United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania
Conner Chief Judge.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
Martin C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge
I. Statement of Facts and of the Case
This case is a diversity breach of contract lawsuit brought by the plaintiff, Dillsburg Ventures, LLC, a Maryland-based real estate development company, against a local municipality, Carroll Township, arising out of an alleged agreement between the parties pertaining to the development of multi-family housing on a 45 acre tract of land in Carroll Township. (Doc. 1.)
In April 2011, this matter was referred to the undersigned for the purpose of conducting settlement discussions. A series of discussions, mediated by the Court, then took place between the parties in 2011. In the course of these initial discussions, the parties inquired as to whether the Court would entertain a request to review any final settlement, if a settlement was reached, and we advised the parties that they could make such a request if, and when, they reached an agreement on the terms of a proposed settlement.
Following these initial conversations, which were directly mediated by the Court, the parties engaged in protracted discussions spanning two years regarding the terms of a settlement. These discussions were not participated in by the Court, but were monitored through periodic status reports which the parties were directed to file with the Court. (Docs. 34-58.)
After some two years of discussions, the parties notified the Court that they had reached a tentative agreement on the terms of a settlement, and filed a motion requesting that the Court schedule a hearing on the terms of this settlement. (Doc. 59 and 60.) This motion was then referred to the undersigned.
Upon receipt of the motion, we convened a conference call with counsel. (Doc. 61.) During that conference call, we asked counsel to provide us with the legal authority upon which they were relying in requesting that the Court conduct a hearing on the terms of the settlement of a contractual dispute arising out of a land use management question in a local municipality. In response, the parties referred the Court to 53 Pa. C.S. §11006-A(c), a statute which provides Pennsylvania’s courts of common pleas with jurisdiction to order approval of proposed land use developments. This state statute by its express terms also authorizes a court to “refer . . . elements [of a proposed development] to the governing body, agency or officer having jurisdiction thereof for further proceedings . . . .” 53 Pa. C.S. § 11006-A (c).
During this conference call, the parties also discussed the logistics of a proposed hearing, explaining that the township would include this proposed settlement as an agenda item in a regularly scheduled board of supervisors meeting, and asking the Court to schedule a hearing shortly after that township meeting. Counsel suggested this course under the apparent impression that this proposed settlement would be a matter of little moment in the local community, and we initially acceded to the parties scheduling proposal.
Upon the scheduling of this matter, it immediately became apparent that the litigants had misjudged the nature, and extent, of public interest in this development, as the Court received numerous public comments regarding this proposed settlement, many of which were signed by multiple residents of Carroll Township. (Docs. 64-85.) Two recurrent themes were reflected in this significant public outcry. First, in many instances, notwithstanding the fact that the settlement had been included as an agenda item on a township board meeting, members of the public voiced a concern that they had not been provided an opportunity to comment on this proposal directly with the township officials who were responsible for developing the community land use plans. This perceived lack of notice is, in the first, instance a matter of paramount concern to local, elected officials who have the primary responsibility for addressing zoning and land use planning in Carroll Township. In addition, the citizen letters submitted to the Court raised a series of aesthetic, educational, tax, highway, and traffic concerns. All of these matters are also issues of local zoning and land use which are the responsibility of local officials to address with their constituents in the first instance.
In light of these concerns, we postponed any hearing on this settlement, and requested a response to these strongly voiced citizens concerns from the parties in this litigation. We have now received those responses, (Doc. 86-88.), and note that the parties, who had once urged us to conduct a public hearing, now suggest in light of the public outcry reflected in the comment letters submitted by these concerned citizens, that no further public hearing or meeting is necessary. (Id.)
Upon reflection, we disagree. Rather than showing that further public comment is unnecessary, we believe that the public comment responses to this proposed settlement, which reflect dismay by many Carroll Township residents that they did not have an opportunity to thoroughly air their views with Township officials, suggests that further meetings and hearings to address this proposal settlement are both necessary and proper. We also believe that in the first instance it is the right, responsibility and duty of local elected officials to address these public concerns regarding matters of paramount local concern at the local community level. Therefore, pursuant to 53 Pa. C.S. §11006-A(c), the legal authority cited by the parties in support of their request for a hearing, it is recommended that the Court “refer . . . [this settlement and proposed development] to the governing body, agency or officer having jurisdiction thereof for further proceedings . . . .” 53 Pa. C.S. § 11006-A (c).
It is well settled that “decisions of local zoning and planning officials are generally a matter of local concern, and absent constitutional considerations their decisions are not the subject matter of federal court review. . . .” Cellular Tel. Co. v. Zoning Bd. of Adjustment of Borough of Harrington Park, 90 F.Supp.2d 557, 560 (D.N.J. 2000). As the Supreme Court has acknowledged: “A federal court, after all, ‘should not ... sit as a zoning board of appeals.’ Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, 416 U.S. 1, 12, 94 S.Ct. ...