Did you know that under certain circumstances a private individual can acquire government-owned land without the government’s consent? Although the Commonwealth’s immunity from adverse possession claims has never been in question, whether political subdivisions of the Commonwealth are subject to adverse possession claims has been less clear. On September 26, 2019, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania addressed this matter in the case of City of Philadelphia v. Galdo, 2019 Pa. LEXIS 5452. In Galdo, the Supreme Court held that political subdivisions in Pennsylvania may be subject to claims of adverse possession, except where the property is devoted to a public use. The facts of Galdo provide great insight into this matter.

In 1974, the City of Philadelphia condemned 1101-1119 N. Front Street in Philadelphia for transit purposes related to the construction of Route I-95 (the “Parcel”). The City, however, never physically occupied the Parcel or used it for public transit purposes as originally intended. Instead, the Parcel remained vacant and unmaintained, with the City viewing it as “surplus property” that was not actively being used.
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Yesterday morning on the McNees Minute on ABC 27, I briefly discussed the role local public officials – such as your municipality’s council members, commissioners or supervisors – have in the development and redevelopment processes for our communities.  They play a major role in ensuring our land is developed in a smart, safe and efficient manner that provides for all the needs of a community.  I stressed the importance of electing public officials who are willing to trust municipal staff and other consultants.  In addition, I touched on why it is important to elect public officials who are willing and able to collaborate with developers and property owners.  Finally, I offered that it is equally important for developers and property owners to engage land use professionals who also are collaborative and able to work with elected public officials and municipal staff.  Having forward thinking, collaborative people in each of those roles is vitally important to the future development and redevelopment of our communities.

There are many posts on this blog that discuss or analyze the situation where a municipal ordinance has become antiquated.  We’ve discussed situations where ordinances just haven’t considered
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Where do you spend your free time or work on your hobby?

There is a concept in community planning and place making involving three separate but important social environments (or places) where people spend their time.  The first two places are one’s home and one’s workplace.  “Third places” generally include public or community places where people socialize or recreate, including places of worship, health clubs, bars and pubs, restaurants, stores, parks, community centers, etc.  Now developers are creating new third places by combining the “man cave” and “she shed” concepts with mini-storage.  These third places are known as luxury garage units or “car condos.”

The concept is simple.  Rather than renting or leasing unconditioned dead storage space for vehicles, household items or recreational equipment in traditional mini-storage units, luxury garage units are made available for purchase as condominium units and are fully conditioned. 
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Real estate developers, construction businesses, engineers, and others involved in development projects are subject to numerous permitting and approval requirements under local, state, and federal regulatory programs.  For example, development projects in Pennsylvania involving earthmoving of more than one acre (i.e. most projects) must obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“NPDES”) permit for construction-related stormwater discharges, also known as PAG-02.  The current PAG-02 expires on December 7, 2019.  Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“PADEP”) announced the availability of supporting documents, such as an updated Fact Sheet, and a comment period on the draft revised PAG-02.  The comment period is open until only September 16, 2019.

Anyone engaged in construction, real estate development, or similar operations should review the draft revised PAG-02 permit and supporting documents, and should consider submitting comments to PADEP.   PADEP anticipates the revised PAG-02 having an effective date of December 8, 2019.
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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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