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Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of United Methodist Church v. City of Pittsburgh

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

June 11, 2018

Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
v.
City of Pittsburgh, Appellant

          Argued: May 9, 2018

          BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, President Judge HONORABLE RENÉE COHN JUBELIRER, Judge HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge HONORABLE CHRISTINE FIZZANO CANNON, Judge

          OPINION

          ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge

         In this appeal, the City of Pittsburgh (City) asks whether the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County (trial court) erred in vacating the Council of the City of Pittsburgh's (City Council) designation of a structure as historic. The dispositive issue is whether, under the Pittsburgh Code (Code), a structure may be designated "historic" where the structure's owner objects to the designation and City Council does not vote in favor of the designation, but rather the designation occurs as a result of City Council's inaction, i.e., its deemed approval. Concluding it may not, we affirm the trial court's vacation of the "deemed" historical designation.

         I. Background

         The property at issue is located at 486 South Graham Street in the City (subject property). The subject property is improved with a structure that housed what was formerly known as the Albright Community United Methodist Church (Church). The owner of record of the subject property is the Western Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (Conference). All real estate owned by Methodist churches, although often held in the name of the local church, is encumbered by a trust imposed through church law and recognized by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Tr. Ct., Slip Op., 11/20/17, at 2 (citing W. Pa. Conference of United Methodist Church v. Everson Evangelical Church of N. Am., 312 A.2d 35 (Pa. 1973)).

         In November 2013, the Church ceased occupying the structure on the subject property. As a result, the subject property fell into a state of disrepair. When the Church became unable to maintain, support and use the subject property, the Conference began to pay certain costs and expenses and otherwise maintain and secure the subject property.

         In August 2015, certain individuals submitted a nomination to the City's Historic Review Commission (HRC) to designate the subject property as historic. This nomination included a letter on Church stationery that purported to show the owner's consent. When the Conference became aware of the nomination, it contacted the City's Law Department to notify it that the Conference was the owner of the subject property. As a result, the HRC declined to accept the first nomination petition.

         Thereafter, an individual filed a second nomination petition with the HRC to designate the structure on the subject property as historic. The Conference objected to the nomination. Despite the Conference's objection, the HRC accepted the second nomination, and it notified the Conference that it was prohibited from exercising certain property rights, including altering the exterior of the structure on the subject property.

         The Conference's Chancellor wrote to the HRC to provide further opposition to the HRC's consideration of the historic nomination. Thereafter, Conference representatives attended the HRC's February 2016 public meeting and objected to consideration of the nomination on various grounds, including that the HRC lacked jurisdiction under the Code. Over the Conference's objection, the HRC received evidence on the nomination.

         In March 2016, the HRC conducted a second hearing on the nomination at which the Conference again objected. The HRC voted to recommend that the subject property be designated historic over these objections.

         Approximately two months later, the City Planning Commission (Planning Commission) held a public hearing on the second nomination. Counsel for the Conference appeared and objected to the jurisdiction of the Planning Commission and the City concerning the second nomination. Nevertheless, the Planning Commission voted to approve the second nomination. The Planning Commission transmitted its decision to City Council.

         In June 2016, a resolution regarding the second nomination of the subject property was introduced before City Council and was read and referred to a committee. The Conference submitted a written objection to the nomination to the City Clerk in July 2016. Thereafter, City Council held a public hearing.

         Both the Conference's Chancellor and its counsel appeared at the hearing and contested the nomination and the City's jurisdiction to deem the property historic. City Council never voted on whether the subject property should be designated historic. Nevertheless, the City Clerk issued an official disposition reflecting that the status of the designation of the structure on the subject property as historic "Passed Finally" and "Passed pursuant to Case Law." Tr. Ct., Slip Op., at 4; Certified Record (C.R.), Item #1, Ex. 1. The Conference filed an appeal to the trial court.

         Before the trial court, the parties filed briefs and presented oral argument. Thereafter, the trial court issued an order sustaining the Conference's appeal and vacating the historic designation of the structure on the subject property. The City filed a notice of appeal to this Court, and the trial court directed it to file a concise statement of the errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 1925(b), which it did. The trial court subsequently issued an opinion pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 1925(a) in which it explained the rationale for its order. Of particular relevance here, the trial court explained:

The [Code] is clear in that, where the owner of a nominated property objects to the proposed historic designation, the designation of a nominated structure, site, or object shall require the affirmative vote of six (6) members of City Council. Despite the [Conference's] continuous objections at each and every step of these proceedings, the City erroneously and unconstitutionally concluded that a deemed approval occurred despite written opposition by the owner.
An approval without City Council action is only appropriate if the owner of the property failed to object to the recommendations made by the HRC and Planning Commission. In the case sub judice, the [Conference] has strenuously and consistently objected to the City's recommendation. The [Code] provides that, '[t]he designation of a nominated structure, site, or object shall require the affirmative vote of six (6) members of [City] Council if the owner or [sic] record of the property has submitted to [City] Council his or her written and signed opposition to the designation of the property[.]' [Section 1101.03(j)(2) of the Code.] An affirmative vote by six (6) members of City Council has yet to occur.

Tr. Ct., Slip Op., at 9-10 (footnotes omitted). This matter is now before us for disposition.

         II. Issues

         On appeal, the City presents three issues:

[1] Did the [trial court] abused [sic] its discretion when there was substantial evidence in the record for the [l]ocal [a]gency to find that the structure in this case was no longer being used for religious worship, and thus was not eligible for the narrowly tailored self-nomination exception for historic designation of religious structures used as ...

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