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Ligonier plan biased, resident says

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Special counsel Mark Hamilton's proposal to allow agricultural tourism in Ligonier Township should be rejected because it favors Foxley Farm, said a neighbor of the farm.

Resident Chris Turner submitted a right-to-know request on April 17 to township officials and Hamilton, who serves as special counsel on Foxley Farm matters, to learn about Hamilton's meetings with attorneys doing business with the farm. On April 15, Hamilton submitted to supervisors a proposed amendment to add “agritourism” as a conditional use in four districts, including three that are zoned residential.

Foxley Farm owners PJ and Maggie Nied want to host weddings and other events, which are not permitted on the residentially zoned property under the current ordinance. And Hamilton's proposal grants their wish, Turner said.

“What he presented was so completely contrary to existing zoning and so overwhelmingly supportive of everything the Nieds had been doing and want to do at Foxley Farm,” Turner said. “It is not an even-handed proposal at all, and it doesn't deserve recognition or further consideration.”

Last year, the township went to Westmoreland County court for an injunction. Turner and two other neighbors intervened, and an agreement was reached to allow some events. Most recently, the Nieds have applied to the township planning commission to run a bed and breakfast and to gain approval for “social/recreational club use” to host weddings and other events.

Hamilton said he met with attorney Shawn Gallagher, who represents the Nieds on zoning applications, and Joseph Fidler, the in-house counsel for Enterprise Bank, which issued the mortgage for Foxley Farm.

Hamilton said he met Gallagher and Fidler to discuss, “No. 1, is there any way that we could resolve the litigation between Ligonier Township, Foxley Farm and the neighbors? Two, ... they had clearly suggested that Foxley Farm and similarly situated property owners intended to bring a lawsuit against Ligonier Township on various grounds ... (including) selective enforcement of the zoning ordinance.”

He said there is no conflict of interest because getting input comes with drafting legislation.

In a March 18 email to Gallagher and Fidler, Hamilton attached a draft of the amendment, “I cannot stress enough the confidential nature of this document,” he said. “While you may verbally share with your clients the nature of same, please do not share written/electronic/text copies of same with anyone outside our circle of four.

“While I invite meaningful input, I am hoping to avoid wholesale changes as this ... seems to address all of your concerns; is not overly restrictive (ie. 12 non-agriculture events/year and unlimited farm-table events); and, in its present form is designed for expedient and favorable action by the Supervisors.”

Hamilton said he “didn't want the document circulating” before his presentation, and he rejected revisions suggested by Gallagher and Fidler. In an email, Hamilton rejected allowing events with up to 149 guests without seeking a conditional use permit because “it would allow weddings every week throughout the year — just not the big ones.”

The Nieds' attorney, Patrick Doheny, declined to comment on whether any residents threatened litigation. He said he sees no problem with Hamilton “communicating with any variety of individuals as part of his duties.

“He does not work for Maggie Nied. He does not work for Chris Turner. He represents the township,” Doheny said.

Turner said he and the two neighbors want Hamilton to be removed as special counsel, and taxpayers should not pay legal costs related to the amendment.

Hamilton said he was asked to draft an agritourism ordinance when he was hired as interim solicitor in October, and he was told to continue when he became special counsel in January. Supervisor Tim Komar said he casually discussed zoning with Hamilton, but supervisors gave him “no official request” to draft an amendment.

Aside from meeting minutes detailing Hamilton's appointment and hourly fee of $115, the township does not have a document outlining his duties, according to information received through a right-to-know request filed by the Tribune-Review.

Hamilton, a township resident and a partner in a Mt. Lebanon law firm, has represented municipalities and police departments for 25 years in zoning, civil rights and employment matters.

“This is not about Chris Turner, and it's not about Maggie Nied,” he said. “It's about Ligonier Township. Does Ligonier Township wish to promote agritourism, and if it does, how does it wish to promote it, and what restrictions does it wish to impose on that promotion?”

Supervisors Paul Knupp and Scott Matson declined to comment. “I don't know that it's a conflict because we hired him as special counsel,” Komar said. “I guess you have to communicate when you're dealing with stuff like that.”

Supervisors will consider the amendment on May 13. The planning commission will review the Nieds' latest request on May 21.

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or nchynoweth@tribweb.com.

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