This case involved an appeal from a 2015 land use settlement entered into between Lower Mount Bethel Township (the “Township”) and Gravel Hill Enterprises, Inc. (“Gravel Hill”). The settlement revolved around the use of Gravel Hill’s property as a location for stump grinding to create mulch and top soil. There were concerns regarding truck traffic, increased noise, declining property values, and other issues on the part of the Township and many of its residents.
Prior to the entry of the settlement, Gravel Hill had sought a use variance to permit stump grinding and shredding. Several intervenors and neighbors appeared to oppose the application. The previous owner of Gravel Hill’s property, which was 126 acres and partially located outside of the Township (the “Property”), had used the land for the same purpose, and several fires had occurred. On this basis, and due to the many concerns raised by the Township and its residents, the Township’s zoning hearing board denied the use variance.
Gravel Hill appealed to the court of common pleas in 2014. The Township filed a notice of intervention, as well. In September 2015, the intervenors from the zoning hearing board proceedings filed a petition for intervention.
Gravel Hill and the Township reached a stipulation whereby the intervenors would be permitted to comment publicly on any settlement reached by the Township and Gravel Hill, but the court would be empowered to approve any settlement over the objections of the intervenors. Thereafter, the Township had multiple public meetings on a proposed settlement, and the intervenors participated through public comment. The settlement was revised based on the public comments, but the Township ultimately agreed to the settlement. The court subsequently approved the settlement.
The intervenors appealed the trial court’s approval. On appeal, the intervenors argued that the court abused its discretion by approving the settlement and that they had been deprived of due process. Conversely, the Township argued that the intervenors had waived their rights to appeal pursuant to the stipulation. The Township also argued that the approval was not an abuse of discretion because the trial court had complied with the procedures set forth in the stipulation.
First, the court held that, while the stipulation stated the trial court could approve a settlement over the objection of the Intervenors, the settlement agreement was silent as to whether the Intervenors could appeal. The court was unwilling to find that the Intervenors had waived this right absent express language to the contrary. Thus, the Intervenors maintained the right to appeal a settlement agreement to which they objected.
Second, the court found that the Intervenors had a full and fair opportunity to present comments and objections to the settlement agreement despite the trial court’s authority to approve a settlement over their contentions. The Intervenors had presented objections to the Township at several public meetings on the subject. Additionally, counsel for the Intervenors discussed and acknowledged the terms of the settlement at length with the court. Therefore, the Intervenors were not deprived of due process.
Finally, the Commonwealth Court held that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to exercise jurisdiction over property that was not at issue in the litigation underlying the settlement agreement. Because the Property was the only land at identified in the litigation before the Board and in Gravel Hill’s appeal to the trial court, the trial court should not have approved the settlement agreement as it pertained to property located outside of the Township.
Click here to read: Gravel Hill Enterps., Inc. v. Lower Mount Bethel Twp. Zoning Hearing Bd., No. 2619 C.D. 2015 (Pa. Commw. Ct. Oct. 30, 2017).
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