Argued: June 5, 2017
BEFORE: HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE MICHAEL
H. WOJCIK, Judge HONORABLE JOSEPH M. COSGROVE, Judge
MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge
Willow Ridge Associates, L.P., (Willow Ridge) appeals from an
order of the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County
(trial court) that granted Allen Township's (Township)
motion for summary judgment against Willow Ridge and
dismissed as moot Northampton Borough's (Borough) motion
for summary judgment. Willow Ridge contends that the trial
court erred in granting the Township's motion for summary
judgment on the grounds that Willow Ridge did not make a
timely claim within the three-year period as set forth in
Section 1 of the act commonly referred to as the Refund
and that Willow Ridge was not entitled to a refund under the
Municipality Authorities Act (MAA)or Refund Act. For the
reasons that follow, we affirm on alternative grounds.
Willow Ridge is the current developer and owner of an
apartment community known as The Residences at Willow Ridge,
located at 419 Harrison Court in Allen Township, Northampton
County, Pennsylvania, and consisting of 216 one- and
two-bedroom apartments, a clubhouse and a maintenance garage
(apartment complex), which necessitated sewer service.
Township owns and operates a sewage collection and
transmission system within the Township; the Borough owns the
plant that treats the sewage. Reproduced Record (R.R.) at
311a. The Township and Borough's (collectively,
Appellees) relationship is memorialized in an Intermunicipal
Sewer Service Agreement (Intermunicipal Agreement), dated
March 8, 2001. R.R. at 311a-334a. Pursuant to the
Intermunicipal Agreement, an equivalent dwelling unit (EDU)
represents the metered volume of water used per quarter by
any single family dwelling connected to the sewer system; one
EDU "shall be considered 260 [gallons per day]."
R.R. at 314a. By Resolution #2004-01, the Township set the
rate for each sewer tapping fee at $3, 000. R.R. at 335a.
"For residential properties, one dwelling unit shall be
considered one [EDU] for the purposes of this fee." R.R.
to Willow Ridge's acquisition of the apartment complex,
its predecessor initially requested sewer service from the
Township for 270 equivalent dwelling units (EDUs). R.R. at
349a. An interim successor entered into a sanitary sewer
service agreement (2005 Agreement) with the Township
contracting for 270 EDUs of sewage disposal services at the
rate of $3, 000 per EDU, for a total of $810, 000. R.R. at
350a-359a. Thereafter, the Township and Willow Ridge entered
into a sanitary sewer service agreement (2011 Agreement)
agreeing to the same $3, 000 tapping fee per
R.R. at 299a-305a.
March 31, 2011, Willow Ridge paid the Township $3, 000 for
218 EDUs of sanitary sewer capacity. R.R. at
228a-229a. In the letter accompanying the payment, Willow
Ridge stated, "As we have explained previously, we
believe that each apartment unit will require less than one
(1) EDU and our capacity analysis confirms that the correct
calculation of capacity is one (1) EDU per every three
units." R.R. at 228a. Willow Ridge advised that the
"payment is made subject to the design capacity analysis
which [it] intend[s] to submit and which we hope will result
in a reduction in the total cost of our EDUs." R.R. at
November 22, 2013, Willow Ridge initiated a complaint
followed by two amended complaints against Appellees alleging
that they overestimated the number of EDUs required to
service the apartment complex. The second amended complaint
set forth three counts: Count I - Declaratory Judgment under
the Refund Act; Count II - Breach of Contract; and Count III
- Violation of the MAA. While this litigation was pending, on
May 14, 2014, Willow Ridge filed a claim for refund with the
Township. R.R. at 306a.
response, the Township filed three sets of preliminary
objections to the complaints, which ultimately resulted in
the trial court's dismissal of Count III - the MAA claim.
R.R. at 119a. The trial court determined that the MAA claim
was time-barred by a two-year statute of limitations. R.R. at
Township also filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings,
which the trial court granted, resulting in the dismissal of
Count II - the breach of contract claim. R.R. at 124a. The
trial court explained that, although Willow Ridge framed the
issue as a breach of contract claim, it was in essence a tort
claim barred by a two-year statute of limitations. R.R. at
trial court permitted Willow Ridge to proceed on its
remaining count (Count I), in which it sought declaratory
judgment and monetary relief under the Refund Act.
See R.R. at 126a-127a. After pleadings closed,
Appellees each moved for entry of summary judgment on
October 14, 2016, the trial court granted the Township's
motion and entered judgment in favor of the Township and
against Willow Ridge, and it dismissed the Borough's
motion as moot. Trial Court Opinion, 10/14/16, at 1-11; R.R.
at 129a-139a. The trial court explained that Willow Ridge
failed to toll the statute of limitations by not following
the Refund Act's statutory procedure, which required an
aggrieved party to file a written and verified claim within
three years as a necessary predicate to filing an action in
the trial court. Trial Court Opinion, 10/14/16, at 7; R.R. at
135a; see Section 1(a) of the Refund Act, 72 P.S.
§5566b(a); Section 2 of the Refund Act, 72 P.S.
§5566c. Although Willow Ridge complained of the total
number of EDUs upon which its charges were based, the trial
court found that Willow Ridge never made a written and
verified claim for a refund until after the expiration of the
three-year period. Trial Court Opinion, 10/14/16, at 10; R.R.
at 138a. Consequently, the trial court determined that the
statute of limitations was never tolled. Trial Court Opinion,
10/14/16, at 10; R.R. at 138a. Thus, the trial court granted
the Township's motion for summary judgment on this basis,
which was dispositive of the action in toto, and did
not address the Township's other grounds for summary
judgment. Trial Court Opinion, 10/14/16, at 11; R.R. at 139a.
this decision, Willow Ridge filed a motion for
reconsideration, which the trial court denied. Willow Ridge also
filed an appeal with this Court on November 4, 2016, and, at
the direction of the trial court, a concise statement of
errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa. R.A.P.
1925(b). In its Rule 1925(b) statement, Willow Ridge asserted
that the trial court erred or abused its discretion by:
holding that the Refund Act imposes a three-year statute of
limitations, as opposed to a notification period; finding
Willow Ridge's complaint did not constitute a timely
written and verified claim for a refund; granting summary
judgment when disputed issues of fact remained; treating its
complaint as a claim for tax refund rather than a claim for
refund of excess permit fees; and, not following stare
decisis. R.R. at 199a-200a.
amended Pa. R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion that followed, the trial
court stated that it incorrectly imposed a three-year
"statute of limitations, " and acknowledged that
Section 1 of the Refund Act is a statute of notification, not
of limitations. It further observed that absent a showing of
prejudice on the part of the municipality, a party's
failure to notify within a statutory time frame will not in
all cases be a bar to such action. Trial Court Opinion,
12/20/16, at 2.
the trial court opined that the grant of summary judgment
against Willow Ridge was appropriate because it "would
have come to the same disposition based on case law
establishing the validity of the sewer tapping fees of a
fixed amount per residence under the MAA." Trial Court
Opinion, 12/20/16, at 3. The trial court continued that,
under the MAA, Appellees were permitted to treat apartments
in a manner identical to other types of residential housing
when determining the capacity required for sanitary sewer
service. Id. "It would have been an abuse of
discretion for the [trial court] to deem the rates charged .
. . unreasonable." Id. This appeal now
appeal, Willow Ridge contends that the trial court erred by
granting the Township's motion for summary judgment on
two grounds. First, Section 1 of the Refund Act is not a
statute of limitations, but a statute of notification.
Notwithstanding, Willow Ridge sufficiently notified the