A kaleidoscope is an optical instrument that presents an ever-changing view for those looking through it. In many ways, this reminds me of life as a real estate developer in Pennsylvania. The approval process landscape is ever-changing from project to project and municipality to municipality. With every twist of the land use kaleidoscope the path to a successful project looks a little (or a lot) different than the last one.
There are approximately 2,500 municipalities in Pennsylvania. Between 2,100 and 2,200 have their own set of zoning regulations – each different than the other – that shape how land can be developed in that municipality. Think of those zoning regulations as one color of glass inside the kaleidoscope. But picture looking through that kaleidoscope you had as a child – there are multiple colors, right?
Each of those 2,100 to 2,200 municipalities has its own set of elected and appointed decision-makers sitting on governing bodies, planning commissions and zoning hearing boards. All those officials add another color spinning around inside the kaleidoscope. In addition to the elected and appointed officials, there are municipal staff members (e.g. zoning officers, managers, engineers) who are yet another color of glass in our land use kaleidoscope.
But the rainbow does not stop there. There are varying degrees of public activism in those municipalities (magnified everyday by the popularity of social media). These neighborhood groups and growth “watchdogs” add yet another color of glass.
Last but not least are the customs and practices that exist and influence the land use approval process in each of those municipalities. Usually, those customs and practices are not written anywhere and, instead, we hear: “Well, that’s how we’ve always done it here”. Handed down from chair to chair, the unwritten rules add yet another color to our kaleidoscope.
How can developers and property owners be expected to see clearly through the kaleidoscope? Quite frankly, they cannot in many cases. When the glass inside reflects the colors in a way that creates too many obstacles to a successful project, the prudent developer or property owner engages land use professionals who can help give the kaleidoscope a little turn.
With every turn comes a new image inside the kaleidoscope. Twisting the kaleidoscope to the right, a grass roots or government relations team helps provide an accurate narrative to decision makers. A legal matter arises and a twist to the left is needed; McNees is engaged to seek zoning relief, draft a text amendment, or facilitate public and neighborhood meetings. With one final twist, a traffic engineer is engaged to work out an access issue or an environmental engineer solves a wetlands matter. In each case, the only difference between the kaleidoscope you had as a child and the one you may look through as a developer or property owner is that with our help you can control the image that otherwise would appear to change randomly.
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.