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Ligonier Township v. Nied

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

May 4, 2017

Ligonier Township
Margaret S. Nied and Paul J. Nied, her husband, and Foxley Farm, LLC, and Christopher Turner and Carolyn Shearer Turner, husband and wife, Donald Korb and Carolyn Roberts Korb, husband and wife, and David Barnhart and Sally Ann Barnhart, husband and wife Appeal of: Margaret S. Nied, Paul J. Nied and Foxley Farm, LLC

          Argued: April 6, 2017




         Margaret S. Nied, Paul J. Nied, and Foxley Farm, LLC (Defendants) appeal the March 8, 2016 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County (trial court), which ordered Defendants to pay counsel fees in the amount of $53, 563.53, pursuant to its August 7, 2015 order finding Defendants in contempt for violating a consent order (Consent Order) executed by counsel for Defendants, Ligonier Township (Township), Christopher and Carolyn Turner, Donald and Carolyn Korb, and David and Sally Ann Barnhart (Intervenors).[1]

         Facts and Procedural History

         Margaret and Paul Nied (Nieds) are the owners of an approximately 59 acre tract of realty located at 118 Foxley Farm Lane, Ligonier Township, Pennsylvania (Property), which contains a single family residence and various outbuildings. The Property is located in the Township's R-2 Residential District. Defendants regularly engaged in commercial activities at the Property that are generally prohibited in the zoning district, such as: overnight accommodation of guests; large group activities and gatherings; political fundraising and corporate events; graduation parties and miscellaneous celebrations; and weddings. The Nieds conducted these commercial activities through Foxley Farm, LLC.

         On September 6, 2012, a Township Zoning Officer issued Defendants a notice of violation based on their commercial use of the Property. Specifically, the notice provided that Defendants' violation was "[c]ommercial use of property and buildings without proper approvals and permits, failure to obtain Conditional Use Permit, Occupancy Permit, violation of Agricultural Requirements, Conducting activities not permitted as Accessory Farm businesses." (Certified Record (C.R.) at No. 1, Exhibit 3.)

         Defendants subsequently applied for zoning occupancy permits, seeking authorization to use the Property for: 1) residential and agricultural use; and 2) accessory farm business, i.e., "agritourism and includes such activities as gardening/farming demonstrations and educational programs, farm-to-table events; farm stays, family reunions and weddings." (C.R. at No. 1, Exhibit 4.) The Zoning Officer issued a permit authorizing the Property's use for residential and agricultural purposes. However, Defendants' application to conduct certain commercial activities at the Property was denied.

         Defendants appealed the Zoning Officer's decision to the Township Zoning Hearing Board (Board), alleging that the proposed commercial uses were permitted as accessory farm business. The Board conducted a hearing and, on February 26, 2013, issued a decision sustaining the Zoning Officer's denial of Defendants' application to conduct commercial activities at the Property.

         On March 14, 2013, the Township filed a complaint in the trial court, alleging that Defendants continued to engage in unauthorized and unpermitted commercial activities at the Property. The Township requested that the trial court order Defendants to immediately cease and desist from conducting commercial business activities at the Property and enjoin Defendants from performing further commercial activities at the Property until the necessary permits are issued. (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 1a-9a.)

         A hearing on the Township's request for injunction was scheduled for April 12, 2013. However, that day the parties engaged in negotiations and the trial court entered the Consent Order, which was executed by counsel for the Township, Defendants, and Intervenors, and provided that:

1. [The Township's] request for injunction is granted to prohibit overnight accommodations and non-approved commercial activities unless, or until, a certificate of occupancy is issued to permit said activities, other than those activities specifically set forth below.
2. Pursuant to this order, [Defendants] are permitted to conduct not more than eleven (11) events at the property, none of which may exceed two hundred (200) attendees, and nine (9) of which may not exceed one hundred fifty (150) attendees. For the purposes of this order, an event is defined as having ten (10) unrelated attendees. A schedule of said events will be provided to counsel for all parties no later than end of business on Monday April 15, 2013.
3. With respect to all events, there will be a third party security officer employed by Laidlaw Co. on site at all times to confirm compliance with this order and to manage traffic and parking. Said officer will be at the expense of the Defendants and shall be available to communicate with counsel.
4. All activities related to events will cease no later than 11:00 pm.
5. All parking shall take place along the paved lanes and within the horse ring area.
6. No music or audio equipment shall be permitted outside of the structure where the event is being held.
7. Defendants shall seek approval for on-lot sewage disposal and comply with all Township ordinances and [Department of Environmental Protection] regulations relating to sanitary sewage, to the satisfaction of the sewage enforcement officer, prior to the commencement of any event.
8. Defendants shall immediately cease any and all marketing or advertising of weddings, or wedding related events at the [P]roperty unless or until the issuance of a certificate of occupancy specifically permitting weddings.
9. Defendants shall immediately cease any and all marketing or advertising of overnight accommodations of guests at the [P]roperty unless, or until, the issuance of a certificate of occupancy specifically permitting overnight accommodations.
10. The Defendants shall withdraw the pending zoning appeal, Civil Action No. 1335 of 2013, with prejudice, and agree not to seek approval for weddings or wedding related events at the site unless a zoning amendment or legislation is enacted to specifically allow weddings at the site.
11. Starting today, there will be no bookings of overnight accommodations or non-approved commercial activities, including weddings or wedding-related events unless or until a certificate of occupancy is issued specifically allowing such activities or weddings.
12. Should any enforcement action be brought pursuant to this order the prevailing party will be entitled to reasonable attorney's fees of other parties.

(R.R. at 23a-25a.)

         On September 20, 2013, Intervenors, joined by the Township, filed a Petition for Rule to Show Cause Why Defendants Should Not Be Held in Contempt of the Consent Order, alleging that Defendants knowingly violated the same because, inter alia, they conducted unpermitted events at the Property. (R.R. at 27a-33a.)

         Defendants filed an answer[2] denying they violated the Consent Order, raising affirmative defenses, and alleging that Intervenors were barred from bringing the action pursuant to the doctrine of unclean hands because Intervenors had contacted individuals who contracted with Defendants and attempted to induce them to cancel their agreements. Additionally, Defendants averred that the events were permitted accessory events under applicable zoning laws and, similarly, Intervenors were estopped from pursuing the action because Defendants relied on the Township's actions and statements when conducting activities at the Property. (R.R. at 48a-52a.)

         On April 14, 2014, the trial court conducted a hearing on the issue of alleged contempt, wherein Ms. Nied and ...

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