In a world where technology and community needs frequently out-pace zoning updates, permitting zoning modifications by conditional use is an opportunity for municipalities and developers to collaborate to help ensure development projects are well designed, innovative, publicly supported and, therefore, approved.  Most people involved in zoning and development know that denied variances – (i.e., modifications of the strict application of zoning ordinance provisions) can sink otherwise well designed, innovative and publicly supported projects.  Regardless of the use, district or community, the rigid “hardship” criteria for variances, set forth in Section 910.2(a) of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (“MPC”), are extremely inflexible.  That inflexibility often stymies creativity and constrains innovation.  Indeed, the antiquated criteria is inconsistent with and contrary to other provisions of the MPC and, at times, the desires of many municipalities that wish to accommodate newer development innovations and trends.

Occurring more often are scenarios where variances are necessary to accommodate the preferences of the municipality and to permit innovative and sustainable mixed-use developments with design enhancements.  In such instances, zoning hearing boards, municipal elected and appointed officials, and the public all may agree
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In January of this year, Governor Wolf put forth a series of Legislative Proposals meant to address critical infrastructure problems in Pennsylvania, including blight, particularly in rural Pennsylvania.  He called this series of proposals Restore Pennsylvania.  Governor Wolf simultaneously proposed paying for these initiatives through the imposition of a tax on the extraction of shale gas in the Commonwealth.  While many of the proposals to address the infrastructure problems were well received, the funding of the programs through a shale gas tax has been more controversial.  More information on the entire Restore Pennsylvania initiative can be found HERE.

Of interest to municipalities in the Commonwealth dealing with the problem of blighted properties is the section of the Governor’s proposal that deals specifically with that issue.  The Governor’s proposal acknowledged that nearly all communities within the state have some level of blight.  The cost of dealing with the problem varies, with small municipalities needing funding of perhaps $1 million dollars to address the issue, while larger municipalities, such as Altoona, having concluded that they need tens of millions of dollars to effectively combat the problem.    
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In blog posts last year (available HERE and HERE), we reviewed the challenges that municipalities face in regulating short-term rentals under existing zoning ordinances that do not specifically address the use.  One case we discussed was Slice of Life, LLC v. Hamilton Township Zoning Hearing Board, 164 A.3d 633 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2017).  The Commonwealth Court’s decision in Slice of Life was appealed and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently reversed the Commonwealth Court’s decision.

In Slice of Life, the Township issued an enforcement notice to the property owner alleging that the property was being used as a hotel or other type of transient lodging in violation of the zoning ordinance.  According to the zoning ordinance, single-family residential was the only permitted use in the underlying zoning district.  The Township’s zoning ordinance defined the term “family” as
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Recently, Frank Chlebnikow, AICP and I co-presented a program entitled “Finding Valuable Commercial Space Under Parking Lots” at the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors’ 97th Annual Educational Conference.  The program discussed problems (and potential solutions) many communities are experiencing due to the increasing amount of vacant retail spaces in shopping malls and big-box retail stores.  Most communities experience impacts such as a stagnating/declining tax base and operating revenue shortfalls, leading to a reduction in municipal services, loss of businesses and residents, limited property reinvestment, and increasing tax rates.  But mature, built-out suburban and urban communities must also deal with the lack of undeveloped land, aging and inadequately maintained infrastructure, traffic congestion and addressing stormwater runoff issues while complying with federal/state mandates.

One thing is certain, the traditional mall and suburban commercial corridor model (a “shopping mall”) that includes one or more sprawling, single-story buildings dominated by retail and department store tenants surrounded by seas of parking lots, is not the future.
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Solutions for Blight in Pennsylvania

Presented by McNees Attorneys Kandice Kerwin Hull, Dana Chilson and Jeffery Esch McCombie

Blight is a problem facing nearly every municipality in Pennsylvania.  Learn about win/win solutions that allow developers to assist communities in tackling blighted properties. This webinar will include a discussion of eminent domain options, redevelopment authorities,

Few things can sour the completion of an otherwise successful construction project more than a lingering mechanics’ lien claim—especially where the developer or project owner did not see it coming.  Pennsylvania’s General Assembly took steps to assist developers and project owners in preventing against this scenario when it passed Act 142 of 2014, which led to the establishment of Pennsylvania’s State Construction Notices Directory (the “Directory”) in December 2016.  This post, Part I of a two-part series, discusses the benefits of registering a project on the Directory. Part II will highlight how underutilized the Directory is in many parts of Pennsylvania.

The Directory is an online database that was developed and is now managed by the Pennsylvania Department of General Services.  It is used for the filing and dissemination of certain project-related information on qualifying construction projects in Pennsylvania.  When the cost of a private construction project meets or exceeds $1.5M, the project is eligible to be “registered” on the Directory.  Project registration is wholly voluntary, and whether to register is a decision for the owner or developer.  A project that is registered is known as a “searchable project” per the statutory terminology.  Registering a project offers important benefits to developers and owners.
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Recently, one forward thinking Pennsylvania grocery retailer opened a new Ecommerce hub facility at the site of one of its former, traditional grocery store buildings in a mixed-use neighborhood. Rather than demolishing the existing “brick and mortar” building, it is adaptively reusing the building by converting it to a new “click and mortar” facility.

For many retailers, the traditional retail approach includes a commercial building with a significant retail display and sales area directly accessible by customers selecting and purchasing their goods onsite.  But new approaches are popping up every day.  The new approach referenced above allows customers to place orders online using their electronic devices or onsite using tablets located in the building’s vestibule area.  Orders are processed and fulfilled onsite and either picked up by customers or delivered to customers via a delivery service.

This local retailer is just one example of an emerging business trend whereby “shopping fulfillment centers” are occupying vacant, former retail store buildings located in close proximity to customers.
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Pennsylvania’s local governments are on the front lines of providing for the needs and wants, and capturing information about, the likes and dislikes of the communities they serve.  Certainly, the decisions made by local government officials, planners and professional staff are the most likely to directly impact their constituencies’ daily lives because such decisions typically are at a more personal level than those made by state and federal officials.  However, there are state government opportunities and processes that should be considered by local leaders that may support their more pressing priorities for growth and development.

For example, Governor Tom Wolf’s budget address on February 5, 2019 identified many areas of increased focus and related funding that, if approved by the General Assembly later this year, should be primarily available to help Pennsylvania’s local governments meet many of their budgetary requirements.  Although the Governor continues to prioritize education funding, workforce development and new resources for the agricultural industry, many other areas of opportunity exist and are expected to continue to be available after this budget is negotiated.

This is the first in a series of blog posts in which we highlight a sampling of the funding sources planners and local government officials should consider when working with private and public sectors interested in infrastructure improvements, beautification and revitalization, attracting and/or expanding new businesses and industries to the area or, in some cases, trying to retain existing businesses.  This post focuses on the Act 13 suite of programs which is managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (“PA DCED”).
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“Oh, don’t go that way.  You want to avoid the Beltway.” is a common chorus in many American cities.  Harrisburg is no exception and backups on its Beltway encroach onto Front Street and other arterial and connector roads on a daily basis.  In recent years, the issues have been exasperated as we continue to see populations trending from rural to urban locations while, at the same time, continue to experience aging and weakening transportation infrastructure.  But plans to bring relief to Harrisburg’s Beltway have been in the works for 15 years.  In 2003, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”) prepared an I-83 Master Plan, the purpose of which was to identify, plan, and program future transportation improvement projects for the I-83 Capital Beltway.  The Master Plan proposed numerous improvements to the Beltway to address: (1) worsening road conditions; (2) high-traffic volumes and congestion; and, (3) safety.
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