Sewickley Heights officials break silence on Dundee Farm religious-rights dispute
Sewickley Heights officials broke their silence in a lengthy zoning dispute with the owners of an historic borough farm that’s escalated into a federal religious-rights lawsuit.
Mayor John C. Oliver III and borough council President S. Phil Hundley signed a three-page letter dated Wednesday that was sent to borough residents to address the issues raised by Scott and Theresa Fetterolf, who on July 18 filed a federal lawsuit against the borough alleging the borough’s attempts to stop them from hosting Bible studies and other religious events at the 32-acre Dundee Farm violated their civil rights and other federal laws governing religion.
Sewickley Heights is a quaint borough of about 800 people that’s nestled in the rolling hills above Sewickley about 15 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
The letter addressed what borough officials say is “an escalating campaign of legal maneuvering and the public dissemination of misleading information” about the dispute.
The Fetterolfs’ didn’t respond to an email seeking comment to the issues raised in the letter.
It started in October 2017, when the borough attempted to halt activities including a Bible study, worship night, religious retreats and fundraisers at the farm. The borough claimed those were not permitted under its historical rural and residential zone without a variance.
The Fetterolfs appealed the matter and the case remains unresolved before the borough’s zoning hearing board.
“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,” said Randall Wenger, chief counsel for the Independence Law Center, which has filed a federal lawsuit against the borough on behalf of the Fetterolfs this month.
Borough officials said the dispute is being “mischaracterized,” according to the letter sent Wednesday.
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.