The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, in consultation with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), is currently studying the viability of building a hyperloop tube that would transverse Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg to Philadelphia and then northeast toward Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.  Pennsylvania House of Representatives Resolution 1057 authorized the Commonwealth to conduct a study for a hyperloop system that would facilitate the transportation of passengers and freight at speeds approaching 700 miles per hour in pods that move through low-pressure tubes.

House Resolution 1057 found that the concept of the hyperloop, first described by Elon Musk in 2012-2013, may no longer be a hypothetical notion, given the recent work of states and firms to study and develop the necessary technologies.  In 2018, transportation agencies in Ohio and Illinois announced a study involving a hyperloop that would connect Columbus, Ohio to Chicago, Illinois.  House Resolution 1057 explains that Elon Musk desires to build a hyperloop connecting New York City to Washington, D.C. with a projected travel time of 29 minutes with planned stops in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
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Some Pennsylvania municipalities are throwing out their zoning ordinances and designing fresh ones from scratch, with a little help from their neighbors.  These new and (hopefully) improved ordinances not only include modified zoning districts and adapted language and concepts, but also new zoning maps – sometimes more than triple the size of the old ones.  Although uncommon, this approach – which combines multiple municipal zoning jurisdictions into one, shared jurisdiction – is neither new nor unlawful.  In fact, the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (the “MPC”) dedicates an entire Article to the requirements and implementation of this concept, referred to as “joint municipal zoning.”

The crux of joint municipal zoning is the adoption of a joint zoning ordinance (“JZO”), which is exactly what it sounds like: under Article VIII-A of the MPC, two or more municipalities (“participating municipalities”) may agree to a single zoning ordinance pursuant to a joint comprehensive plan.  The JZO is subsequently prepared by a joint planning commission directed by the governing bodies of the participating municipalities.

The benefits of JZOs are readily apparent, at least in theory
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We mentioned in a prior post that failing to follow procedural requirements for land use hearings can lead to unwanted results for all – or at least most – involved. In a recent example, the Commonwealth Court ruled that Lewis Township’s Zoning Ordinance was void from inception after finding that the Board of Supervisors failed to comply with the Municipalities Planning Code (the “MPC”) requirements for adopting zoning ordinances.

In Yannaccone v. Lewis Twp. Bd. of Supervisors, the Township formed a Zoning Ordinance Committee (“ZOC”) to create a proposed zoning ordinance to present to the Board for adoption. The Board published notice of a public hearing scheduled on the Ordinance. The Board held the hearing in accordance with the public notice and subsequently adopted the Ordinance at a later regularly scheduled meeting. Less than one month after the Ordinance became effective
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In an earlier blog post we discussed a zoning case from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania that involved the keeping of ducks as emotional support animals on a residential property.  In that case, the zoning hearing board determined that the ducks were permitted on the property as pets and that the keeping of ducks as pets was not an agricultural operation as alleged in the enforcement notice.  Last month, a zoning hearing board in a York County, Pennsylvania municipality was asked to determine whether the keeping of pot-bellied pigs as emotional support animals on a residential property is permitted.

According to an article published in the York Daily Record, a family acquired two pot-bellied pigs as emotional support animals for their son.  The family also has two dogs and three cats, and all the animals live in the house with the family.
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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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If you have ever watched a live trial or law-related television show, you probably know a few general things about court proceedings: a judge presides over a case and the rules of evidence (Objection, your honor!) govern what parties can and cannot say and do.  While there are similarities in how court proceedings and land use hearings operate, key distinctions exist.  First, there is no separate judge and jury.  The governing body or the zoning hearing board (collectively, the “Board”) does both.  In addition, land use hearings, while structured, are designed to give the Board freedom in its decision process.  This includes the Board’s power to appoint a hearing officer, relaxed rules of evidence (including the hearsay rule), and the opportunity for parties to present arguments and evidence and to conduct cross-examination. 
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For many years, the opinions of non-resident objectors – especially unsubstantiated opinions – were of little to no relevance in zoning hearings, including conditional use and special exception hearings.  However, applicants and municipal officials could see more objectors from other municipalities present testimony and evidence at hearings because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has endorsed the relevancy of that testimony and evidence in certain situations.

In EQT v. Borough of Jefferson Hills, the applicant sought conditional use approval for a natural gas well site in the Borough of Jefferson Hills.  During the public hearing before borough council, objectors from other municipalities testified about the alleged negative effects on health and quality of life that they experienced from a similar well in a neighboring township that was operated by the conditional use applicant.
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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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We are accustomed to seeing some accommodations for emotional support animals in the housing context.  Recently, a Borough’s zoning hearing board and the Court of Common Pleas were asked to resolve a similar issue in a zoning case.  The facts and issues in the case touched on urban agriculture issues that are becoming increasingly more common in addition to the interpretation of certain terms in the Borough’s zoning ordinance.  Like short-term rentals, emotional support animals and urban agriculture are uses that are not typically addressed in zoning ordinances, thereby leading to cases just like this.

A young boy with autism lived with his mother and grandfather in a two-family residential building on property owned by the grandfather and located in the Borough’s commercial zoning district.  The boy’s family acquired eight ducks as therapeutic pets after he had a positive experience with a friend’s pet duck.  The ducks were kept at the residential property, living outside in a fenced yard but also spending some time inside the house.  The Borough had attempted to deal with the keeping of animals on a residential property in the past.
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