'Agritourism' attorney quits contentious Foxley Farm case

| Friday, May 16, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Ligonier Township supervisors will be looking for a new attorney in its battle over whether Foxley Farm can host agricultural tourism events on its residentially zoned property.

Attorney Mark Hamilton, who became a lightning rod for the issue, has resigned from his post.

“I'm disappointed, because I think he's a good man,” said Supervisor Tim Komar. He said a new attorney will have to be hired as special counsel.

Hamilton's resignation letter, dated May 14, is the result of supervisors voting 2-1 on Monday to shut down an “agritourism” zoning amendment he proposed to allow farms to hold social events in certain districts. The letter criticized the board majority for “an intolerance for perspectives not consistent with yours.”

The Mt. Lebanon attorney, who lives in Rector, was appointed interim solicitor in November. In January, supervisors appointed Scott Avolio as solicitor, but Hamilton was retained for matters in which Avolio had a conflict of interest, including litigation involving Foxley Farm.

Foxley Farm owners PJ and Maggie Nied want to host weddings and other events there, which are not permitted on their property under the current ordinance. The Nieds, Ligonier Township and several neighbors of the farm have been embroiled in a dispute in Westmoreland Common Pleas Court over the issue. The Nieds recently applied to the planning commission to run a bed-and-breakfast.

Some neighbors said they thought Hamilton bowed to the Nieds' interests with the proposed amendment. Hamilton said he spoke to all involved parties and submitted the proposal to start a public debate about the township's future. Hamilton discussed his proposal at the supervisors meeting, during which 16 residents aired their opinions on the zoning change. The supervisors nixed sending it to the planning commission.

In a resignation letter addressed to Supervisors Paul Knupp and Scott Matson, who cast the dissenting votes, Hamilton wrote, “Unfortunately, both of you refused to engage your electorate, and, by so doing, failed to fulfill your duty of leadership.

“Neither of you asked a single question or made any comment on the proposal at hand,” the letter said. “By voting in the negative on the motion to refer the proposed agritourism amendment to the planning commission, you foreclosed the opportunity for the commission to consider this initiative, to provide its input; and, to continue the public debate. In other words, you failed to engage the process which you were elected to administer. The residents of Ligonier Township deserve better.”

On Thursday, Knupp and Matson declined to comment.

In a message to Komar and Avolio, Hamilton said he would send a list of court dates and his final invoice.

Attorney William Sittig, who represents several neighbors of the farm who opposed Hamilton's amendment, said his clients “don't agree with the tack” Hamilton was taking with attorneys doing business with Foxley Farm.

Chris Turner submitted a right-to-know request on April 17 to township officials and Hamilton to learn about Hamilton's meetings with those attorneys. Hamilton said he had met with them as a way to possibly resolve litigation and get input for the amendment.

Sittig's clients wanted Hamilton to be removed as special counsel. “From that standpoint, we're happy to move on with other counsel,” Sittig said.

Attorney Pat Doheny, who represents the Nieds, said his clients “share in the sentiments expressed in Hamilton's resignation letter.”

“In light of what dozens of township residents got to witness at the township supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Hamilton's resignation, while unfortunate, is not exactly surprising,” Doheny said.

Hamilton, a partner with Cipriani & Werner, declined to elaborate beyond the letter.

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

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