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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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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