Some Pennsylvania municipalities are throwing out their zoning ordinances and designing fresh ones from scratch, with a little help from their neighbors.  These new and (hopefully) improved ordinances not only include modified zoning districts and adapted language and concepts, but also new zoning maps – sometimes more than triple the size of the old ones.  Although uncommon, this approach – which combines multiple municipal zoning jurisdictions into one, shared jurisdiction – is neither new nor unlawful.  In fact, the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (the “MPC”) dedicates an entire Article to the requirements and implementation of this concept, referred to as “joint municipal zoning.”

The crux of joint municipal zoning is the adoption of a joint zoning ordinance (“JZO”), which is exactly what it sounds like: under Article VIII-A of the MPC, two or more municipalities (“participating municipalities”) may agree to a single zoning ordinance pursuant to a joint comprehensive plan.  The JZO is subsequently prepared by a joint planning commission directed by the governing bodies of the participating municipalities.

The benefits of JZOs are readily apparent, at least in theory; a municipality that would otherwise be required by the MPC to provide for certain uses can “piggyback” on uses provided for in the JZO, even if those uses are located outside of the municipality’s traditional zoning jurisdiction.  By addressing land use at a more regional level as opposed to a municipal level, JZOs can focus growth and development, protect farmland and mitigate the presence of less desirable uses.  Furthermore, participating municipalities can share costs and resources associated with zoning, while protecting their individual interests against legal challenges.

Practically speaking, the formation and implementation of JZOs can prove challenging.  As a prerequisite to any JZO, municipalities should prepare a fair and observable method for apportioning costs, including the costs of administering and enforcing the JZO, the costs of defending against legal challenges to the JZO, and the costs of advertisements in the event of an amendment to the JZO.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge to the efficiency of a JZO is whether the participating municipalities can effectively engage in quid-pro-quo multimunicipal planning.  For a JZO to succeed, municipalities must be willing to sacrifice their zoning autonomy for the betterment of all participating municipalities.  Accordingly, JZOs are best suited in the unique situations where neighboring municipalities share a clear vision for regional planning, and where intermunicipal collaboration has definite and discernible mutual benefits.

Such is the case with the Newtown Area Joint Municipal Zoning Ordinance, a JZO between Newtown Township, Upper Makefield Township, and Wrightstown Township, located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (the “Newtown JZO”).  Established in 1983, the Newtown JZO focuses growth in the Suburban community of Newtown Township, while protecting the rural character of Upper Makefield and Wrightstown Townships.  By using its JZO to focus growth (and limit it), it is estimated that the participating municipalities have saved over $30 million in road and storm sewer costs.  Furthermore, the Newtown JZO has demonstrated compliance with the MPC by withstanding multiple legal challenges over the years.

As evidenced by the success of the Newtown JZO, joint municipal zoning can be done effectively.  However, it is important that participating municipalities have clear and distinct goals for regional growth; a mere desire to minimize certain uses is generally inadequate in light of the sacrifices required when a municipality takes on a JZO.  Please feel free to contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group for assistance with any land use or development issues or if you have any questions regarding this post.