Not In My Neighborhood!… Land Use Controls

by William Jorden on March 29, 2011

by Harry Faber White, II, Esquire

Now, in most jurisdictions, exist significant restrictions on land use development. Most municipalities have building codes, subdivision regulations, zoning ordinances, and other laws impacting the development of real estate.

As always, educate yourself to the existing public controls on land you want to acquire for a specific purpose.

Modern day extensive restrictions on land use are relatively recent developments. Before the early 1900’s, there were modest constraints on land use development imposed by common law. In essence, the common law of nuisance prohibited uses of land which substantially diminished the value of neighboring properties. Additionally, restrictive covenants were placed in deeds in an effort to weed out incompatible uses to those properties covered by the restrictions.

The government got involved in land use control early last century.

In the 1920s, the United States Department of Commerce promoted and encouraged comprehensive zoning. By 1926, the first zoning case, Euclid vs. Ambler Realty Company, reached the United States Supreme Court.

The Plaintiffs in the Euclid case, because the zoning restrictions at issue prevented their proposed industrial development, argued that the ordinance deprived them of property without due process of law, in derogation of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution to the United States.

The United States Supreme Court, in the Euclid case, upheld the zoning code at issue, and found that the exclusion of certain businesses from residential districts was a valid exercise of the police power of the government, and that such an exclusion promoted the health, safety and welfare of the public. The Court determined that the essence of zoning ordinances, that is, the division of the community into districts, and the restriction of uses in said districts to ones arguably compatible with one another, were all appropriate exercises of governmental authority.

In Pennsylvania, before 1969, there were separate zoning enabling statutes for each class or type of local government.

On January 1, 1969, the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) became effective and now controls zoning statewide except in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.

The MPC is thus the engine that drives zoning in the vast majority of Pennsylvania. The MPC, among other things, sets out the procedures for the enactment, amendment or repeal of zoning ordinances. Most enacted zoning ordinances in Crawford County establish zoning districts as follows; generally some version of agricultural, rural residential, suburban residential, institutional, industrial, and commercial.

Certain townships in Crawford County have created zoning districts or regulations which reflect or are indicative of natural features or development in that township.

For instance, Sadsbury Township, surrounding the majority of Conneaut Lake, has a lakeside residential district, and a resort commercial district.

Bloomfield Township, which surrounds Canadohta Lake, also has a residential/resort development district.

Mindful of the fact that Canadohta Lake is a glacial lake with certain adjacent shoreline areas being in a flood plain or being characterized by glacial till, Bloomfield has a flood plain/unsuitable soils overlay district. There, because of an extremely high water table and muck around sections of the Lake, a reinforced concrete slab must be the foundation of every proposed building. The slabs literally float on the soil. Sadsbury Township has a similar flood plain district with substantial regulations to prevent any building from collapsing, moving or floating away.

Virtually all local ordinances provide supplemental restrictions relating to, among other things, nonconforming uses and structures, signs, fences, parking requirements, mobile home parks, landfills, communications towers, etc., and provide performance standards which basically are minimum lot and dwelling sizes, setbacks, accessory uses, and controls over the use of hazardous materials and waste.

Finally, all zoning codes provide for administration and enforcement of those codes from the initial application to the zoning officer, through the permit process, the appeal process if a permit is denied, public notice, a public hearing in front of the zoning hearing board, standards for decisions made by that board, and appeals therefrom to the Court of Common Pleas.

Modern day zoning codes are a trap for the unwary.

As always, educate yourself. If you or a family member are even thinking about purchasing property in a certain township, contact that township for a copy of its zoning ordinance, subdivision regulations and any other local law that will impact your plans. There are always some disappointed purchasers who excitedly purchase a property and then discover it can’t be developed as they want to.

There are some townships in Crawford County that have no zoning codes or restrictions whatsoever. While many people disagree with certain aspects of zoning, the complete lack thereof, in all likelihood, reduces property values in the townships without zoning because an unfriendly use could be just around the corner.

Finally, if you see notice of a zoning hearing involving a use which you think would either be good or bad, get involved. Frequently, what starts out as an unpopular request can be made much more palatable through community involvement and participation at a zoning hearing. When faced with legitimate complaints, a zoning hearing board will generally attempt to fashion conditions to lessen the perceived negative effect upon the neighborhood.

As always, pay attention and get involved.

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