Updated: Aug 31, 2021
By Jamie Wiggan
A Robinson resident is suing the township and several named officials, claiming they’ve worked collectively to pressure him into complying with the plans of a neighboring developer tied to the township.
The plaintiff, James Esposito, owner of E&R Property, filed a civil complaint July 15 seeking $35,000 in damages plus legal fees and other related expenses.
The complaint claims he was hit by an “avalanche of outrageous and torturous conduct” after turning down a proposal from Michael Dunn of Five D Development, who in 2011 bought a commercial parcel next to Esposito’s business headquarters on Steubenville Pike near its Tidball Road intersection.
In addition to Dunn and the township, the suit also lists as defendants Rick Urbano, planning director, and Joseph Schonbeck, code enforcer. Dunn is a member of the zoning appeals board.
According to the complaint, the defendants each used their own spheres of authority within the township to coerce Esposito into complying with Dunn’s plan to build a shared driveway through both properties.
Esposito’s filing claims the plans would enhance the value of Dunn’s property while devaluing his own.
Eminent domain proceedings started in 2019 to obtain a sliver of Esposito’s property top the list of alleged wrongdoings outlined in the complaint. But it refers to this only as the “final dagger” that followed a series of other actions taken against Esposito and his business during prior years.
After Esposito turned down Dunn’s proposal, the complaint alleges Dunn, “with the backing of Urbano and the township… explored multiple avenues throughout 2015 and 2016 to obtain a Highway Occupation Permit through PennDOT.” These failed, however, when as an impacted party Esposito declined his consent.
Following this, Esposito received a cease and desist letter from the township’s solicitor John Cambest in late 2017 claiming he was facilitating an illegal business by allowing a counselling center to operate in the basement of his building without an occupancy permit. The township subsequently cited Esposito for a coding violation, where he was found guilty in magisterial court but the case was ultimately overturned by the Commonwealth Court in May 2019.
An opinion by Commonwealth Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon found fault with Cambest’s letter for failing to state permitted courses of remedy and accompanying timelines. It also held Schonbeck at fault for filing the citation as a criminal rather than civil proceeding.
A year before Cannon’s opinion was issued, Robinson commissioners approved eminent domain proceedings to obtain a portion of Esposito’s land on grounds the surrounding roadway needed to be reconfigured as a matter of public safety.
Esposito appealed the declaration of taking, and the litigation remains tied up in court three years later.
The stalled construction site has drawn the ire of several local residents, who voiced concerns during township meetings earlier this year over the looming rock piles amassed along the perimeter. The complainants said the piles mire the neighborhood and present a visibility issue for motorists entering Steubenville from Waterford Drive.
Francis Wymard, an attorney representing the defendants, did not return calls requesting comment. Michael Dunn, who has not engaged legal representation, also didn’t respond to a request for comment.