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Lawsuit filed in dispute over use of Ligonier Township farm for special events

| Saturday, April 11, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

The owners of a Ligonier Township farm entangled in a legal dispute over staging weddings and other special events have filed a lawsuit against current and former government officials and employees as well as six residents and a law firm, claiming violation of their rights and financial losses.

In a civil complaint filed Thursday, Foxley Farm owners Maggie and PJ Nied name Ligonier Township; the board of supervisors; Supervisors Scott Matson, Paul Knupp, Wade Thomas, Bruce Robinson and Tim Komar; former Supervisor Keith Whipkey; the zoning hearing board and members Linda McDowell, Gary Thistlethwaite and Robert Ramsey; former zoning officers Shelly Kaltenbaugh and Cynthia Angelo; former township solicitor Judith Ciszek; Avolio Law Group; attorney and township solicitors Scott E. Avolio and Michael Korns; township solicitor Gary Falatovich; and residents Christopher Turner, Carolyn Shearer Turner, Donald Korb, Carolyn Roberts Korb, David Barnhart and Sally Ann Barnhart.

“It's pretty incredible to us, just the constant bullying that has gone on,” said attorney Ryan J. Cooney, who filed the complaint on behalf of the Nieds. “I would say that there has been a concerted effort by everyone involved.”

Cooney said the filing was prompted by “over three-plus years of outrageous conduct by the local Ligonier government and those associated therewith, including (Maggie Nied's) former counsel Scott Avolio.”

Since 2013, the Nieds, six of their neighbors and the township have been involved in the dispute over use of the farm off Barron Road.

Matson, Knupp, Robinson, Komar, Korns, Avolio, McDowell, Thistlethwaite and Kaltenbaugh declined comment Friday. Thomas, Whipkey, Ramsey, Angelo, Ciszek and Falatovich could not be reached.

The township has contended that weddings and similar events aren't permitted in the residential district.

In March 2013, the township sought an injunction against the Nieds to stop them from holding commercial activities at the farm. A month later, Judge Richard E. McCormick Jr., along with the attorneys for the neighbors, the Nieds and the township, signed a consent order that limited the number of weddings. The following September, neighbors and township officials filed a contempt petition against the Nieds, alleging that they violated the agreement.

In April 2014, the Nieds filed a petition to throw out the consent order, which was denied. They appealed the decision to the state Superior Court, which was transferred to the Commonwealth Court. That court rejected the appeal, and the Nieds filed a petition to appeal with the Supreme Court, which is pending.

Now the Nieds are seeking compensatory, consequential and punitive damages, as well as prejudgment interest and attorney fees, according to the lawsuit. They demand a jury trial.

The Nieds claim the township officials and employees:

• Retaliated against the use of the couple's First Amendment rights by initiating “enforcement proceedings, the injunction action and contempt proceedings.”

• “Have taken numerous actions which are arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment.”

• “Acted in concert and conspiracy” against the Nieds.

The Nieds claim legal malpractice against their former attorney, Avolio, whose firm now serves as the solicitor for the township. The township supervisors hired Falatovich to serve as their counsel for Foxley Farm matters after they appointed Avolio to avoid a conflict of interest.

The complaint alleges that:

• Avolio failed to review the consent order with the Nieds.

• Avolio “has taken significant actions in furtherance of his position as solicitor to the detriment of the Nieds.”

• Korns, Avolio's associate, “has taken significant actions while standing in for Avolio as solicitor to the detriment of the Nieds,” including “playing an integral role in the drafting of the proposed zoning ordinance, which prohibits the Nieds' ability to conduct events on their property and use their property in the manner for which Avolio was retained by the Nieds.”

The Nieds claim the six neighbors contacted multiple people who had contracted with the Nieds and “enticed them to breach said contracts and have their weddings at the Rolling Rock Club, of which the Turners, Korbs and Barnharts are members.”

“It is the intent of the Turners, Korbs and Barnharts to drive down the price of Foxley Farms so that they can acquire the property for themselves when the Nieds are forced to sell,” the complaint states.

In addition, the Nieds are challenging the constitutionality of the township's ordinance based on its combination of zoning and land development.

Christopher Turner said the claims are “totally false,” and they have no interest in harming the Nieds.

“All we have objected to from the beginning is using the property in a manner which is contrary to uses permitted by the zoning in the township,” he said. “We have no interest in driving down the value of the property.”

Attorney Bill Sittig, who represents the Turners, Korbs and Barnharts, said the allegations have no merit. He said the lawsuit was expected and has no validity.

Sittig said his clients are considering action against the Nieds for improperly filing the lawsuit.

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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