The latest shot in an ongoing dispute between White Township and the citizen group Friends of White’s Woods Inc. was fired Friday in the Indiana County Court of Common Pleas, where a Pittsburgh environmental law firm filed a complaint on FWW’s behalf against the township board of supervisors.
According to a press release issued by FWW over the weekend, attorney Tim Fitchett of Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services filed the complaint, which seeks a declaratory judgment.
“The proposed operations of the township will cause irrevocable harm to the White’s Woods,” according to court papers provided by Indiana County officials to the Gazette this morning.
The filing itself covers nine pages, while other materials are attached.
FWW claims the township violated the state’s Sunshine Act or Open Meetings Law in its handling of agreements with Millstone Land Management LLC of Marion Center, which has served as township consultant on the removal of invasive species from township properties, as well as contractor on announced plans for approximately 50 acres of the 250-acre White’s Woods Nature Center, which straddles the northern border of Indiana Borough.
FWW said Fitchett’s complaint also claims violations of the state’s Municipal Planning Code. The citizen group is seeking an injunction to stop Millstone plans for White’s Woods, saying township plans for invasive species removal and timbering there would cause irreparable harm to the nature center.
White Township Manager Milt Lady could not be reached for comment by press time today, but township officials may have been caught unaware of the filing.
“I’m not aware of anything being filed,” said attorney Matthew A. Ross of Delaney & Fritz PC, White Township’s solicitor. “This is the first I heard of it,” he said early today when contacted by the Gazette.
According to FWW, the group’s president, Sara King, requested minutes and documents from the township board through an open records request because agenda and minutes of White Township meetings are not archived on the township website.
She said she received those documents April 22 “and the FWW Board noticed that critical actions on White’s Woods were taken during Executive Session at board meetings on June 12, Sept. 11, Feb. 12 and March 11.”
That was the same day that the White Township board approved a $20,000 contract with Millstone for what was termed the first phase of the planned overhaul of White’s Woods. FWW questioned whether the township in doing so was trying to get around state contract laws regarding how large a bid can be.
There Millstone’s Mike Lawer restated his intentions for White’s Woods. He said it doesn’t include traditional logging but rather to establish forest health, aesthetics and safety.
The township board has been holding virtual online meetings because of a COVID-19 emergency. Its next scheduled meeting is Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
“What we want is to have a say in how our community nature center is run,” FWW Vice President Andrew Davis told the Gazette in a recent interview. “It is the same say that we wanted to have in 1995 and again in 2007.”
The group wants the board of supervisors to stop the project and “get scientists and conservationists involved” in a committee that could draft a plan for the community reserve.
Board members contend that issues involving Millstone, a township consultant on removing invasive species, are treated the same way any other major township project is treated, such as road or sewer matters.
“Our meetings are public,” Supervisor Sandi Gillette said on April 22. “It was all open and above board. If you want to know what will happen at these meetings, come.”
At that same meeting board Chairman George Lenz said he thought any further public airing of the matter would be redundant, saying “the only way I would support a public hearing at this point is if (the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) requested us to have one.”
DCNR has to sign off on any plan for White’s Woods.
A portion of the nature center, approximately 25 acres, is within Indiana Borough. The dispute has been a topic of conversation at Indiana Borough Council meetings.
“If they cut down as many trees as their new plan indicates, it will cause serious stormwater problems downstream,” Borough Councilwoman Kaycee Newell said at the May 5 meeting.
“The runoff issues become a legal issue to me,” Borough Council President Peter Broad said. “It is going to have a significant impact on the health and safety of the borough.”