Ligonier Twp. zoning board upholds decision
Ligonier residents Maggie and PJ Nied will continue the fight to offer a venue for events and overnight stays at Foxley Farm, despite a Ligonier Township Zoning Hearing Board decision last week that says such events are prohibited on the property.
At its Feb. 26 meeting, the Zoning Hearing Board upheld the rejection of an occupancy permit application filed by the Nieds to play host to events such as weddings, fundraisers, corporate events or farm stays at the 60-acre property off of Barron Road.
The Nieds argue that any “farm-supporting” activity generating money necessary to keep the farm running should be allowed as an accessory farm business, something that's allowed by the township's zoning ordinance. They also said such activities fell under the umbrella terms of “agritourism” or “agritainment,” a new concept that promotes visits to farms for recreation, entertainment or education.
“I'm trying to save a farm,” Maggie Nied said. “I'm trying to keep the farm from being subdivided out and turned into commercial entities like what has happened to so many farms in this area. That's why agritourism is so important for the Valley.”
Maggie Nied said the property will be farmed 365 days a year.
“Having a wedding 20 times a year will make it possible for me to maintain a historic building that was in disarray,” she said.
The Zoning Hearing Board said in its decision that weddings and other events on the farm do not meet any township definition for the types of businesses allowed in a residential district.
Agritourism and agritainment “clearly refer to farm-related activities which arise out of the unique nature of a farmland and/or agricultural operation. ... It is disingenuous to designate a wedding reception, a political fundraiser, a corporate event or an after-prom party as a ‘farm-related activity' merely because it takes place on a farm.
“To do so would make a sailor out of any person who gets married on a cruise ship or a fireman out of any person who holds a reception at a fire hall,” states the board's decision, written by solicitor Donna J. McClelland.
McClelland, a Greensburg-based attorney, subbed for the board's usual solicitor due to a conflict of interest. The decision comes after a Nov. 27 hearing, where more than 50 people attended.
Some neighbors to the property say they're concerned about noise, traffic, the farm's sewage capacity and the visual impact of hundreds of cars parked on the property for large events.
“We bought our home seven years ago in a rural, quiet area, seeking it to be maintained that way,” said Christopher Turner, who lives across from the farm.
Turner and other neighbors hired Pittsburgh-based attorney William Sittig to represent them in the township proceedings.
“It appears to me it's as if the Nieds have come in and tried to manipulate the zoning ordinance to suit a highly commercial goal. If any one property in a residential district can do this, then why can't everyone (host these kind of events)? That would make the area less attractive to residents and tourists alike.” he said.
After the decision was announced at the Feb. 26 board meeting, PJ Nied said he planned to appeal it.
“We believe we meet the intent of the township's zoning ordinance,” Nied said.
The Nieds have been fighting for their vision of Foxley Farm since appearing before the township's planning commission in February 2011, more than five months before they purchased the property for about $2 million.
Planning commissioners recommended the approval of the Nieds original application for a bed and breakfast facility, after the Nieds revised the application to include only events of fewer than 100 people.
The Supervisors approved the bed and breakfast application in April 2011 with a laundry list of conditions. The Nieds withdrew the application more than one year later, citing that such events (without the conditions) would be allowed as an accessory farm business.
The couple is also trying to reach an agreement with the Western Pennsylvanian Conservancy.
In August, the conservancy sought an injunction to block the Nieds from holding functions, court records show.
Conservancy officials said the events violated a 1979 legal agreement with the property's previous owner, late businessman Burt Todd, who wanted to prevent development of the rustic property.
On Sept. 5, a tentative agreement was read in court before Westmoreland County Judge Gary Caruso.
The agreement remains unsigned.
Jewels Phraner is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-1218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.