Coppola v. Smith Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, 2019 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 405 (May 2, 2019)
If an individual submits a letter of objections regarding a land use application and the letter is not read into the record at the land use hearing, the individual generally cannot appeal the decision unless the individual acted in good faith and complied with the board’s rules. If the individual acted in good faith and complied with the board’s rules, it is proper practice to remand the board’s decision for an additional hearing where all parties can contest or answer the objections.
Applicant submitted a conditional use application to the Township Board of Supervisors (Board) to construct a natural gas processing facility in a residential zoning district. A nearby resident (Objector) presented a letter of objections to the Board prior to the first hearing. The letter was not read into the record and the Objector was not in attendance at either of the two hearings on the application. Objector was unaware that her letter was not read into the record. The Board granted Applicant’s application after the second hearing.
The Objector appealed the Board’s decision to the Trial Court. Applicant argued that the Objector had not obtained “party status” for appeal purposes because the letter was not read into the record at either hearing and Applicant was unable to contest or answer the objections. The Trial Court stated that the Objector’s letter was valid to obtain party status because it was submitted on the same day as the Board’s first hearing, the Board was made aware of the letter, and the Board did not explain what steps were necessary to preserve the Objector’s appeal rights.
On further appeal, the Commonwealth Court addressed whether the Objector made a timely appearance of record by submitting the letter to the Board. The Court stated that letters to a board that are not part of the record deprive other parties of the opportunity to answer or contest the matters they contain. Therefore, “letters are generally inadequate to preserve issues for appellate review.” However, if an individual submits such a letter in good faith and complies with all rules established by the board, the better practice is to remand the case and admit the letter into the record, allowing other parties an opportunity to respond. Here, the Objector submitted her letter in good faith because it thoroughly expressed her concerns regarding the application, it was submitted on the same day as the Board’s first hearing, and the Board was made aware of the letter. In addition, since the Board had no clear rules in place, the Board should have informed the Objector that the letter would not be made part of the record and, therefore, would not be part of the Board’s consideration unless the Objector presented it at the hearing. Because the Objector submitted her letter in good faith and the Board had no rules to which the Objector could comply, the Court remanded the application back to the Board to hold an additional hearing where all parties could contest or answer the objections in the letter.
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