The Highland Township supervisors plan to survey residents concerning a proposed nuisance ordinance about which two former supervisors have expressed concern.
The supervisors hope to send out the survey by regular mail in the coming weeks, Chair Craig Rockey said after Tuesday’s board meeting.
An informal meeting to gain constituents’ input is likely prior to a formal public hearing required as part of the ordinance adoption process, he said.
Frequent complaints from residents prompted the supervisors to begin drafting the ordinance, all three said.
The complaints have nearly all been verbal, Rockey said.
He declined to name those who have complained, but said they: made allegations including “unsightliness”; expressed concern about “property values”; and asked, “Why do I have to look at this every day?”
Gary Dingle said he heard complaints as he campaigned a year and a half ago and since then. Complaints have concerned “four or five” properties, he said.
Complaints have centered on “deteriorating” properties that have “amassed piles of junk” and vehicles, Supervisor Ed Steinour Jr. said.
“It could get worse” if something isn’t done, he said.
Former supervisors Gil Pringle and Carl Keller Sr. expressed concerns about the proposal Tuesday, when audience members and supervisors discussed the matter for some 90 minutes. Approximately eight members of the public were present.
The proposed ordinance “appears to be targeted to a few situations. It is as if someone went to one of the targeted locations with a clipboard and jotted down everything that they didn’t like and then drafted an ordinance that specially outlawed all those items everywhere,” Pringle said.
Pringle said he has responded to the supervisors as they have created various drafts of the proposed ordinance.
“I tried to explain why some people, like farmers, had items on their land that other people might consider junk but that represented common and customary items for their operations, like parts for repairs, or a pile of scrap steel for welding,” Pringle said.
“I wonder why we’re doing this,” Keller said of the proposal.
He said he knew of only one written complaint. He declined to name the person who complained, but said he knew who it was and that the person had since left the township.
“We have the right to farm and you can’t touch that,” Keller said.
Rockey replied that the supervisors have “no design to infringe on the right of farmers to farm.”
He said he would “take issue with” any “unfair characterization” of the proposed ordinance as an “us-versus-them” matter pitting long-term residents against short-term residents or “city-dwellers who have infiltrated the township.”
“We don’t have it out for individuals,” Rockey said.
If an ordinance goes forward, Pringle urged the supervisors to “use the definitions of junk, vehicles, etc. that already exist in the zoning ordinance and do not try to create your own definitions.”
Dingle said the township’s attorney, Linus Fenicle, advised in a letter that the zoning ordinance could not address all situations and that a stand-alone nuisance ordinance would be needed.
Fenicle advised that a zoning ordinance regulates land uses while a nuisance ordinance regulates activities, Rockey said.
Pringle submitted a request under Pennsylvanian’s Right-to-Know Law for access to all documents relating the proposed ordinance from January 2018 to the present.
The drafting process has been lengthy because the supervisors are “fully aware this would be something that would involve sensitivities and emotions” in “a rural community,” Rockey said.
The prevalence of such concerns calls the proposed ordinance’s “premise” into question and suggests the supervisors may need to step back and take a fresh look, audience member George Lennon said.
The supervisors have “amalgamated” language from several other municipalities’ ordinances, Rockey said.
The supervisors have no desire to see an ordinance “railroaded” into adoption, Rockey said.
Pringle offered to act as an intermediary between the township and property owners in order to spark dialogue, but the supervisors declined. Rockey said their job includes taking unpopular actions when necessary and dealing with the consequences.
Audience member Melisssa Stitt asked why residents have not had easy access to information about a proposed ordinance that the supervisors have been working on for months. She suggested information be posted on a township website.
Rockey said someone would need to maintain such a site, and that many township residents lack internet service.
The township has a duty to reach out to the increasing number of younger residents who rely on newer technology, Stitt said. That would include making an online version of the nuisance ordinance survey available, she said.
Jason Stitt raised numerous technical points about the proposed ordinance. For example, he said the current draft relies on registration status to determine whether a vehicle is derelict, and asked how that would affect vehicles not meant to be registered, such as all-terrain vehicles and racecars.
Rockey asked Stitt to submit the points in writing.