Peters Township council was within its rights in October to order the demolition of a storage area and partial structure next to Arrowhead Trail because not enough has been done over decades to complete the project, a Washington County judge has ruled.
Edward A. Courtney Jr. and his wife, Susan, of Venetia, purchased the commercial property in the 200 block of Valley Brook Road in 1996 and submitted their first proposal to renovate the structure the following year. Various steps followed, but by 2006, township Planning Director Ed Zuk notified the Courtneys of what he called “numerous complaints” about stalled construction.
The financial crisis of 2008 resulted in a suspension of the Courtneys’ efforts, and Courtney experienced “several unforeseen serious illnesses,” Judge Michael Lucas wrote in dissolving and vacated a preliminary injunction he had handed down Nov. 12 and heard testimony and argument last week.
According to the township, it had the patience of Job, the judge wrote in a footnote, which applies “to those who nobly persevere in the face of overwhelming hardships.”
Township solicitor John Smith said perhaps “the township is guilty of being too lenient and providing too many extensions.... Someone falls and gets hurt in that building, they probably won’t go after the Courtneys, they’ll go after the township. It’s a safety issue.”
The Courtneys’ attorney, Todd Pappasergi, argued that the property “doesn’t look how the township wants it to look. It cannot take it down by municipal fiat.” He told the judge the police or fire departments had not been called about problems occurring there.
A one-story building would be commercially viable, Pappasergi said, but if the township’s planned demolition takes place “they might as well take it by eminent domain and make it a parking lot for the trail.”
The property is adjacent to Brush Run, a tributary of Chartiers Creek that is described by the Department of Environmental Protection as being in a 100-year flood plain.
“Despite the passage of 31 months since (William) Muzzey’s demolition notice, the Courtneys’ structure lacks a roof, utility services, site plan approval and a building permit,” Lucas wrote.
The state of the property “adversely affects the public interest,” the judge wrote. “Though no fire or injuries have occurred, the structure has been a site for minor criminal mischief as shown by graffiti depicted on an interior wall. The structure adjoins a recreational trail and has the potential to be an attractive nuisance to young adults.
“More importantly, the township has an interest in having its ordinances and regulations ultimately enforced. In the setting of the demolition of a structure, if a property owner fails to repair or eliminate the dangerous condition within a reasonable time, then the municipality has the ability to abate the public nuisance.”
He cited from case law examples of 30 days, 90 days or even four months. Peters Township’s “extension of mercy” should not be constructed as a surrender or waiver of its enforcement powers, according to Lucas.
“The mere delay in enforcing an ordinance does not create a vested right in the property owner to continue to use his or her property in violation of the ordinance.”