Sewickley Heights farm dispute may continue despite decision

Friday, May 17, 2019 | 6:00 AM

The Sewickley Heights Borough zoning hearing board has made a decision in an ongoing dispute between the owners of the 32-acre Dundee Farm and Fields property and the borough. But Theresa Fetterolf, who co-owns the farm with her husband, said the dispute is not over.

Sewickley Heights had served the Fetterolfs with a cease-and-desist order in October 2017, saying activities that included religious retreats, fundraisers and weddings were not permitted in the historical-rural residential zone where the farm is located.

After the Fetterolfs filed a federal religious-rights lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Marilyn J. Horan ruled in October 2018 that the issue had to be resolved locally. The Fetterolfs still have the option to re-file the suit.

On April 25, the zoning hearing board decided that the Fetterolfs were using their property as a commercial venue and event space, in violation of borough zoning ordinance.

“The use of the property as a business for the hosting of weddings, festivals and other large-scale events, as well as the frequency, size, and intensity of these events, was inconsistent with the residential and agricultural uses permitted in the Historical-Rural Residential Zoning District,” stated a letter from the borough dated May 9.

It was addressed to residents and signed by borough Mayor John C. Oliver and council President S. Phil Hundley.

Neighbors of the Fetterolfs told the Sewickley Herald in November that they had taken issue with the events because they drew large crowds that were infringing on their properties. The number of weddings held by the Fetterolfs has increased in recent years, according to Linda Pell and Sylvia Dallas.

“This was not and never has been about preventing the Fetterolfs from engaging in farming or practicing their religion,” stated the letter from Sewickley Heights.

It also cited a recent state Supreme Court decision addressing the negative impacts that using a property as a commercial space can have on residential districts.

According to the decision, residential zoning districts are created to insulate areas from increased noise and traffic, protect children and their ability to utilize quiet, open spaces and maintain a neighborhood’s residential character.

Fetterolf has denied multiple claims made by the borough. Faith-based activities were specifically mentioned as violations in the borough’s cease-and-desist order, and Fetterolf stated that these fellowship activities are part of her normal faith practices.

During a period of less than one month in the summer of 2017, Sewickley Heights documented 800 cars entering the Dundee Farms property. But Fetterolf said she has testified that nearly 600 of these were her family’s own vehicles and that the borough also documented animals, as well as people on farm equipment and on foot.

Fetterolf said the property existed as a commercial farm long before she purchased it in 2003, and that events had occurred before current neighbors moved in.

“I bought a commercial farm, and I can have customers every day come to my commercial farm. That needs to be understood, that people moved beside an operating commercial farm,” said Fetterolf.

She added that the Sewickley Heights decision could set a dangerous precedent for farmers across the state that routinely host commercial events like apple festivals and pumpkin patches.

The cease-and-desist order mentioned specific fundraisers, six weddings, educational events and religious retreats held on the Fetterolf property. It deemed these events violations of borough zoning ordinances that are not protected by the Pennsylvania Right to Farm Act.

The act is designed to limit the circumstances under which farms can be subjected to nuisance suits and ordinances. The October 2017 order said activities must be connected to the preparation, harvest or production of agricultural goods in order to be covered.

Fetterolf said that activities on her property are covered as an accessory use for marketing purposes, citing testimony from Susan Bucknum, a former state deputy attorney general. Bucknum testified before the Sewickley Heights zoning hearing board on behalf of the Fetterolfs in October. Her office, Bucknum Law, did not return a message requesting comment for this report.

“I cannot go forward with faith-based events, I cannot go forward with farm-to-table, I cannot go forward with normal farming operations,” said Fetterolf in reference to the April 25 decision and its implications.

As of May 13, the Fetterolfs were consulting with their attorneys on possible action. According to a spokeswoman from the state Department of Agriculture, it is up to private individuals to bring civil suits regarding potential violations of the Right to Farm Act.

“I own a commercial farm,” said Fetterolf, “and I’m seeking to use my commercial farm as the state deems normal.”