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Dietrich v. Buffalo Township Planning Commission

May 18, 2010

JONATHAN DIETRICH AND MELISSA DIETRICH, HUSBAND AND WIFE, APPELLANTS
v.
BUFFALO TOWNSHIP PLANNING COMMISSION AND BUFFALO TOWNSHIP



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Senior Judge Friedman

Argued: March 15, 2010

BEFORE: HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Jonathan and Melissa Dietrich (the Dietrichs) appeal from the March 12, 2009, order of the Court of Common Pleas of the 17th Judicial District (Union County Branch) (trial court), affirming the decision of the Buffalo Township Planning Commission (BTPC) to deny approval of the Dietrichs' preliminary land development plan (Plan). We vacate the trial court's order and remand for further proceedings.

The Dietrichs reside at 5931 Buffalo Road in Buffalo Township (Township), Union County, Pennsylvania. On June 16, 2008, the Dietrichs submitted to the Township an application to build a swine barn on their property along the west side of Baker Hollow Road and north of Snake Hill Road.*fn1 The proposed barn would consist of 69,500 square feet and house 8,800 swine. Due to its size, the proposed structure qualified as a Major Land Development under section 2.1.2.2 of the Township's Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (Ordinance).*fn2

The BTPC sent the Plan to the Union County Planning Commission, the Township Zoning Officer, and the Township Engineer for review. The Township Engineer noted several deficiencies in the Plan and recommended, among other things, improving the intersection of Snake Hill and Baker Hollow Roads and widening the pavement on Baker Hollow Road. The Dietrichs subsequently revised the Plan in response to the Engineer's comments.

At a July 28, 2008, BTPC meeting, the parties discussed an alternative location for the driveway to the proposed barn. By letter dated August 21, 2008, the Dietrichs notified the BTPC that they declined to relocate the driveway along Baker Hollow Road because they believed that doing so would limit the usable farming land surrounding the proposed barn.

By letter dated September 24, 2008, the Township Solicitor notified the BTPC that the Township Board of Supervisors had voted to recommend denial of the Plan. In his letter, the Solicitor outlined several safety concerns, including the lack of safe and adequate access for the number and size of trucks needed to service the farm and the lack of a safe and adequate water supply.

It is undisputed that the ninety-day period for action on the Dietrichs' application under section 508 of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), Act of July 31, 1968, P.L. 805, as amended, 53 P.S. §10508,*fn3 would have expired on September 28, 2008. However, the parties agreed to extend that period by one day to September 29, 2008.

At its September 29, 2008, meeting, the BTPC voted to grant conditional approval of the Plan. By letter dated October 8, 2008, the BTPC notified the Dietrichs of its decision and gave them until October 29, 2008, to accept the five conditions outlined in the letter, stating that "[f]ailure. to do so will nullify this conditional approval on October 29, 2008." The conditions addressed the safety concerns previously raised by the Township Solicitor.

On October 16, 2008, the Dietrichs sent the BTPC a written response, stating that they had no objection to the first four conditions*fn4 but that they believed the fifth condition (Condition #5) was "unreasonably vague and arbitrary." Condition #5 stated, "Resolve safety issues concerning Baker Hollow Road and Snake Hill Road to the satisfaction of the Township Supervisors." The Dietrichs explained that if this condition meant they were required to remedy pre-existing unsafe conditions on Township roads unrelated to the proposed use, they would treat the conditional approval as a de facto denial of their application and file an appeal. If, however, the condition meant they were required to make roadway improvements already implemented in connection with the Plan (i.e., the intersection of Baker Hollow and Snake Hill Roads), they would accept the condition. Thus, at the conclusion of their letter, the Dietrichs asked the BTPC to clarify the meaning of Condition #5.

The BTPC did not respond to the Dietrichs' request. Instead, at its next meeting on October 27, 2008, the BTPC voted to deny approval of the Plan on the ground that the Dietrichs had failed to accept the conditions stated in the conditional approval letter.*fn5 The BTPC considered the Dietrichs' failure to accept all conditions as a rejection of the conditions.

On October 29, 2008, the deadline for acceptance of the conditions, the Dietrichs filed a land use appeal in the trial court, docketed at No. CV-08-880 (First Appeal). The Dietrichs challenged the legality of Condition #5, claiming that it was arbitrary and unreasonable, unsupported by substantial evidence, and not calculated to effectuate a legitimate purpose of the Ordinance.

Thereafter, on October 30, 2008, the BTPC issued a written decision denying approval of the Plan, citing numerous deficiencies, including: lack of safe and adequate access for the number and size of trucks needed; lack of a manure management plan; lack of a safe and adequate water supply; and lack of a fully executed Improvement ...


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