If I told you that, in Pennsylvania, municipal (including county) planning agencies, such as planning commissions or planning department staff, are permitted to act on subdivision or land development plans (“SLD Plans”) and related waivers or modifications, most of you would likely say that I’m wrong, crazy, or flat out lying!  Most of you would say that planning agencies are to review and make recommendations on SLD Plans, and that governing bodies (e.g., councils, supervisors or commissioners) take action to approve or deny SLD Plans and waivers or modifications.  Well, most of you would be right, but only partially.

While Sections 501 (Grant of Power), 503.(8) (Contents of Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance), 508 (Approval of Plats) and 512.1 (Modifications) of the Municipalities Planning Code (“MPC”) state that governing bodies have the authority to act on SLD Plans and waivers or modifications, those same sections state expressly that governing bodies may delegate that authority to their planning agencies.

Wait. … What? …  A planning agency can take action to approve or deny SLD Plans, including associated waivers or modifications?  … By the way, what in the world is a planning agency?

Section 107.(a) of the MPC defines the term “Planning Agency” as “a planning commission, planning department, or a planning committee of the governing body.”  Therefore, a planning agency could be a volunteer planning commission, paid planning department staff, or a committee of members of the governing body.  So, YES!  The MPC expressly authorizes governing bodies to delegate their authority to act on SLD Plans to planning agencies that usually are limited to making recommendations.

Although this alternative approach is not widely known or used in Pennsylvania, there are several municipalities that have adopted it.  Others have taken a more measured approach by limiting planning agency approval to certain types or sizes of SLD Plans based on the number of new lots, units, size, location, infrastructure, or potential impact.  But this cannot be done with the snap of your fingers.  The MPC states that subdivision and land development ordinances (“SLDO”) must expressly state the specific entity(ies) responsible for approving or denying all, or certain types of, SLD Plans.  Therefore, with either approach, a municipality must amend its SLDO and possibly the ordinances that established its planning agency.

When this authority is delegated to planning agencies, it usually is delegated to authorize action on smaller SLD Plans that generally create lesser impacts.  Smaller SLD Plans typically include simple subdivisions, such as significant lot line adjustments or major lot consolidations, with no proposed improvements; or land developments for smaller buildings or additions, or (re)development on lots currently served with the full range of infrastructure.  Governing bodies tend to reserve for themselves the authority to act on larger subdivisions and land developments that have greater impact.

Some of the benefits realized by municipalities implementing this alternative approach include savings in time, energy, money and resources for both municipalities and landowners or developers.  Additionally, this alternative approach encourages collaboration between municipalities and landowners or developers.  Certainly, it facilitates (re)development in specific areas planned, zoned and able to accommodate the desired (re)development including: (i) limited subdivisions of farms for family members; (ii) infill development on existing pavement along a suburban highway corridor, or in a downtown or mixed-use village; or (iii) redevelopment of a gray or brownfield area.

This alternative approach is not for every municipality.  But if a municipality is blessed with a willing governing body and a knowledgeable, experienced, and trusted planning agency, this approach may be worth exploring as part of its community planning and development initiatives.  So, while I cannot dispute that I’m a little crazy, I’m not wrong or flat out lying.

Please do not hesitate to contact any member of the McNees Land Use Group with questions related to planning agencies, SLD Plan approvals, or this post.