The opinion of the court was delivered by: Senior Judge Kelley
BEFORE: HONORABLE BONNIE BRIGANCE LEADBETTER, President Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE JAMES R. KELLEY, Senior Judge.
Smithfield Township (Township) and the Board of Supervisors of Smithfield Township (Board) (collectively, Appellants) appeal from a final order of the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County (trial court), which granted the equitable relief requested by HYK Construction Company, Inc. (HYK) by appointing an independent hearing examiner to hold conditional use hearings on HYK's conditional use application and denying party litigant status to Smithfield Township Environmental Advisory Council (EAC). We vacate and remand.
The facts of this case are as follows. On April 3, 2007, HYK filed a conditional use application with the Township to construct and operate a concrete manufacturing facility. Hearings before the Board, which is the governing body of the Township, commenced on June 7, 2007. EAC was granted party status by the Board along with approximately 75 persons (neighbors).*fn1
While the hearings before the Board were proceeding, HYK filed a complaint seeking declaratory and equitable relief with the trial court on May 9, 2008. Therein, HYK alleged that it was improper for EAC to participate as a party because it was funded by the Township to prepare evidence, expert opinion and argument, presumably contrary to the application, and that its right to a fair and impartial hearing was abrogated on this basis. HYK requested the trial court to void the ongoing conditional use hearings before the Board, to preclude and enjoin the Board from hearing the application, to appoint a neutral hearing examiner to rule on the application, and to preclude EAC from participating as a party.
Appellants and EAC filed timely answers and new matter to the complaint denying the material allegations of the complaint and asserting that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction because HYK failed to join indispensable parties and failed to exhaust an exclusive statutory remedy contained in the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code*fn2 (MPC). HYK also filed an emergency motion for equitable relief to enjoin the Board from proceeding with further hearings. On May 15, 2008, the trial court entered a rule to show cause on HYK's motion for injunction. Appellants and EAC filed answers and a joint motion to dismiss the proceedings before the trial court for lack of jurisdiction.
A hearing before the trial court was held on August 21, 2008. No testimony was taken. Following a conference with the trial court in chambers, the parties entered into a stipulation which was memorialized and entered as an order of the trial court. Pursuant thereto, the parties were directed to submit briefs to the trial court on the issue of subject matter jurisdiction and the statutory authority of EAC to participate in the conditional use proceeding as a party. The stipulation further provided that if the trial court were to determine that it possesses subject matter jurisdiction, the conditional use matter would be heard and determined by an independent hearing examiner and EAC's participation in the conditional use proceeding would be limited to the presentation of witnesses and testimony.
On November 24, 2008, the trial court issued an opinion and order in which it determined that it had subject matter jurisdiction and that EAC had no authority to participate as a formal party in the conditional use proceeding. The trial court ordered the appointment of an independent arbitrator to conduct the conditional use hearings on HYK's application and render a final decision with respect to the application. Thereafter, Appellants and HYK filed cross Motions for Post-Trial Relief,*fn3 which were denied by the trial court by opinion and order dated September 18, 2009.*fn4 Appellants then filed the instant appeal with this Court.*fn5 Appellants raise the following issues for our review:
1. Whether the trial court erred and/or abused its discretion in failing to determine that -- for purposes of HYK's claims under the Declaratory Judgments Act*fn6 -- the parties to the underlying conditional use hearing were persons "who have or claim any interest which would be affected by the declaration" and who must therefore be joined as parties to this action.
2. Whether the trial court erred and/or abused its discretion in failing to determine that the parties to the underlying conditional use hearing are "indispensable parties" in an equity action which purported to challenge the fairness of that conditional use proceeding and sought the invalidation of the hearings in which such parties have participated and the disqualification of the governing body from the conditional use proceeding.
3. Whether the trial court erred and/or abused its discretion in making, and then relying upon, matters which were not of record, and in taking judicial notice of disputed adjudicatory factors without notice to the parties and without evidentiary and factual basis.
4. Whether the trial court erred in finding that it had equity jurisdiction to seize control of and interfere with an ongoing conditional use proceeding in light of the exclusive review provision of the MPC, HYK's failure to utilize and exhaust an exclusive statutory remedy and inasmuch as the equity action amounts to an improper interlocutory appeal from determinations of the governing body.
5. Whether the trial court erred and/or abused its discretion in concluding that EAC was properly denied party status in ...