Federal judge rules Dundee Farm dispute needs to be resolved by Sewickley Heights officials
A lingering dispute between the owners of a 32-acre Sewickley Heights farm and borough officials that ballooned into a federal civil and religious rights lawsuit needs to be resolved locally, a judge has ordered.
“The present action is not ripe for this court to exercise jurisdiction,” U.S. District Judge Marilyn J. Horan wrote in an order issued Oct. 31 in a case between the farm’s owners, Scott and Theresa Fetterolf, and Sewickley Heights.
The court dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning a federal suit the Fetterolfs filed against the borough in July can be filed again if they decide to pursue it after the borough’s zoning hearing board makes a decision about alleged zoning violations at the farm.
Sewickley Heights officials maintain they are only enforcing the borough’s zoning ordinance, which doesn’t allow events like those that are held on the Fetterolf property, which is locally known as the Dundee Farm. The farm is in a a historical rural and residential zone and doesn’t have a variance.
According to the dismissed lawsuit, the borough’s enforcement of the local law violates the Fetterolfs’ 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. The next meeting is set for 1 p.m. Nov. 8, but there is no indication that it will be resolved then.
On July 18, the Fetterolfs, represented by the Harrisburg-based Independence Law Center, filed the federal religious-rights lawsuit.
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 only 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.
Aside from the letter from Sewickley Heights officials, court papers, and statements from the Independence Law Center, neither side has publicly discussed the issue.