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Sunlight of Spirit House v. Borough of North Wales

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 20, 2017



          Goldberg, J.

         This case arises out of the Zoning Hearing Board of North Wales (“Zoning Board”)'s denial of the application of Plaintiffs, Matthew Bartelt (“Bartelt”) and Sunlight of the Spirit House, Inc. (“Sunlight”), for a special exception and a reasonable accommodation to the Borough's zoning code. Sunlight had requested permission to operate a recovery house for up to ten recovering alcoholics and substance abusers in a property owned by Bartelt. Plaintiffs bring claims against the Borough of North Wales, Pennsylvania (“North Wales”) and its Zoning Board asserting that the denial of the application was a violation of the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601, et seq., and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12201, et seq.

         Before me is Defendants' motion to dismiss. For the following reasons, I will deny the motion.


         The following facts, taken from the complaint and viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, are as follows:

         In May 2015, Bartelt purchased a five-bedroom single family house in North Wales with the intention of using it as a residence for up to ten recovering alcoholics and substance abusers. He then leased the house to Sunlight, a not-for-profit corporation that he is affiliated with, so that Sunlight would run the recovery house. Sunlight's stated mission is “to provide housing for recovering alcoholics and substance abusers that helps establish a foundation for purposeful long term sobriety.” (Compl. ¶¶ 15, 26, 29.)

         When Bartelt bought the property, he did not have an understanding of the limitations that the North Wales zoning code would place on the operation of the recovery house. Under the zoning code, the house is “located in a residential area that is zoned R-C Residential, which permits single-family and two-family residential use as a permitted, principle use.” The zoning code's definition of “family” encompasses those “related by blood, marriage or adoption, ” and also extends to “functional family equivalents, ” defined as “[unrelated] [p]ersons living and cooking together as a single, nonprofit and non-transient housekeeping unit and having facilities to do their cooking on the premises.” The number of unrelated persons that are allowed to live in a house as a functional family equivalent is limited to three. The Zoning Board may, however, “grant a special exception [to increase the number of residents] after ascertaining that the dwelling unit has adequate off-street parking facilities, living space, indoor plumbing, and operating as a single, nonprofit and non-transient housekeeping unit and facilities to do their cooking on the premises which constitute a functional family equivalent and complying with the requirements of the Uniform Construction Code.” (Id. ¶¶ 29-30, 34-36.)

         On May 28, 2015, North Wales issued Plaintiffs a certificate of occupancy for up to three unrelated persons. In June 2015, Plaintiffs applied for a special exception to the zoning code to permit up to ten individuals to live in the recovery house, and to provide a reasonable accommodation based on the residents being recovering alcoholics and substance abusers. The Zoning Board then held two public hearings on the special exception application, but did not address the request for a reasonable accommodation. (Id. ¶¶ 31, 38-39, 59, 61.)

         The first hearing was held on September 1, 2015. Bartelt “testified that one of the purposes of [Sunlight] was to provide a housing program where those residents who just completed [residential substance abuse] treatment would have the opportunity to live with others who are striving to achieve long-term sobriety.” He stated “that the benefits of living at [Sunlight] is that the residents were not around [] activities or places that would trigger a relapse.” Bartelt explained that although Sunlight would not be providing substance abuse treatment or counseling, it would impose structure and rules, including a curfew and a requirement that residents participate in outpatient treatment. Bartelt stated that a typical tenant could stay at the recovery house for up to a year, as long as they followed the rules and regulations, and that the expected stay of a tenant would be nine months. In addition, Bartelt “agreed to limit the number of cars for residents to two.” (Id. ¶¶ 40-45, 48.)

         The second hearing was held a little over a month later on October 6, 2015. Several neighbors and objectors spoke in opposition to Sunlight's application. They expressed concerns that allowing up to ten people to reside at the recovery house would compromise their children's safety and their property values. The next-door neighbor described the recovery house as a “revolving door of potential residents who didn't make the cut.” One objector stated “I think it's great what you guys are doing. I just don't want it in the neighborhood.” Those in attendance also questioned how Sunlight would govern its finances, and whether Sunlight indeed was a nonprofit. (Id. ¶¶ 51-57.)

         The Zoning Board denied the application for a special exception to the zoning code. It found that Plaintiffs failed to meet their burden establishing that the Sunlight recovery house had adequate off-street parking facilities, was operating as a non-transient and non-profit housekeeping unit, and that the allowance of a special use exception would be in the public interest. Having credited the objections and testimony of neighbors and objectors, the Zoning Board specifically found that the proposed use was not compatible with the residential neighborhood, would be injurious to the public health, safety and welfare of the community, and would cause undue congestion of vehicular traffic. On or about January 26, 2016, the North Wales zoning officer issued a cease and desist order to Bartelt which informed him that no more than three residents were permitted to live in the house. (Id. ¶¶ 60-65, 67.)

         As noted above, Plaintiffs Bartelt and Sunlight have brought two claims alleging that Defendants' refusal to grant permission to increase the number of residents from three to ten was a violation of both the Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) (Count I) and the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) (Count II). Defendants have filed a motion to dismiss.


         To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint must “contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The plausibility standard requires more than a “sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. To determine the sufficiency of a complaint under Twombly and Iqbal, the Court must take the following three steps: (1) the Court must “tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim”; (2) the court should identify the allegations that, “because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth”; and (3) “where there are well-pleaded ...

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