiver of the township's requirements for a maintenance easement around detention basis. (Id.) After discussing outstanding issues related to the application, the Board voted to table the application under the next meeting. (Id.). The Board next met on June 10, 2002. At that meeting, plaintiff appeared and announced to the Board that he had met all the stated conditions for acceptance of his project: approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and a revised plan with corrected deed information that showed a public water main. (Defendant's Evidence (Doc. 19) at 79). Discussion of the plan then followed, focused on the interpretation of the Zoning Hearing Board on the propriety of common walls, the legal definition of townhouses, multifamily homes or garden apartments, and the layout and design of the cabins. (Id. at 80). The Supervisors voted on a motion to approve the subdivision and preliminary land development plan. (Id.). The motion failed, three votes to two. (Id.) The Supervisors did not vote to reject the plan altogether, however. (Id.).

The camp buildings had been destroyed by the time the Coolbaugh Township Board of Supervisors met for a final time on the issue of plaintiff's plan on June 18, 2002. (Young Affidavit, at ¶ 48). At the start of this discussion, Supervisor Kelly asked plaintiff if the camp buildings had been destroyed. (Id. at ¶ 50). When plaintiff confirmed their destruction, Kelly responded "that's all I needed to know." (Id. at ¶ 51). In discussion, George Westervelt, attorney for Frank Falzett, argued that the plan should be rejected because the proposed homes failed to meet the definition of townhouses in city ordinances: they lacked a common wall, were not properly set back, and had a reserve sewage area within the private right of way. (Id. at 88). After discussion, the Board voted 4-1 to approve plaintiff's project with several conditions attached. (Id. at 89). First, plaintiff had to remove a sewage area from a private road right-of-way. (Id.). Second, the Board decided that before any building permits could be issued for the use of any existing camp structure as whole or part of a new residence, the plans had to be examined by a ...

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