Quest Land Development Group, LLC v. Township of Lower Heidelberg, 971 A.2d 540 (Pa. Commw. 2009).

The decision by members of a Board of Supervisors denying a request for special exception is valid and enforceable despite the failure of the board members to take their official oath or file financial statements, and the void ab initio doctrine does not apply to invalidate their actions.
Case Details:

Quest concerns a request for a special exception seeking to construct 92 single-family homes in Lower Heidelberg Township.  This matter was before the Commonwealth Court in 2006, when the Court affirmed the Trial Court’s decision denying a special exception, as the zoning ordinances required public or community sewer facilities for the proposed construction and when the developer could not establish that public or community sewer could be provided, the special exception was denied.  The developer petitioned for appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on the basis of alleged after-discovered evidence.  The Supreme Court remanded the case to Commonwealth Court to determine whether the case should be reopened on the basis of after-discovered evidence in the form of deposition testimony of an alleged Board policy to deny the special exception application by improperly imposing sewer and water facility requirements.  Despite the fact that the remanded matter was pending before the Common Pleas Court, the developer filed a new cause of action against the Township and Board alleging that their decision denying the special exception was void because the Board members did not file statements of financial interest or take an oath as required by the Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, 65 Pa.C.S. §§1101 et seq.  The Township filed preliminary objections which were granted by the Trial Court, resulting in dismissal of the Complaint.  The Developer appealed.

The developer’s claim is that because the Board of Supervisors failed to take the requisite oath or file financial statements, the Supervisors did not have authority to act in denying the request for special exception, rendering the decision void ab initio under Pennsylvania law.  On Appeal, the Commonwealth Court rejected this argument.  While the Court recognized the void ab initiodoctrine which applies to invalidate certain ordinances: the effect of a finding that [an] ordinance is void ab initio means that it essentially never became law because of its procedural defects; thus, any component of the challenge that contains a time bar, or intended effective date, is deemed void for having never been properly passed.”  The Court rejected the developer’s challenge, however, as under Supreme Court precedent, the doctrine applies only to claims involving notice, due process or other constitutional rights.  Here, because the claims that Board members failed to take an oath or file financial statements do not constitute a violation of the developer’s constitutional rights, the doctrine does not apply to void the Board’s denial of the special exception.  Further, the de facto official doctrine would apply to uphold the Board’s decision, as the acts of de facto officials performed under the color of title are valid, even if their election or appointment was irregular or illegal.

Date of Decision: 4/30/09

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