Sewickley Heights residents break silence on zoning dispute at Dundee Farm

Thursday, November 8, 2018 | 3:18 PM

The dispute over the use of 32 acres on the historic Dundee Farm in Sewickley Heights remains unresolved after more than a year of hushed fighting among neighbors and borough officials.

Until recently, none of the parties involved would publicly speak about the issue.

“It’s put a wedge in the community, that’s for sure,” Pat Cady of Aleppo said.

A former Sewickley Heights resident, she is a friend and supporter of Scott and Theresa Fetterolf and their desire to operate their sheep farm, Dundee Farm and Fields, as both a working farm and an event space. Having other activities on the property – including weddings, dinners, classes and events — is allowed under Pennsylvania’s Right to Farm Act, according to Cady.

Others — including the Fetterolfs’ neighbors, Linda Pell and Sylvia Dallas, and borough officials — contend the Fetterolfs are violating the borough’s zoning ordinance and they need to stop holding such events on the property.

“It’s just disregard for your neighbor, complete disregard,” Pell said. “They have their cars coming though our property.”

The latest Sewickley Heights Zoning Board hearing on the issue was Nov. 8. It was one of several hours-long meetings that have been held since January on the zoning violations. Until the matter is resolved, the Fetterolfs can’t comment on the issue, Theresa Fetterolf said.

Neither would borough officials or neighbors, except for a letter sent to residents in July from Mayor John C. Oliver and council President S. Phil Hundley.

They kept quiet because they thought the issue would go away, Pell and Dallas, who is married to Oliver, said.

But it hasn’t and the dispute escalated into a federal civil and religious rights’ lawsuit that was filed in July by the Harrisburg-based Independence Law Center on behalf of the Fetterolfs.

The suit alleged the couple’s constitutional rights were being violated because, among the violations cited by the borough, some were ones of a religious nature.

After hearing from both sides on the matter, U.S. District Judge Marilyn J. Horan ruled on Oct. 31 that the dispute “wasn’t ripe for this court to exercise jurisdiction.”

The judge dismissed the suit, which can be refiled once the issue is resolved by the zoning board and those appeals play out.

It’s a multi-faceted dispute, and its complexity can make it hard for people to understand what’s involved, Cady said.

It’s also something that needs to be put into historical context, because Sewickley Heights isn’t just any suburban Pittsburgh community.

To an outsider, it can be described as something similar to an Americanized version of the PBS show “Downton Abbey.”

The narrow, winding roads of Sewickley Heights are where Pittsburgh aristocrats built sprawling estates in the Gilded Age — about 30 of them, with names like Wilpen Hall, Oak Knoll, Blackburn, Barberry, and, of course, Dundee Farm.

More than a century later, the forebears of those estates are long dead, but the people who live there now work to preserve the area’s pastoral character and its historic buildings.

But the Sewickley Heights zoning ordinance is vague and allows for subjective enforcement, Cady said.

The state’s Right to Farm Act also supersedes local laws, she said.

“The Right to Farm Act was enacted to allow farmers to evolve in their practices, so they can maintain the economic viability of family farms,” Cady said.

That’s what the Fetterolfs are doing by hosting such events as weddings, farm-to-table dinners, canning classes, and religious events such as Bible studies and worship nights, Cady said.

The Fetterolfs’ neighbors see it differently.

The Fetterolfs only own a portion of what once was an 90-acre farm owned by Henry Chalfant, an industrialist, and his wife Nancy Doyle Chalfant who was one of the founders of Trinity (Episcopal) Seminary in Ambridge and the non-profit Verland.

Pell lives in what she calls the cottages – where the Chalfant’s chauffeur and gardener once lived — and Dallas and Oliver live in an adjacent home the Chalfants also built on the property.

Their issues with the Fetterolfs are about how the events at Dundee Farm attract crowds that bring increased traffic to the private lane where their houses are located off of Scaife Road.

“It’s not about the farming. It’s not about the prayer groups. It’s weddings, fundraisers, commercial events (at the farm),” Pell said. “That’s what we have issues with. It’s not just friends or family or neighbors or church members. It’s a lot of people.”

“They obviously want it to be a commercial venue,” Dallas said.

Such a venue is not permitted in the historical rural and residential zone without a variance.

An online search of events held at Dundee Farm yields results of several weddings since the Fetterolfs bought the property in 2003, and they’ve increased in recent years, Pell and Dallas said.

The Company Band, a national private events band, lists the farm as one of their favorite venues to perform at in the Pittsburgh area.

Noise can be heard at their homes when the Fetterolfs are hosting an event, and visitors have peered into their windows and explored their properties because they think it’s part of the venue, Pell and Dallas said.

The Fetterolfs have marked their property line with yellow tape and installed cameras that record footage at the property line.

Pell and Dallas say they have tried to resolve the issue privately with the Fetterolfs, although Cady says that is not the case.

“It’s just a bunch of shenanigans,” is how Pell described how the dispute has escalated over the last year.

It’s cost the borough and the Fetterolfs money — Dallas said the borough has spent more than $300,000 in legal fees over the course of it — and Cady said it’s money that could be better spent.

“I’m saddened by what it’s done to the town,” Cady said. “It’s Terri (Fetterolf’s) desire to settle. She doesn’t want to spend any more money, but she wants to use her property as lawfully permitted.”

“We have a very special community here. This (enforcing the zoning law) is important to the integrity of how we live. We’re going to fight for the community,” Dallas said.

Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-487-7208, [email protected] or via Twitter @TribDavidson.