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Cornerstone Residence, Inc. v. The City of Clairton

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

November 8, 2017

CORNERSTONE RESIDENCE, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
THE CITY OF CLAIRTON, PENNSYLVANIA and GEORGE GLAGOLA, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Nora Barry Fischer U.S. District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In this action, Plaintiff Cornerstone Residence, Inc., (“Cornerstone”), alleges that Defendants, the City of Clairton, (“Clairton”) and one of its zoning officers, George Glagola, (“Glagola”), violated the Fair Housing Amendments Act, (“FHAA”), by denying its application for a certificate of occupancy to run a sober house in a residential zone within Clairton. (Docket No. 20). Cornerstone further asserts that certain provisions of Clairton's Zoning Ordinance facially violate the FHAA by allegedly excluding disabled individuals from residing in residential zones. (Id.). Defendants seek dismissal of Cornerstone's Amended Complaint, arguing that its FHAA claims are subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) because they not ripe for adjudication as the denial of the application by the zoning officer was not appealed to the Zoning Hearing Board or resubmitted as Cornerstone was directed. (Docket Nos. 22; 23; 27). Defendants further maintain that Cornerstone's claims are also subject to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. (Id.). Aside from conceding its official capacity claim against Glagola, Cornerstone opposes the motion. (Docket Nos. 24; 30). Cornerstone separately seeks a preliminary injunction on its claim seeking to invalidate certain provisions of Clairton's Zoning Ordinance and Defendants contest such motion, on largely the same grounds articulated in their motion to dismiss. (Docket Nos. 31-33; 35; 38; 41). As the competing motions have been fully briefed, they are now ripe for disposition. (Docket Nos. 22-24; 27; 30; 31-33; 35; 38; 41). After careful consideration of the parties' arguments and for the following reasons, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss [22] will be granted and Cornerstone's Motion for a Preliminary Injunction [31] will be denied, as moot.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Cornerstone Residence, Inc.

         Cornerstone “is a Pennsylvania non-profit corporation established to own and operate supportive residency for men recovering from addiction to alcohol and/or drugs.” (Docket No. 20 at 1, ¶ 4). Joyce Douglass is the president and executive director of Cornerstone. (Id. at ¶¶ 12). She previously served as a Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole Agent for twenty-five years, and during twenty-one of those years she was assigned to the Clairton area. (Id. at ¶ 12; Docket No. 20-1, Ex. “B”). During her tenure as a parole agent, Douglass observed the problems that ex-offenders faced with drug and alcohol addictions and noticed “a lack of sound residential options to support their recovery.” (Docket No. 20 at ¶ 13). She researched different residential models and became aware of those that were the most successful. (Id.). After Douglass retired in May of 2015, she started pursuing the Cornerstone business full-time. (Id.).

         In the fall of 2015, Douglass met with Clairton Mayor Richard Lattanzi and discussed the purported need for a “family-like residential facility in Clairton which would provide essential support to those who have been involved with the criminal justice system principally with drug or alcohol addiction.” (Docket No. 20 at ¶ 14). Mayor Lattanzi expressed support for the project and suggested various sites to Douglass, who then investigated the recommended sites and other locations. (Id. at ¶¶ 15-16). Ultimately, Douglass determined that the site at 622 Delaware Avenue in Clairton was the only “suitable” option for her business. (Id. at ¶¶ 17-19, 23-24). Cornerstone claims that Mayor Lattanzi agreed that this location was “acceptable” but continued to show her other possible locations within the City limits. (Id. at ¶¶ 23-24).

         Douglass sent a lengthy letter to Mayor Lattanzi and the Clairton City Council dated December 10, 2015. (Pl. Ex. B, Docket No. 20-2). In the letter, she describes her background as a parole officer and notes problems that she believes many parolees have reintegrating into the community, including issues with local halfway houses such as overcrowding, a lack of certain programming she believes would be beneficial and other support. (Id. at 2). She states that she would “like to open a residential setting for offenders that would house appropriately 15 residents.” (Id.). Douglass continues that “[t]his establishment would offer a safe secure environment for offenders who are serious about changing their lives. My hope, also, is to offer some types of rehabilitative services, or training in the church area.” (Id.). She mentions drug and alcohol counseling, job training and other types of reentry programming that she plans to provide to the residents. (Id.). She adds that the location she has chosen is 622 Delaware Avenue. (Id.). In closing, Douglass points out that she is aware that there may be some public opposition to her project but asks the Mayor and City Council to consider and support her plans. (Id.).

