Local Matters

Response to Sewickley Heights Borough Letter

This post is the response to the Borough’s letter regarding dissemination of misleading information by the Fetterolfs.

 

Friends of Dundee Farm
August 1 at 3:11 PM ·
We were disappointed in Sewickley Heights Borough’s recent action of sending a letter to every resident, in which they prejudged the outcome and mischaracterized the facts of an issue currently being considered by the Zoning Board. Nevertheless, Friends of Dundee Farm would like to address the issues and correct the misinformation contained therein. Our goal on this FB page has always been to provide a forum for the open exchange of information regarding the Dundee Farm controversy with Sewickley Heights Borough, in an effort to keep the public informed as this unfortunate process continues.

We will address each issue by going through the letter itself and responding to issues as they are raised. We have included the letter in its entirety in the photo album entitled “Sewickley Hts Borough Letter to Residents”(if you don’t see it among the albums when you click on Photos from the left side bar, click “See All” just above and to the right of the photo albums in order to view all of them).

1. The second paragraph of the Borough’s letter states:

“The purpose of this letter is to provide you with the Borough’s response to the Fetterolf’s various efforts to advance their case through an escalating campaign of legal maneuvering and the public dissemination of misleading information. To date the Borough has maintained its silence in the face of a series of public mischaracterizations in the media about this enforcement action. However, in light of a recent lawsuit filed by the Fetterolfs in Federal Court, silence is no longer an option.”

Response: In the ongoing zoning hearings, the Borough has thus far only presented their own arguments for the validity of their Notice of Violation/Cease & Desist Order. The Fetterolfs have not yet presented any personal testimony in defense of the imposed violations, so the general tone of the mayor’s letter as deciding the matter in favor of the Borough is a preemptive attempt to prejudice the residents of Sewickley Heights prior to the zoning hearings even being completed. This is wrong. The Federal lawsuit to which the mayor referred is one that is being brought by a religious liberties organization due to the constitutionally protected religious freedom violations, which commenced only when the Borough determined that a “Bible Study” and other religious activities violated their ordinances, being specifically listed in their Notice of Violation/Cease & Desist Order. The mayor may cry “hogwash” to the press as he did in a recent KDKA interview when asked if the Fetterolfs are barred from conducting a Bible study, but Sewickley Heights Borough is the party that ordered the Fetterolfs to immediately “Cease & Desist” from engaging in that very activity (item #13 on page 5 of the Cease & Desist Order, which is also included as an album in the photos section herein). The Borough’s own zoning officer also testified under oath during the hearing (page 433 of the transcript) that holding a Bible Study was indeed a violation of the zoning code. Furthermore, since this ban was ongoing since October of 2017, on June 8th 2018, the Fetterolfs responded specifically to the religiously affiliated violations with a request for a “stay”, which is a legal term requesting permission – while the hearings are ongoing, to conduct 4 specific religious activities. These included “Bible studies, prayer events, non-regular religious retreats which do not occur at regular intervals, and non-regular worship events which do not occur at regular intervals” while the matter was still being determined. Their request has yet to be approved by the Borough, so the ban on those items listed in the Cease & Desist order is still in effect. We have included their request in the photo album entitled “Fetterolf Request for Stay”. The fact of the matter is that the Fetterolfs went out of their way to request special permission specifically for the religious items listed, so Mayor Oliver is therefore incorrect in characterizing a just response to the infringement of the Fetterolf’s constitutionally protected religious freedom as “an escalating campaign of legal maneuvering”. If he or other council members would have availed themselves of the opportunity to attend any of the zoning hearings thus far, or to examine the evidence, or to read the testimony of witnesses, he would have a more correct understanding of the facts. It is an egregious error to send a letter in his official capacity as mayor to all Sewickley Heights residents that so seriously misrepresents the facts of the case.

As to the Borough’s assertion of “public dissemination of misleading information”, this statement attempts to discredit the Fetterolf’s defense prior to them having even offered one on the stand at the Zoning Board hearing. As stated previously, thus far the Borough has only heard testimony from the Fetterolfs as to the charges, but no testimony has as yet been heard from the Fetterolfs regarding their defense of same. Using news reports, facebook posts, or any other means that are not controlled by the Fetterolfs themselves to justify accusations of disseminating misleading information is wrong.

2. The fourth paragraph of the mayor’s letter details the Borough’s objections to the Fetterolfs making their property “openly and regularly available for numerous events…(including)…public and private gatherings”. They further state “by way of example” that “more than 800 vehicles were documented as “entering the property” during a one month period last year.

