When I first read Lancaster County’s Places2040 Comprehensive Plan (you can read my summary of the Plan adopted in October 2018 HERE), one “Catalytic Tool” caught my eye in particular: simplify zoning. Make no mistake, complicated zoning ordinances are not unique to Lancaster County. In Pennsylvania, where land use is controlled at the municipal level, there is often no consistency in how zoning is regulated from one township, borough, or city to the next. To add further complication, municipal boundaries don’t always align with places, communities and corridors. As a result, two comparable properties located in the same neighborhood can be governed by vastly different zoning regulations. With a system that is so fractured, how can we meaningfully work towards simplifying zoning in Lancaster County and across the Commonwealth?
To answer this question, the Lancaster County Planning Commission (“LCPC”) convened five focus groups comprised of stakeholders in the local land use arena: 1) municipal planning and zoning staff; 2) municipal elected and appointed officials and managers; 3) lawyers; 4) builders and developers; and 5) architects, landscape architects, and engineers. Each group took part in a guided discussion around a single question: How can we simplify the zoning process? I had the opportunity in September to participate in the session for lawyers, which included both municipal solicitors and developers’ counsel. Despite our diverse backgrounds, I think our group generally found more areas for agreement than disagreement.
In December, all participants in the focus groups were invited to reconvene in a joint session to discuss LCPC’s initial findings. The groups identified several common barriers to simplifying the zoning process, including the need for more education about planning concepts and land use procedures; a lack of consistency in how zoning issues are handled across municipal boundaries; and the complicated, unpredictable and lengthy processes required to obtain conditional use/special exception approvals or variances. In addition, the groups noted the importance of developing flexible zoning ordinances that can adapt to land use trends, such as the increasing demand for mixed use communities and the decline in traditional “brick and mortar” retail. As an aside, township officials should mark their calendars and attend one of McNees’s three workshops on flexible zoning or other important land use topics at the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors 2020 Conference on May 4 and May 5, 2020.
The LCPC focus groups did more than identify problems, however; several local, regional and state-level solutions to the foregoing issues were proposed and discussed. Some of the local-level solutions include adjusting regulations that commonly require variances, instituting best practices for improving communication between municipal staff and elected officials, and developing common defined use categories and terms that can be used across municipal boundaries.
Now that problems and potential solutions have been identified, LCPC will be convening its first implementation group (comprised of individuals that served in the initial focus group) to develop a product to help municipalities convert conditional use and special exception uses to permitted uses governed by clear, but flexible standards. I am pleased to be part of this implementation group and look forward to collaborating with other land use professionals to achieve our common goal of simplifying zoning in Lancaster County. In the meantime, should you encounter a complex zoning issue, please feel free to contact any member of the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group for assistance.