Private street improvement may constitute land development
In Ruckert v. Wayne Township et al., Civil No. 10468 of 2012 (Slip Op. Jan. 23, 2013), the Lawrence County, Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas recently ruled on issues related to a homeowner’s private undertaking to construct an unopened road using gravel, stones and bricks. The Court, in ruling on preliminary objections, found that the construction constituted land development under both the Wayne Townships’ (the “Township”) Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (“SALDO”) and the Municipalities Planning Code (“MPC”) and that a private cause of action exists for an aggrieved landowner to require the Township to enforce its SALDO.
The Defendant homeowners were attempting to develop roadways shown on the subdivision plan, but never opened, without first submitting land development plans, obtaining Township approval, or posting security under the SALDO. The development of streets by the Defendants included a section of an undeveloped shared private road and a section of unopened public street that the Township did not maintain or use. The Defendants accessed their property via the undeveloped and unopened roads. The “street construction” included clearing of trees and brush and the laying of bricks, stone, and gravel to the unopened parts of the streets to create a road to their property. Plaintiffs claimed Defendants’ actions in constructing the road created deep, unfinished ruts in the road directly fronting Plaintiff’s property, thereby creating safety concerns for cars and pedestrians as well as diminishing the property value.
The Court found that the Defendants actions in constructing the road fell within the Township’s definition of land development in its SALDO, which is substantially identical to the MPC’s definition of land development. Additionally, the Court found §617 of the MPC provided a private cause of action for an aggrieved landowner for violation of any ordinance enacted under the MPC. The Court rejected the Township’s argument that § 617 only applies to issues related to a zoning ordinance by finding § 617 expressly states “any Ordinance enacted under this Act.” Therefore, the Court found that Plaintiffs had a private cause of action in equity requiring the Township to enforce its SALDO against the Defendants.
This case reinforces the jurisdiction of a municipality over any development that has a nexus to the general public interest, whether by streets, curbs, sidewalks, stormwater management, emergency services, or public water and sewer. The case also highlights the risk to a municipality of being joined in litigation for not exercising regulatory authority where it exists.
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