Response: First, there is no zoning prohibition for private or public gatherings on private property or the number of guests permitted in same, nor is there a zoning restriction on the number of such events a private individual or even a commercial farm may conduct. Secondly, the Borough is charging the Fetterolfs with 25 specific violations to their zoning ordinances dating back to 2015. Parking and traffic issues do not form part of the violations. A third point of fact is that the “documentation” used for the “800 vehicles” figure was neither compiled by the Borough, nor proven to be verified by them in public testimony. An adjacent neighbor submitted printout copies of photos, most of which are barely legible due to their size and resolution, that purported to come from a hunting camera the neighbors placed on a tree facing their 50-foot shared right-of-way with the Fetterolfs. Mayor Oliver stated in his letter that these 800 vehicles were people coming to events on the Fetterolf property. This is not what this submitted “evidence” suggests at all. For example, there are 16 pages which are date stamped and quite legible since they are single photos on a full size sheet of paper. Unfortunately, most of these are shown to incorrectly document the time on the date stamp (for example, most of the single page photos show a time in the middle of the night, yet the photo clearly indicates it is day), and are not at all indicative of members of the public coming to an event, as the mayor has stated in his letter. Of the 16 full-size photographs, 2 were food delivery vehicles, 4 were clearly marked as “Scott Fetterolf” work trucks, 1 was a cement truck going to the the adjacent property, 2 were unidentifiable white box trucks, 3 were septic cleaners servicing the Fetterolfs handicapped toilet for employees, 1 was a Fetterolf employee on a farm utility cart, 1 was from “Lint Flooring” (which may have been lost or going to one of the adjacent neighbors; unknown to Fetterolfs), 1 was marked “Deer Tenders” and also unknown to the Fetterolfs, and 1 was a USDOT marked truck that is also unrecognizable to the Fetterolfs. The remaining photographs submitted as evidence consisted of several 8-½ x 11 sheets of paper, each one containing 88 tiny photographs of vehicles (each photo is smaller than the size of a postage stamp). As difficult as it was, all of the photos have now been scrutinized, and 608 of the 800 photos have been identified as vehicles belonging to either the Fetterolfs themselves, their employees, tenants or personal friends. None of these tiny photos are date stamped (at least that can be seen by the human eye). The mayor’s letter of July 25th states that the “800 vehicles” were entering the property “in relation to these events”. This submitted evidence does not lend credence to the mayor’s assertion. Removing the personal, employee, tenant and friends cars, 200 vehicles per month is less than 8 per day, which most reasonable people would not consider excessive traffic. It is also unclear if these were 800 vehicles entering only, or entering and then exiting, which would also alter the calculations.

3. In the second paragraph of the second page of his letter, the mayor’s suggestion that the Fetterolfs want to, in essence break the law “under the guise of farming and religion” is misguided and sad. The fact is that Dundee Farm is now and always has been a commercial farm and is entitled to operate as one. Additionally, the Fetterolfs are also entitled to practice their religion, so there is no “guise” here whatsoever. This property has been operational as a commercial farm since before Sewickley Heights even existed as a borough, and has been involved in both small and large-scale community and religious events for at least four decades, with zero complaints until now. In point of fact, Mayor Oliver himself is one of the closest adjacent neighbors to the barn on the Fetterolf’s property, and in the entire time the Fetterolfs have owned the property and conducted various events and activities related to their farm business or personal lives for which they are now being prosecuted, he has never once lodged a complaint to the Fetterolfs or to the Borough (that we are aware of) about any noise, traffic or parking issues. The same is true of other neighbors who have long lived in close proximity to Dundee Farm’s 35 acres.

To clarify matters regarding this case, there have always been two separate issues. The first is the Borough’s broad wording in their ordinance which gives permission for Dundee Farm to practice ‘the art & science of agriculture’, and ‘normal farming operations’. Unfortunately, there is no further detail given in the ordinance as to what particular operations or events are permissible under that definition, and that makes the language overly vague. The fact is that the 35 acre Dundee Farm is the only commercial agricultural farm left in Sewickley Heights. On the other hand, there are 14 equestrian farms within the borough. When Sewickley Heights rewrote their zoning ordinances in 2014, they chose to be specific when defining permissible operations for horse farms. It is our understanding that they actually spoke to horse farm owners for guidance, which resulted in specific language as to permissible operations. These permissible operations include a retail tack shop, ongoing classes, and competitions to which the public are invited. There is no number or size of events delineated, nor is there any reference to monetary fees attached to those acceptable events at an equestrian farm. This begs the question: why is the only agricultural farm in the Borough being inexplicably treated in a far more restrictive manner than a horse farm?

The Borough’s actions, and now the mayor’s letter, make little sense if our communities have any desire for local family farms to remain in business. All the Fetterolfs have ever wanted to do was to carry on the century-long tradition of Dundee Farm being an wonderful asset to the community. Today’s family farm simply does not survive if they are not actively engaging with the public. That is why farms in general don’t just grow food or produce livestock anymore. They offer pumpkin patch rides, corn mazes, retail stores, farm-to-table dinners, agritours and the like, in order to remain economically sustainable. It is called “interactive marketing” and it’s essential for the survival of the family farm. We believe that most of the public understands this, and our many supporters tell us that they very much appreciate the value of Dundee Farm to the community and want it to continue. We sincerely do not understand why the borough does not share that sentiment.

