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National Parks Conservation Association v. Lower Providence Township

April 7, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anita B. Brody, J.


I. Introduction

On September 6, 2007, Lower Providence Township (the "Township") adopted a zoning ordinance (the "Ordinance") that permits development on private land within the boundaries of Valley Forge National Historical Park (the "Park"). On December 1, 2008, the National Parks Conservation Association and five individual plaintiffs (collectively "Plaintiffs") filed a complaint against the Township asking for 1) a declaration that the ordinance is preempted by federal law and is illegal under state law, and 2) injunctive relief against the implementation of the Ordinance. On December 24, 2008, the Township moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that 1) the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction; 2) the Anti-injunction Act bars Plaintiffs' claims; and 3) the Court should abstain under the Younger doctrine. On December 31, 2008, I granted the National Center for the American Revolution's ("ARC") Unopposed Motion to Intervene as Defendant. On January 20, 2009, ARC filed a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6) alleging that 1) the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction; 2) Plaintiffs lack standing to bring a preemption claim; 3) Plaintiffs are collaterally estopped from re-litigating the claims previously decided by the zoning board; and 4) the Court should abstain under the Younger doctrine. On March 18, 2008, I heard oral arguments only on the issue of Younger abstention. In the following memorandum and order, I address the relevant arguments presented in both Motions to Dismiss as well as at the oral arguments, and Plaintiffs' responses to each.

II. Background*fn1

On September 6, 2007, the Board of Supervisors of Lower Providence Township adopted Ordinance No. 561, which is the Ordinance contested in this action. The Ordinance allows development on a privately-owned parcel of land surrounded on 96% of its borders by federally-owned land that is part of the Park. After the Ordinance was passed, ARC purchased the land. On October 23, 2008, the Board of Supervisors granted final approval on ARC's land development plan pursuant to the Ordinance. ARC's plans for development include building a museum, a conference center, a hotel, and parking lots. These plans will result in development of over 55 acres of the 78-acre land parcel and 52% of the vegetation will be removed.*fn2

The individual plaintiffs and many members of the National Parks Conservation Association live near the Park and enjoy it regularly. Plaintiffs claim that ARC's planned development on this parcel of land will impact their ability to use and enjoy the Park. In particular, Plaintiffs contend that the development will damage views, wetlands, and archeological resources as well as cause light and noise pollution.

In October 2007, Plaintiffs appealed the adoption of the Ordinance to the Township's Zoning Hearing Board ("ZHB"), which was comprised of five members appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The ZHB hears requests for exemptions and variances from zoning ordinances as well as substantive challenges to the validity of ordinances. 53 P.S. § 10909.1. In their appeal, Plaintiffs asserted that the Ordinance is preempted by federal law and constitutes illegal spot-zoning under Pennsylvania law. That appeal was dismissed as premature, except as to one procedural objection, which was denied on April 11, 2008.

In June 2008, Plaintiffs filed a second appeal with the ZHB asserting the same grounds for relief as in their first appeal, including the claim of federal preemption. On October 30, 2008, the ZHB rendered its decision in favor of ARC on every legal argument raised, with the exception of standing. ARC's counsel's unchallenged statement at oral argument averred that the ZHB conducted 12 hearings, heard 65 hours of testimony, and issued an 82 page opinion including over 300 findings of fact as well as conclusions of law. On December 1, 2008, Plaintiffs filed this action in district court and a notice of appeal*fn3 in the Court of Common Pleas for Montgomery County, Pennsylvania (No. 08-34173)*fn4 . Plaintiffs then asked the Court of Common Pleas to stay the state court proceedings so that the federal action could go forward while preserving their state court appellate rights. The Court of Common Pleas denied the request for a stay and on January 6, 2009, Plaintiffs filed a praecipe to dismiss that action. The defendants opposed the dismissal because they had a cross-appeal on the basis of standing pending and Plaintiffs have since filed a motion to dismiss. That motion is still pending. This case will be transferred to state court under the Younger abstention doctrine.

III. Standard of Review

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), a court must grant a motion to dismiss if it lacks subject-matter jurisdiction to hear a claim. "A motion to dismiss for want of standing is also properly brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1), because standing is a jurisdictional matter." Ballentine v. U.S., 486 F.3d 806, 810 (3d Cir. 2007). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court must grant a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff fails "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." In deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the court must accept as true the well-pleaded allegations of the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor.

Brown v. Card Serv. Ctr., 464 F.3d 450, 452 (3d Cir. 2006). "While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964-65 (2007) (internal quotations omitted).

IV. Discussion

A. Federal Question Jurisdiction

Plaintiffs contend that this Court has subject-matter jurisdiction over the action based on their claim that the Ordinance is preempted by federal law, specifically 16 U.S.C. § 1 et seq., which established the National Park Service:

There is created in the Department of the Interior a service to be called the National Park Service, which shall be under the charge of a director, who shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. The Director shall have substantial experience and demonstrated competence in land management and natural or cultural resource conservation. The Director shall select two Deputy Directors. The first Deputy Director shall have responsibility for National Park Service operations, and the second Deputy Director shall have responsibility for other programs assigned to the National Park Service. The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified, except such as are under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Army, as provided by law, by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.

16 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.

Plaintiffs allege that the Ordinance interferes with Congress' objectives in establishing the National Park Service and is therefore preempted by federal law.

ARC contends that federal preemption alone does not give rise to federal question jurisdiction. ARC cites Fleet Bank v. Burke, 160 F.3d 883 (2d Cir. 1998) (Newman, J.), numerous times to support the contention that "preemption is a defense and cannot be invoked affirmatively to create subject matter jurisdiction" (ARC Motion to Dismiss, p. 10). The Fleet opinion provides a thorough overview and analysis of the law regarding federal question jurisdiction in a preemption claim.*fn5 However, ARC fails to discuss the Fleet court's conclusion that a plaintiff "may invoke federal question jurisdiction to adjudicate an unadorned claim of federal preemption, at least in a suit seeking an injunction and possibly only a declaratory judgment . . . ." 160 F.3d at 892. ARC also fails to mention the Fleet court's extensive discussion of the Supreme Court's opinion in Shaw v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 463 U.S. 85, 96 (1983), in which the Court held that:

It is beyond dispute that federal courts have jurisdiction over suits to enjoin state officials from interfering with federal rights. A plaintiff who seeks injunctive relief from state regulation, on the ground that such regulation is preempted by a federal statute which, by virtue of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, must prevail, this presents a federal question which the federal courts have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 to resolve.

Of course, here Plaintiffs are asking for both an injunction and a declaratory judgment based, in part, on the claim that a state regulation is preempted by federal law. The Plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief from the Ordinance on the basis that it is preempted by federal law; therefore, ...

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