In baseball, if the base runner and the ball arrive at first base at the same time the tie is resolved in favor of the base runner and they are safe. Under the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), if there is any ambiguity when interpreting a zoning ordinance provision, the ambiguity is interpreted in favor of the property owner and against the extension of any restriction in the ordinance provision. This rule was applied by the Commonwealth Court recently in the case of Alleman v. North Newton Township Board of Supervisors.
In the Alleman case, the property owner owned approximately 112 acres of split-zoned land in North Newton Township. Approximately forty acres of the property were in the Township’s Agricultural District and approximately seventy-two acres were in the Township’s Rural Residential District. The property owner had a hog feeding operation on a portion of the forty acres located entirely in the Agricultural District and wished to expand the operation within the agricultural zoned area of the property. The operation was an Intensive Agricultural Operation (IAO) under the Township’s zoning ordinance and IAOs were permitted in the Agricultural District by conditional use. Accordingly, the property owner applied for conditional use approval to expand the existing hog feeding operation.
Section 1026(A)(1) of the Township’s zoning ordinance permits IAOs by conditional use within the Agricultural District subject to the requirement that the “parcel of contiguous land owned by the owner of an [IAO] shall be and remain at least 50 acres.” At issue in the Alleman case was whether the property satisfied the size requirement of Section 1026(A)(1) since the overall property was larger than fifty acres but only forty acres were actually located in the Agricultural District. The Board of Supervisors granted the conditional use and found that Section 1026(A)(1) only requires a minimum property size, with no requirement that all fifty acres be located in the Agricultural District. The decision was appealed to the court of common pleas which overturned the Supervisors’ decision and held that Section 1026(A)(1) requires at least fifty contiguous acres located within the Agricultural District.
On further appeal, the Commonwealth Court found that both sides presented reasonable interpretations of Section 1026(A)(1). The property owner argued that the drafters of the ordinance language could have easily stated that all fifty acres must be located within the Agricultural District if that was what they intended, but they didn’t. The opponent to the expansion argued that the “in the Agricultural District” language applied to all of the criteria. Therefore, the language of Section 1026(A)(1) requires that IAOs in the Agricultural District must have at least fifty acres in the Agricultural District. The Commonwealth Court found that since the language of Section 1026(A)(1) could support both interpretations it is ambiguous.
Section 603.1 of the MPC is clear that ambiguity in an ordinance provision must be resolved in favor of the property owner and against any implied extension of the restriction. The Commonwealth Court held that, in light of Section 603.1, the property satisfied the minimum size requirement since it was at least fifty acres and the ordinance provision does not clearly require that all fifty acres be located within the Agricultural District. This case serves to highlight and emphasize that no zoning ordinance is perfect and, as such, interpretational ambiguities must be resolved in favor of the property owner. Please contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group with questions regarding this post or for assistance with any land use issues.