The second issue is one of constitutionally protected religious freedom, which the Borough inserted into this case by citing some religious events, including a Bible study, in its list of violations on the “Cease & Desist” order. The Fetterolfs are therefore forced to defend their religious freedom, because Sewickley Heights took it upon themselves to infringe it.

We will now try to offer some perspective on the mayor’s ‘allegation’ list.

4. In the first instance the mayor states that the Borough is not preventing the Fetterolfs from engaging in a Bible study on their property. He is simply wrong here. Bible Study is one of the activities specifically listed on the “Cease & Desist” order, whose title should be self-explanatory in that the Fetterolfs were specifically ordered to stop engaging in them. As noted above, the Fetterolfs also requested a “stay” – special permission to practice their religion on their property, and the Borough has as yet not approved that request which was made on June 8th. Additionally, the mayor’s letter has thrown more confusion into the mix by appearing to suggest that the Fetterolfs are trying to lump Bible studies into the same category as “classes, camps and workshops” in their efforts to “mischaracterize” the requirement to obtain approval for same as a “ban on Bible study”. Again, had the mayor either attended the hearings himself or read the transcripts, he would discover that the Fetterolfs did no such thing – Sewickley Heights’ own zoning officer was the originator of this ridiculous “violation” as we noted above (again, see page 433 of the transcript). So the “allegation” is correct that the Borough is prohibiting the Fetterolfs from having a Bible study.

5. The next “allegation” the mayor refutes is that the Borough has delayed the Zoning Board’s process by cancelling scheduled hearings. Two hearings were indeed cancelled, but not at the behest of the Fetterolfs and not because “they refused to attend”. The Fetterolfs had indeed requested a ruling on asserting their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination by testifying for the prosecution. They did not have an answer from the judge in time for either of these two meetings, but the Fetterolfs requested that they proceed with the meetings anyway, moving on to next issues while awaiting the ruling. Sewickley Heights refused their request and instead cancelled the meetings.

6. The next “allegation” the mayor refutes is that the Borough has prevented the Fetterolfs from using their property in a lawful manner and is curtailing their religious freedoms during the zoning hearing process. We have already addressed the religious aspect above, and we obviously believe that Sewickley Heights is in violation of the Fetterolf’s religious liberties. As to “using their property in a lawful manner”, the Cease & Desist order literally orders the Fetterolfs to stop doing the activities they list on it. It is puzzling that the Borough doesn’t appear to understand the straightforward definition of a “Cease & Desist” order. The Fetterolfs contend that they have a right as a commercial farm (and as US citizens) to engage in the listed activities, but their understanding from the Borough’s own directive is that they must stop those activities, and this is the essence of the appeal process they are now undergoing.

As regards the “few additional items of concern” in the mayor’s letter:

A. Assuring the safety of the barn: if the Borough wishes to take on the responsibility of assuring the safety of any building used within the borough for private or public gatherings, we would suggest that they go through the process of promulgating regulations to that end. Normally though, this is the property owner’s responsibility and not the local government’s.

B. The Borough staff is “receiving telephone calls, voice mails and e-mails from around the country, many of a threatening nature.” This is disturbing of course, but the mayor’s attempt to lay this to the Fetterolf’s account because of “certain mischaracterizations” is incorrect as we have attempted to clarify above.

C. The mayor’s statement requesting voluntary compliance with unlawful restrictions placed on a resident is just plain silly. The Fetterolfs believe that they were ALREADY lawfully conducting their business and their lives, just as they have been doing for many years without incident, and as Dundee Farm has been operated for over a century. When the Borough decided to take a neighbor complaint and elevate it to this level of ridiculousness, they are the ones who acted wrongly, not the Fetterolfs, who have been forced to defend their property and personal rights.

In reality the Fetterolfs would like nothing more than to see an amicable resolution to this matter, but that would require conciliatory action on the part of Sewickley Heights, and the recently sent letter does not give the appearance that Sewickley Heights will consider any position other than their own, no matter how unreasonable it is. On the date of the last hearing we filed a “Right to Know Law Public Records Request” to find out what legal fees the Borough had incurred since the inception of their Cease & Desist until now. We believe that information is something that the public (and especially residents) should know, and were hopeful that it might inspire residents to get involved in asking the Borough to stop what we believe is a wrongful prosecution. We received a response to that request (dated July 24), requesting an additional 30 days to determine if this is or is not public information, so we do not know when or if that information will be forthcoming. We are sure it is a number residents should know.

In the meantime, we so appreciate the support of our many friends, neighbors and community leaders as the Fetterolfs continue to defend their (and by extension your) property rights and religious freedom. For those who do, please be praying for them, as their perseverance in this fight is not without toll; it has been exhausting physically, emotionally and spiritually. May the right prevail.