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Is farm’s use a zoning or religious rights violation?

August 20, 2018
Is farm's use a zoning or religious rights violation?
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This photo from Dundee Farm and Fields’ Facebook page details some of the events slated at the historic farm in Sewickley Heights.

A lingering dispute between the owners of a 32-acre Sewickley Heights farm and borough officials appears to be headed to a court-led resolution program.

But attorneys for both sides aren’t talking about it, as has been the case for more than a year with regards to the matter.

Sewickley Heights officials say they are only enforcing the borough’s zoning ordinance, which doesn’t allow events like those that are held at what is locally known as the Dundee Farm. The farm is in a a historical rural and residential zone and doesn’t have a variance..

To the property owners, Scott and Theresa Fetterolf, the borough’s enforcement of the local law violates their religious and civil rights.

The two sides have been at loggerheads since October 2017 and have spent much of the time since in continuing, but-as-yet unresolved zoning board meetings. On July 18, the Fetterolfs, represented by the Harrisburg-based Independence Law Center, filed a federal religious-rights lawsuit.

That suit has been designated for placement in the court’s Alternative Dispute Resolution program, according to a notice issued Aug. 6 by U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti.

No dates have been set for when the court-led dispute resolution program will begin.

Neither Sewickley Heights solicitor Laura Stone nor the lawyers at the Independence Law Center responded to requests for comment for this story.

The lawsuit said the 32-acre property has been used for such events by its prior owner “for many decades.”

That owner, Nancy Doyle Chalfant, one of the founders of the nonprofit Verland, “opened her home, and her beloved Dundee Farm, to church retreats, seminary picnics, youth groups and many other organizations she supported,” according to her 2012 obituary.

The Fetterolfs attended church with Chalfant and bought the property in 2003, Allegheny County real estate records show. According to the lawsuit, the Fetterolfs bought the property “to carry on the traditions started by Chalfant.”

They did so without incident until Oct. 5, 2017, when the borough served a notice of violation and cease and desist order on the Fetterolfs that said activities including a Bible study, worship night, religious retreats and fundraisers were not permitted in the borough’s historical rural and residential zone without a variance.

The Fetterolfs appealed to the borough’s zoning hearing board.

On July 27, Sewickley Heights officials provided their first comments on the matter in a three-page letter that was sent to residents.

In it Mayor John C. Oliver III and borough council President S. Phil Hundley addressed what they called “an escalating campaign of legal maneuvering and the public dissemination of misleading information” about the dispute.

When the federal suit was filed, the attorneys representing the Fetterolfs said they were merely defending the couple’s rights to have religious activities in their home.

“The borough has no business overseeing a group of people reading and discussing a book together on private property -- even if that book is the Bible,” Randall Wenger, chief counsel for the Independence Law Center, said after the lawsuit was filed.

Borough officials said the dispute is being “mischaracterized,” according to the letter they sent.

Zoning is a “balancing act” the letter stated. It attempts to allow property owners to use and enjoy their land “so long as their use does not impinge on the equal rights of their neighbors.”

In the summer of 2017, the borough documented more than 800 vehicles entering the Fetterolfs property to attend events there.

“Making one’s property available as a venue for secular and non-secular public and private events on a regular and continuous basis, as an income-producing venture or others, is not permitted in the zoning district where the Fetterolfs’ property is located,” the borough said in the letter.

Instead of acknowledging the violation and complying, the Fetterolfs are “claiming that the borough’s enforcement action is violating their right to farm and conduct Bible study -- in essence arguing that they have a right to continue these impermissible uses under the guise of farming and religion,” according to the letter.

“We state, in no uncertain terms, that the borough’s zoning action is not and never has been an attempt to prevent the Fetterolfs from farming or practicing their religion. The borough has neither the interest nor the right to regulate either beyond the limits of local zoning,” the letter stated.

The Fetterolfs have refused to comply with the zoning regulations and permitting procedures, which include completing an application for public events -- something, the borough says, the Fetterolfs have equated to as a ban on Bible studies.

In bold type, the letter refuted that: “To be clear, no borough approval is required for Bible study, which is commonly understood to be the private gathering of small groups in residents’ homes for worship, discussion and fellowship in which the property owners participate and do not charge fees to other participants.”

The letter also raised safety concerns the borough has about the public use of a barn on the farm, which during a zoning hearing board meeting the Fetterolfs testified under oath was not built to standards as buildings designed for public use.

“The borough cannot ignore the safety hazards associated with the use of this barn as a commercial venue and public event space,” the letter stated.

It also detailed how the Fetterolfs’ lawsuit has brought media scrutiny to the borough and that borough staff have received calls, voice mails and emails “many of a threatening nature” from across the country.

The letter sought input from the residents on the issue. Borough officials weren’t available to comment about whether they had received any such input.

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