Former Douglass supervisor sued after mulch company disrupts town

Karen Keiser and neighbors fought , and won, a battle to oust a mulch operation in Douglass Township. She was walking in a pasture last fall with mulch piles nearby. Now township officials seek nearly $37,000 from a former Douglass supervisor for legal costs in the case. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Karen Keiser and neighbors fought , and won, a battle to oust a mulch operation in Douglass Township. She was walking in a pasture last fall with mulch piles nearby. Now township officials seek nearly $37,000 from a former Douglass supervisor for legal costs in the case. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 16, 2014

When a controversial Montgomery County mulch operation agreed last month to move out of Douglass Township, many residents breathed a sigh of relief.

Mountain Mulch had raised the ire of neighbors, who accused owners of violating zoning laws by illegally operating a large commercial business on a corner of preserved farmland.

But the fight over Mountain Mulch may be far from over.

Township officials are now suing former Supervisor Fred Theil, saying he started the trouble by giving the company permission to accept piles of natural debris left over from Hurricane Sandy.

"As a result, approximately 250,000 yards of debris was transported through an otherwise remote and quiet community from December of 2012 to April of 2013 and deposited on the property, resulting in numerous complaints . . . from concerned neighbors," states the lawsuit, filed in Montgomery County Court.

The township is suing Theil for almost $37,000 - the cost of the legal fees it paid to reach a settlement in which Mountain Mulch agreed to relocate.

Reached at home last week, Theil denied the allegations in the lawsuit but declined to comment further. Theil resigned from the board in May 2013. His attorney, Lawrence Sager, also disputed the allegations.

Mountain Mulch has been operating on the Sassamansville Road site since 2012, after buying the 53-acre parcel of farmland and getting 7.5 acres approved to stockpile mulch.

In late 2012, a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers called the company, said Vince Raffaele, chief operating officer for Mountain Mulch. The representative explained that the corps had a large amount of branches and other tree debris that was collected in Upstate New York, Raffaele said, and he was looking for a mulching plant to dispose of it.

In an interview last week, Raffaele said that he contacted the township for permission and that Theil and several others - whose names he didn't recall - gave him the green light. The company wasn't paid to take the debris.

"They knew exactly how much debris we were talking about," Raffaele said.

The suit, however, alleges that Theil made the decision without consulting other supervisors, zoning board members, or officials.

"I don't think this was done maliciously," Town Manager Peter Hiryak said in an interview, "but I don't think he thought it through."

Neighbors of Mountain Mulch soon began complaining that the company was overstepping that footprint - they complained of 20-foot piles of mulch chips, as well as noise and odors. Residents also expressed safety concerns after several mulch piles caught fire last year.

The township and residents sued Mountain Mulch last year, accusing the company of violating zoning laws.

Their settlement, signed April 24, calls for the company to relocate and for the township to take no further legal action. Both sides also agreed to discuss the case "in a neutral manner" in public, the records show.


asteele@phillynews.com

610-313-8113 @AESteele

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