When Ron Samsel and his attorney Larry Miller, Jr. arrived at Commonwealth Court in Philadelphia on October 14, they understood that their case would have ramifications far beyond Jefferson Township where the case originated. Samsel had built a horse farm on 46 acres of land he had purchased. Township supervisors claimed that the farm was not an agricultural enterprise and thus required building permits for the barn and other structures on the property. Miller argued that the farm qualified for Pennsylvania’s exemption for agriculture construction and therefore building permits were not required. The township refused to allow Samsel to operate his horse farm until he satisfied their requirement that he apply for a building permit.
Samsel appealed to the county’s Unified Construction Code Board of Appeals, and that body sided with the township. Samsel said that when the Board of Appeals announced their decision, township officials began a raucous celebration. “They were high-fiving and hugging each other,” he says. That scene has haunted him for months, and he has flashbacks of it every night when he’s trying to sleep.
Samsel and Miller took their case to Berks County Court, and they won. The township appealed and brought the case to the county court again. President Judge Jeffrey L. Schmehl heard the case a second time and sided with Samsel again. The township appealed again, this time to the Commonwealth Court. “This is what is called a case of first impression,” Miller said at the time. “It will set a precedent for Pennsylvania.” He said that there were similar cases bubbling up all over the state, and he had been fielding calls from attorneys anxious for updates on the status of Samsel’s odyssey.
On December 10 the Commonwealth Court ruled that Samsel’s horse farm is an agricultural enterprise. Jefferson Township Supervisors Chairman Leon G. Huey, Jr. says that the township will not appeal. “We just felt the building itself should have been inspected more properly. We just felt a building permit should have been obtained. The court has made the decision. The township has done what we thought is right.”
A Plot Line Franz Kafka Would Envy
Even though Samsel has seemingly won this lengthy conflict, he hardly sounds like the victor. As he reflects on how costly the battle has been for him, he is angry, frustrated and sad.
“They wanted to break me,” Samsel says. “I don’t know what sleep is for two years. I just lie in bed and wonder what is coming next. I did nothing wrong at all. I did everything by the book. All they did was try to hurt the township. They weren’t looking out for the people.” He says that he is planning to file a harassment suit against the township, believing that they were acting out of personal animus toward him, rather than in the best interests of the township.
During the standoff with the township, Samsel says he lost potential boarders and thousands of dollars’ worth of hay, along with his house and savings. “I spent over $45,000 in legal fees just to get to this point. I took a line of credit out on my house, and that’s all depleted.” He says he has moved in with his mother, and is struggling to hold on.
Considering this nightmare, Samsel says he can understand why individuals rarely seem to fight township rulings, even when the townships are clearly wrong. “The townships always win because they push the little guy out,” he says. Each time he won his case in court, the township was given 30 days to appeal the decision. Each time, the township waited until the 29th day to announce that they would appeal.
Miller, Samsel’s attorney, says that he can’t understand why the citizens in the township permitted the supervisors to pursue this case. “Townships are not allowed to act for an improper purpose,” he says. When they do, citizens have a right to sue. “We fully intend to exercise those rights. We’re preparing now to make them accountable for their actions. There’s precedent here,” Miller says.
Where Might Doesn’t Always Make Right
After the Commonwealth Court issued its ruling, Township Supervisor Joel Hetrick told a reporter from the Reading Eagle that some residents held “what turned out to be unfounded concerns about Samsel’s plans,” and presumably those concerns drove the township’s decisions in this case. But Samsel sees it differently. “To lose my house and start all over again so I can keep my farm? Nobody should have to go through this. And then to put that article in the paper that it was the residents of the township.”
He says the township acted irresponsibly right from the beginning. “All they were doing was wasting the taxpayers’ money. That’s what Judge Schmehl said, after he ruled on it once. They wanted me to tear this whole barn down, to go get a building permit. You think somebody just trying to make a living, you would think the township would work with them. They’ve been making my life a living hell.”
He says that contrary to the township’s position that citizens were concerned about the farm, he has heard nothing but praise for the farm. “I have two buildings on 46 acres and they house horses. Everybody in the township says it’s the most wonderful thing they see when they drive up the road.”
Does This Ruling Change Everything?
Miller says that the Commonwealth Court’s decision will ripple through the state for years. “This case has been won, and it gives you specific legal rights. Yes, it changed the law, but it also changed the culture, and will let agriculture build the buildings they need,” he says. But it will take time before every township and municipality in Pennsylvania recognizes how the ruling will affect them.
The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors (PSATS) works to help the state’s townships strengthen local government. Ginni Linn, the organization’s Director of Communications, says that PSATS has not yet heard anything about the Commonwealth Court’s ruling. She says that the PSATS attorney regularly sends updates to member townships about court rulings, legal issues and other matters, but generally it takes a little time for this information to filter through the system.
There are more than 1500 townships in the state, and each of them is faced with an ever-more-complex landscape of regulations, court rulings and laws they must navigate. And the patchwork of rules that govern the hundreds of municipalities across the state are often mis-applied or poorly understood by the people charged with enforcing them.
Patti Naji, who owns a small horse farm in Lower Gwynedd Township, Montgomery County, says that it often seems as if everyone has a different interpretation of the rules. She says that several years ago when she wanted to put up a storage tent, she was told by one official that the tent needed a foundation. But the tent was going to cover fewer than 500 square feet, and the township’s code exempts structures that cover fewer than 500 square feet.
She wrote a letter to the township, citing the code. “Without another word they sent me my permit.” She says they never offered an explanation. Last year, she was going to put up a shed for storing her tractor and other equipment. “This time I was going to have a shed that was 14x16 feet, and have it dropped off, or have it constructed on the site,” she explains. “When I went to get the permit, they asked me what I was putting down for the foundation.” They also told her she needed a zoning permit application. She said that she sent the township a copy of her previous letter, and, once again, she received her permit without comment or explanation.
While it’s true that the Commonwealth Court’s ruling will ultimately change the culture, change will occur slowly. There are few mechanisms in place to inform all parties—horse farm owners and municipal officials—about the culture change that Miller hopes to see.
Not Giving Up
Samsel says that, right from the beginning, he tried to assure the township that his farm would not be open to the public, or hosting events. It was always meant to be a place where horse owners could board their horses and pamper them as much as they wanted to. “If you have a horse there, you can use the facilities. If you need your vet or blacksmith there, you can do that,” he says. Since the case has dragged on for so long, he has lost out on potential boarders looking for places to keep their horses. He says he got lots of phone calls from prospective customers, but they ultimately chose to take their horses elsewhere when they realized that his was the farm that was locked in conflict with the township.
Samsel may have lost his home, his savings and two years’ worth of sleep. But he did not lose his resolve. “I’m just trying to make ends meet here. My farm is my dream, and I’m not going to lose that farm. I’ve worked too hard for that.”