         B. Delaware Avenue Property

         The Delaware Avenue property is the former site of Saint Paulinis Roman Catholic Church and consists of at least two buildings, i.e., a church; and a residence/rectory. (Docket No. 20 at ¶¶ 17). The Church was closed by the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 2007. (Id. at ¶ 22). The rectory was last occupied approximately three years ago (i.e., around 2014) by a pastor of a nearby church. (Id. at ¶ 21). The site is located in a residential zoning district within the City of Clairton. (Id. at ¶ 20). Cornerstone avers that the location is “on the fringe of a single family residential neighborhood” but that “[c]ommercial uses are also immediately proximate.” (Id.).

         Cornerstone initiated negotiations with the Diocese of Pittsburgh to purchase the property at some point in late 2015 or early 2016. (Docket No. 20 at ¶ 25). Cornerstone made an offer which was acceptable to the Diocese and the Finance Council of Saint Claire of Assisi Parish approved the terms. (Id. at ¶ 27). An agreement of sale was executed between Cornerstone and the Diocese on March 31, 2017. (Id. at ¶¶ 27-28). The terms of the agreement include a 270-day zoning approval contingency, meaning that the agreement will expire at the end of 2017 if the zoning is not approved. (Id. at 28).

         C. Meeting With City Officials and Zoning Proceedings

         At some point prior to the execution of the agreement of sale, Douglass “modified her intentions for the property to include only those with drug or alcohol addictions in need of stable housing to support their recovery and to not limit occupants to those who were or had been involved in the criminal justice system.” (Docket No. 20 at ¶ 26). After she completed the deal with the Diocese, Douglass requested a meeting with City officials for the purpose of explaining in more detail the intended use and to seek their support. (Id. at ¶ 29). She also wanted to address the previously expressed opposition to her proposal held by some in Clairton that “heroin is not a sickness, it is a choice and Clairton is trying to get drug users out, not bring them in.” (Id. at ¶ 30). The meeting was held on April 4, 2017 with unnamed council members, the City Manager and City Solicitor in attendance. (Id. at ¶ 32).

         On April 20, 2017, Cornerstone submitted a formal application to Clairton requesting that a certificate of occupancy issue for its use of the rectory building on the property as a “single family dwelling.” (Docket No. 20 at ¶ 32). The following explanation was included as an attachment:

Attachment to application for single family dwelling occupancy permit.
This application pertains to the residential structure (a former residence for clergy) on the premises. The church structure on the premises will not be presently used.
Cornerstone Residency is a sober living residence for men recovering from addiction to alcohol and/or drugs.
To qualify for Cornerstone, individuals must have been and be actually addicted to drugs or alcohol, must be in recovery, and must be unable to live independently or with their families without suffering a relapse. These individuals suffer from a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities including their ability to live independently and their ability to work. This determination will be made prior to residency.
Cornerstone's role is to provide a single family dwelling and ensure that all residents are in recovery, in need of this residence to support their recovery and are meeting residence standards including that residents are living together as a family and providing needed support for each other. Residents have their own bedrooms and share all other living spaces, responsibilities and activities. As this addiction is lifelong, their residency is expected to be for a substantial period or permanent.

(Docket No. 20-1). The parties agree that this application for a certificate of occupancy was denied by Clairton. However, they dispute when and why the application was denied.

         Cornerstone alleges that Douglass and Glagola had discussions about this application; an inspection was initially scheduled; but Glagola sent an email to Douglass on May 1, 2017, cancelling the inspection and stating “that is not a permitted use in that zoning district. The city is in the process of responding to the application.” (Docket No. 20 at ¶¶ 33). In reply, Douglass requested that an inspection be conducted, reiterating that the application was for the rectory only and did not include the church building. (Id. at ¶¶ 34). Glagola once again denied this request. (Id. at ¶¶ 35). Cornerstone contends that the reason for the denial was that Glagola and Clairton officials determined that the proposed use was a “Treatment Center” under the Zoning Ordinance, which, as is explained below, is not a permitted use in the location of the rectory. Cornerstone submits that this interpretation is supported by the December 2015 letter which Douglass sent to City officials. (Pl. Ex. B, Docket No. 20-2).

         Defendants have a different view. They point to the letter that Glagola sent Douglass/Cornerstone a letter dated May 30, 2017 wherein he states that Clairton referred the application to the “City Building Code Official for review under the Commonwealth Uniform Construction Code Standard (PA UCC).” (Docket No. 23-1). Glagola concludes that he is “returning the original copy [of the application] to you, but I have submitted a copy of such to the Building Code Official for reference. Once approved by the BCO, please feel free to resubmit to the Clairton Zoning Department for further action.” (Id.). In further correspondence dated May 30, 2017, the Building Code Official, Craig I. McVicker, writes to Douglass/Cornerstone that the application “has been denied for occupancy purposes relevant to the Commonwealth UCC Section 403.27 & 28 Uncertified Structure, ” cites the relevant provisions, and concludes that Cornerstone was required to submit an engineering report in support of the application. (Docket Nos. 20 at ¶ 46; 20-3, Pl. Ex. “C”).

