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In re Petition of Commissioners of Carbon County to Lay Out & Open County Road

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

November 15, 2013

In Re: Petition of Commissioners of Carbon County to Lay Out And Open County Road Appeal of: Commissioners of Carbon County

Argued: September 13, 2013

BEFORE: HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge

OPINION

MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge

The Commissioners of Carbon County appeal an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Carbon County (trial court) denying their petition to lay out roads in Carbon County under authority of what is hereinafter referred to as the County Road Law.[1] The proposed roads will serve a business park the County seeks to develop on its land. The trial court denied the County's petition because the roads as proposed will not satisfy the construction specifications required for roads in Mahoning Township, where the roads will be built. The County argues that the trial court erred because the County Road Law preempts a township's authority to regulate county roads. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

The relevant facts are not in dispute. The County seeks to develop a 70-acre vacant parcel of land that is located, principally, in Mahoning Township. The County hopes to attract new businesses and create jobs by turning this parcel into "Packerton Business Park." To that end, the County proposes two roads to service this development.

First, the County proposes to move a 150-foot portion of a Township road, Packerton Hollow Lane, and make it a County road. Under the County's plan, the relocated road will be constructed with an 18-foot wide cartpath and three-foot shoulders on each side, for a total width of 24 feet. Second, the County proposes to construct a new 5, 000-foot long road to be called "Business Park Drive."[2] Business Park Drive will provide the main means of ingress and egress for Packerton Business Park, and it will not have sidewalks.

In May 2010, the County submitted a subdivision and land development plan for Packerton Business Park to the Township Supervisors. The County requested and received waivers from various requirements of the Township's Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO).[3] In September 2012, the Township rejected the County's plan because it did not provide for sidewalks along Business Park Drive and the relocated portion of Packerton Hollow Lane will not satisfy the SALDO's requirements for a 20-foot wide cartpath and a six-foot wide shoulder on each side.[4] Reproduced Record at 43a (R.R. __). The County has appealed the Township's denial of its preliminary plan.[5]

The County then filed a petition under the County Road Law to reconstruct and take ownership of Packerton Hollow Lane and to construct Business Park Drive. The Township intervened to oppose the petition because the proposed roads would not comply with the Township's SALDO. The trial court conducted a hearing on the County's petition.[6]

At the hearing, the County presented the testimony of its civil engineer, Ronald M. Tirpak, P.E., who designed the roads that were the subject of the County's petition. Tirpak explained that Business Park Drive will run from State Route 209 into Packerton Business Park. Tirpak testified that having sidewalks on this road, as required in the SALDO, would be dangerous. Route 209 has no sidewalks, narrow shoulders and narrow travel lanes; it has considerably more traffic than Business Park Drive is expected to have. Because it is narrow and busy, Route 209 is not suitable for foot traffic. Putting sidewalks on Business Park Drive will encourage people to walk on Route 209. In addition, Business Park Drive will cross over railroad tracks, and it is unlawful for sidewalks to be constructed over railroad tracks.

Packerton Hollow Lane presently intersects with Route 209 and will be moved to intersect with Business Park Drive. Tirpak described Packerton Hollow Lane as "basically an unmaintained road" that serves one home. R.R. 66a. It is principally constructed of gravel, with some blacktop, and varies in width from 12 feet to 20 feet. Although a Township road, Packerton Hollow Lane does not meet Township standards. When reconstructed, Packerton Hollow Lane will be wider than it is now and markedly improved. Further, the County will assume responsibility for its maintenance. Tirpak estimated the construction cost for both roads at $3.2 million.

The County also presented the testimony of County Commissioner Wayne Nothstein. Nothstein testified that the Commissioners agreed with Tirpak that sidewalks along Business Park Drive would be dangerous and that the proposed width of the relocated portion of Packerton Hollow Lane was adequate for the safety and accommodation of the public.

In response, the Township presented the testimony of John J. Wieczorek, Chairman of the Township's Board of Supervisors. Wieczorek confirmed that the Township denied the County's plan because the proposed roads do not conform to the requirements of the Township's SALDO.

The trial court denied the County's petition. Under Section 2740(b) of the County Road Law, the trial court may disapprove a county road petition "for proper cause shown." 16 P.S. §2740(b).[7] The trial court found proper cause to disapprove the County's petition because its proposed roads did not satisfy the SALDO. The trial court rejected the County's argument that the County Road Law preempted the Township's SALDO. The trial court concluded that the County Road Law was not intended to supersede the Township's SALDO and that the consequences of requiring the County to comply were minimal.[8] This is because the County could exercise the power to open county roads and comply with the SALDO. The present appeal followed.[9]

On appeal, the County argues that the trial court erred. The County posits that laying out and constructing county roads is an activity separate and apart from land development. Accordingly, the Township SALDO was irrelevant to its road petition. Alternatively, the County contends that the language of the County Road Law expresses its preeminence over a second class township's SALDO.[10] Any other interpretation will defeat the purposes of the County Road Law because a single county road may cross several townships, each of which may have different dimensional requirements. Further, the County will bear the expense of constructing and maintaining the proposed County roads. It does not advance sound public policy to allow a township, effectively, to spend county money.

The Township rejoins that the SALDO applies to the County's proposed roads because they are integral to the County's land development plan. Because there is no conflict between the County Road Law and the SALDO, the County can comply with both. The Township argues that, in any case, the County ...


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