This week, two hearings were scheduled in the West Chester office of Ronald C. Nagle, a lawyer designated as referee in the case by Chester County Judge Leonard Sugerman. One hearing was yesterday, and the second was scheduled for 9 a.m. today.
The civil case was filed against both the township and the Zoning Hearing Board in July 1981 by Warren C. Meyers, a trustee for Heather Marina Swann. After acquiring the property, the Swanns turned over ownership to a trust on behalf of their daughter, Heather, then a minor. Leonard and Dolores Swann continue to live at the farm.
According to a legal advertisement for this week's hearings, the applicants want a permanent use and occupancy permit to conduct a "family equestrian center" at the site. The township has denied the permit.
Dolores Swann refused this week to comment on the case.
John Halsted, Easttown township solicitor, said the zoning for the Swann property allows farm uses such as raising and training livestock. He said the township initially was informed that the Swanns "planned to train horses and have occasional pony shows."
He said the township's position is that "the show use is not improper, but the intensity and the frequency change it from an accessory use to a primary use." The shows should not be allowed as a primary use, Halsted said.
In 1983 the case took an unusual turn when Judge Sugerman ordered the township zoning board disbanded after he found that a conflict of interest existed for one member, Matthew Broderick, who refused to disqualify himself. Sugerman said a conflict existed because Broderick's law firm - although not Broderick himself - represented one of the neighbors participating in the suit.
Sugerman told the township to name an entirely new zoning board to hear the case, but Halsted argued that the township lacked the power to do that under state law.
Sugerman then appointed Nagle to hear the case.
On the zoning board with Broderick in 1983 were Melvin Boyd, now chairman of the board of supervisors, and Thomas Wood, who still serves on the zoning board. Wood had disqualified himself from the beginning because the Swann trustee was Wood's law partner, Halsted said.
Orville Bullitt, who lives near Ashley Meadows Farm and who, with several other of the Swanns' neighbors, was listed for a time as a party in the case, said in an interview this week that the conflict-of-interest issue had ''produced a long delay in getting at the issues of the case."
Halsted said he did not expect the neighbors to participate in this week's hearings.
Bullitt said that once the neighbors saw that their interests and the township's interests coincided, the neighbors decided the township could express their position.
The neighbors said the riding ring was too conspicuous, and they emphasized that deed restrictions, as well as zoning in the area, did not permit commercial use of property. Bullitt said there have been "strong differences of opinion, which have not been resolved" over whether horse shows constitute a commercial use.
Once the neighbors raised their objections, the township and the zoning board consistently opposed the horse show use, according to Bullitt. He said the "differences of opinion" between the Swanns and the opposition focuses on the nature and intensity of the use and the traffic it would generate as well as the building's size.
Horse shows have continued at the Swann farm, with court permission, even though the township refused to grant a use permit. Bullitt estimated that eight to 15 shows have been held at Ashley Meadows over the last year - more, he said, than in previous years.
Nagle, whose law practice includes land-use and municipal matters, was appointed to "act in the capacity of a zoning hearing board." He said he will hear all the details as if there had been no previous hearings before the zoning board.
"My job is to prepare findings of fact and conclusions of law," Nagle said, adding that his conclusions would be turned over to Sugerman for a final decision. The hearings will be "the last whistle stop" for the case, Nagle said.