         Although Cornerstone disagreed that an engineering report was required, it subsequently obtained one from Gary J. Miller, Structural Engineering Services, which is dated June 10, 2017 and notes that the building has been deemed “structurally adequate” and submitted same to Clairton. (Docket Nos. 20 at ¶¶ 47-48; 20-4, Pl. Ex. “D”). However, Cornerstone admits that it has taken no further action with respect to its application, including that it did not appeal the denial of the application to the Zoning Hearing Board. (See Docket No. 24 at 2, n.1 (“Plaintiff does not dispute that an appeal to the Clairton Zoning Hearing Board was not filed following the Zoning Officer's denial of its occupancy permit application.”)). Cornerstone is not presently operational because the deal with the Diocese has not closed and it does not have a facility for its sober house.

         D. Pertinent Zoning Provisions

         Clairton is divided into a number of different zoning districts and its Zoning Ordinance regulates the “use” of properties or the “purpose for which land or a building is arranged, designed or intended or for which land or a building is or may be occupied or maintained” in each of those zoning districts. See City of Clairton, Zoning Ordinance (“Zoning Ordinance”) at § 337-12 (enacted 7/8/14).[1] The former parish rectory at issue in this case is zoned R-2, which is a medium density residential zoning classification. Id. at § 337-14. Relevant here, Clairton's ordinances provide the following regarding specific uses in the R-2 zone: (1) a single family dwelling is a permitted use; (2) a “group home” is a conditional use, subject to approval by the Zoning Hearing Board; and, (3) a “treatment center” is not permitted in a residential zone. See Id. at Table 301. The Zoning Ordinance separately defines each of these “uses.” Id. at 337-12.

         To this end, a single family detached dwelling is defined as “[a] building occupied by only one dwelling unit, and having no party wall in common with an adjacent building.” Zoning Ordinance at § 337-12. A “dwelling unit” is “[o]ne or more living or sleeping rooms with cooking and sanitary facilities for one person or one family.” Id. Finally, a “family” is defined as:

[o]ne or more individuals who are “related” to each other by blood, marriage or adoption (including persons receiving formal foster care) or up to 5 unrelated individuals who maintain a common household with common cooking facilities and certain rooms in common, and who live within one dwelling unit. The foregoing restrictions do not apply to persons with disabilities as defined in the Fair Housing Act, 42 USC § 3601 et seq.

Id. at 337-12 (emphasis added).

         A “Group Home” constitutes the following:

A dwelling unit operated by a responsible individual, family or organization with a program to provide a supportive living arrangement for individuals where special care is needed by the persons served due to age, emotional, mental, developmental or physical disability. This definition shall expressly include facilities for the supervised care of persons with disabilities subject to protection under the Federal Fair Housing Act as amended. Group Homes must be licensed where required by any appropriate government agencies, and a copy of any such license must be delivered to the Zoning Officer prior to the initiation of the use. A Group Home typically involves an individual residing on the premises for more than 30 days at a time.
(a) Group Homes shall be subject to the same limitations and regulations by the City as the type of dwelling unit they occupy.
(b) It is the express intent of the City to comply with all provisions of the Federal Fair Housing Act, as amended, and regulationspromulgatedthereunder, inthe construction of this term.
(c) A Group Home shall not include a "Treatment Center."

Id. at 337-12 (emphases added). The Zoning Ordinance provides the following additional regulations of Group Homes:

         T. Group homes

1. Shall not be located on lots of less than six thousand (6, 000) square feet, nor on lots having less than four hundred (400) square feet for every sleeping room or for every two (2) beds, whichever is greater.
2. Such uses shall have side yards of not less than ten (10) feet.
3. Shall not be approved unless plans prepared by an architect or engineer are submitted which clearly indicate that adequate light, ventilation and fireproofing are provided and that the dwelling facility and its accommodations shall be functional and convenient with regard to the specified needs of the group to be housed in the facility.
4. Group homes shall be approved only after the Council has found that plans and programs for management of the group residence or facility are adequate and appropriate to the population to be housed and that adequate provisions have been made to assure the safety and welfare of the residents of the facility and of the adjacent neighborhood.
5. A group residential facility shall not include business or professional offices (other than incidental offices), business activities, fraternal or social clubs, hospitals, clinics or other such activities.
6. On-site parking facilities shall be provided at the ratio of one (1) off-street space for every two (2) full-time staff members, one (1) additional space for every non-staff resident permitted by the sponsor to operate a motor vehicle, plus two (2) additional spaces.
7. A license or certification shall be obtained from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or the county, if applicable, prior to the issuance of a certificate of occupancy. In the event that an appropriate licensing or certifying agency does not exist, the applicant shall demonstrate to the governing body that the proposal for establishing such a ...

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