Township board defers ruling on events at Foxley Farm
By Richard Gazarik and Jewels Phraner
Published: Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 9:00 p.m.
The owners of Foxley Farm in Ligonier Township are seeking to resolve differences about whether weddings and other events can be held at the historic farm and bed and breakfast by seeking an agreement with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and a variance from the township zoning board.
At the township level, owners PJ and Maggie Nied applied for a variance to allow for “farm supporting activities” ranging from farm tours and educational camps to weddings and weeklong farm stays in the building that dates to the 18th century. About 50 people who attended the Nov. 27 meeting of the zoning hearing board seemed to be evenly divided over the issue.
The Nieds say the activities should be considered part of the already-approved agriculture use of the facility because income from the activities will go to the 60-acre farm off Barron Road.
“Every farm is, by its very nature, a commercial enterprise,” said Ligonier farmer Jim Fulmer. “The reason you don't have farms in the (Ligonier) Valley like you used to is because farmers have to diversify, be creative, be ingenious to keep their farms going. What (the Nieds) are trying to do is farm by using creative, ingenious ideas to keep the farm going.”
Zoning Officer Cindy Angelo said the events fall under commercial activity in the zoning ordinance and are not permitted in a residential district without supervisors' approval.
Several neighbors have hired Pittsburgh-based attorney William Sittig to oppose events being held at Foxley Farm.
“My clients very much support the agriculture and farming aspect of the business,” said Sittig. But allowing activities such as weddings and events to fall under an agricultural use “opens up a Pandora's Box.”
“Farming and agriculture is a permitted use in the four districts that encompass nearly all of the land in Ligonier Township,” Sittig said. “This will set a precedent that says these activities are permitted nearly anywhere in the township.”
The board issued no decision on the variance, electing to keep the case record open for at least six weeks until a transcript of the Nov. 27 proceedings can be produced. The board will vote after the record closes.
Meanwhile, the Nieds and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy are trying to reach an agreement.
A tentative agreement was detailed in a Sept. 5 hearing before Westmoreland County Judge Gary Caruso, pending a final order. But neither party has signed it.
The conservancy sought an injunction in August to block the Nieds from holding functions at the estate, records show.
The conservancy said the events violated its 1979 legal agreement with the property's previous owner, late businessman Burt Todd, who wanted to prevent development of the rustic property, records indicate.
The agreement with Todd — called a conservation easement — permanently restricted how the land could be used and carried over to future owners if the property was sold, according to the conservancy.
Maggie Nied said lawyers from both sides were “fighting over two words” in the agreement, which has prevented it from becoming official.
Conservancy spokeswoman Allison Schleisinger said both parties scheduled a conference call with Caruso in mid-November.
“Our counsel extended an olive branch, basically, and agreed to make some minor changes in an effort to expedite things,” Schleisinger said.
The agreement was sent out to be signed on Nov. 28, Schleisinger said.
“I want to promote farming and maintain a farm, preserve it. And I want to do what I can to sustain it. I'm just happy I can still do that and be a pioneer in agritourism,” Nied said.
The settlement permits the Nieds to use the property for weddings, seminars, conferences, as well as a bed and breakfast. They will be allowed to hold four events during the first year of the agreement that will involve the use of tents, a transcript shows.
They will be allowed to install an awning over a rear patio, according to the agreement. If the awning is not installed within 22 months, the Nieds will not be able to hold additional events involving tents, according to the proposed settlement.
The Nieds, who also own the Ligonier Country Inn in Laughlintown, purchased the farm last year from the Todd estate. Since then, they have held a variety of events at the site, including weddings, charity events, local school events, corporate parties and reunions.
In March, the conservancy asked the Nieds to stop holding events, but in May the couple held a prom for Ligonier Valley High School and a graduation ceremony for the Achievement House Cyber Charter School, according to court records.
In a letter to the conservancy, the Nieds' attorney, M. Lawrence Shields III, warned the couple would go to court to have a judge decide how the farmland could be used.
The Nieds accused the conservancy of trying to eliminate competition by restricting their business opportunities and “selectively” enforcing conservation easements, according to their response to the nonprofit's injunction request.
They said the Powdermill Nature Reserve in Rector, owned by the Carnegie Institute and subject to the same type of easement, regularly holds social events, according to court documents.
They also said the Barn at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater — operated by the conservancy near Mill Run, Fayette County — holds weddings, conferences and other social events, even though it is subject to the same easement as Foxley Farm.
Enterprise Bank, which loaned the couple $2.3 million for the Foxley Farm project, said the conservancy was jeopardizing the Nieds' ability to repay the loan, according to court records.
Richard Gazarik and Jewels Phraner are a staff writers for Trib Total Media. Gazarik can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Phraner can be reached at 724-850-1218 or email@example.com.
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