Posted by: Patricia Salkin | June 14, 2019

Fed. Dist. Court in PA Denies Substantive Due Process and Ethics Claims Arising from Proposal to Increase Quarrying Operations

This post was authored by Matthew Loeser, Esq.

Pierson Construction was awarded a contract by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission to widen and improve part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Pierson Materials, an affiliated entity of Pierson Construction, leased the Rockhill Quarry in East Rockhill Township. When Pierson informed the Township of its plans to lease the quarry for the Turnpike Project and its specific plans to produce asphalt, numerous local residents attended a meeting of the Township Board of Supervisors and expressed opposition to the proposed increase in quarrying operations. After a bench trial, the court enjoined the Township from interfering with operation of the quarry under the Declaratory Judgment Act, finding that exclusive jurisdiction to regulate quarry operations with resided the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”). This case involved the counterclaims of Pierson and Hanson Aggregates Pennsylvania, LLC (“Hanson”), which owned the property that contained the Rockhill Quarry.

Hanson and Pierson first claimed that the Township’s efforts to regulate the quarry and asphalt plant violated Hanson and Pierson’s Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process rights. The court declined to find that the Township officials’ actions were unrelated legitimate government goal, as responding to citizen concerns about maintaining current land use in the face of proposed changes fell well within the realm of legitimate government goals. Even if it was found that Township officials violated state law, the court found this claim would fall far short of conduct that shocks the conscience. Additionally, the counterclaim failed to demonstrate that the Township believed it was totally without power to take steps to limit an increase in operations or restrict installation of an asphalt plant, and further failed to show that the Township took such action for personal gain, out of bias, or with other corrupt motives. Accordingly, the substantive due process claim was dismissed for failure to state a claim.

Pierson next alleged that Township officials Volovnik, Nyman, Nietupski, and Morano tortiously interfered with its contractual relations. While Defendants contended that Pierson failed to show they acted without privilege or justification, Pierson claimed that the Township officials’ actions were nonetheless improper and not privileged since the officials were aware that their authority was preempted. Despite this, the court found no evidence that Volovnik, Nyman, Nietupski, or Morano believed the Township to be entirely without power to address the concerns of residents. Due to the fact that the quarry had been dormant for approximately 30 years, and that the character of the surrounding area had changed, the court held that it was proper for Township officials to “explore the limits of their regulatory authority”. The court further determined that the Township officials here had a strong interest in advocating for the community’s well-being and giving voice to local residents’ views on land use policy. Thus, absent clear allegations that the officials knew their decisions were totally without any colorable legal foundation, or that they acted with corrupt motives, the court found that their efforts to regulate the reactivation of the quarry were privileged and justified.

East Rockhill Township v. Richard E. Pierson Materials Corp., 2019 WL 2357589 (ED PA 6/4/2019)

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