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“In the Zone” – An Introduction to the Importance of Zoning Ordinances

From my experience as a Zoning Board member of a local municipality, I know that many individuals have heard the term “zoning,” but don’t understand what it means or how it affects them as a homeowner.  Zoning describes how cities, townships, and boroughs control the use of land and buildings within their jurisdiction.  Generally there are two types of zoning – residential (encompassing an area where single family homes have been built) and commercial/industrial (encompassing an area where businesses and other industry have been built).  Within these zoning categories are various rules and sub-rules which dictate what a homeowner (or business owner) may do to improve their property, and what they may not do.  Furthermore, zoning rules are complicated by the fact that some densely populated areas have been labeled “mixed use,” which means that homes and apartments may reside side by side with buildings designated for commercial use like a book store, coffee shop or strip mall.

It is usually the case that every city, township, or borough within the state of Pennsylvania has their own unique zoning ordinances, which are published.   Zoning ordinances are free and available to the public.  They can be found online at the Pennsylvania eLibrary website (Go to www.elibrary.pacounties.org, and select “Go To Documents” to peruse the Zoning Codes for all counties in Pennsylvania).

Generally speaking, the zoning ordinances of your town set forth what you can and cannot do with your property or the structures which are located on it.  For example, many boroughs have zoning  ordinances which address the existence of fences, porches, garages, retaining walls, parking pads, satellite TV antennas, swimming pools, sidewalks, garden/planting beds, and the height of buildings.  Many of these ordinances are put in place by town councils and planning commissions in order to ensure the harmonious appearance of a certain area, and to ensure that residents and owners enjoy their property free of potential nuisance to others.  For example, many boroughs have ordinances which ensure that swimming pools cannot be dug in a homeowner’s front yard, and that fences are usually confined to back and side yards only.  Many of these ordinances are put in place to ensure a certain aesthetic for a particular neighborhood.

While zoning ordinances may seem restrictive, many times they are put in place to ensure that a home or a block of homes is not unusually close to certain undesirable businesses, whether it be a large factory, large commercial structure, sexual establishments or venues which serve alcohol, for example.  After all, as they say in real estate, “location is everything” and certain rules like the ones mentioned above seek to ensure that property is being used for its intended and desired purpose, and that property and homes retain their value in a certain neighborhood.

However, there are times where zoning ordinances can be unusually restrictive, or sometimes, certain ordinances are out of date for the changing times, and local government has failed to address them or change them.  In that case, if a homeowner seeks to make improvements to their current home which would violate the zoning laws as written, that homeowner may petition his or her local Zoning Hearing Board and request a “variance” from the written ordinance.  The variance can be major or minor.  Zoning Hearing Boards usually will schedule a hearing whereby you – the homeowner or business owner – present evidence to the Board as to why you should be granted a variance to do something normally prohibited by the written ordinances of your neighborhood.  An attorney may represent you at these hearings, but sometimes a layperson may represent him or herself if the variance being requested is minor or uncomplicated.  The Board will then decide whether to grant or deny your variance request.  If granted, some paperwork will be sent to you, and you are free to make the requested changes/additions to your property or structure.  If denied, you may appeal the Board’s decision to the appropriate Court of Common Pleas.  Beware, however, that an appeal must usually be accomplished within a strict deadline – usually 30 days from the date of the Board’s decision.  Waiting longer to appeal may result in your appeal being dismissed.  And if you are still unhappy with any decision that the Court of Common Pleas may make, you may take an appeal to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.  The last and final resort would be an appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, though they rarely accept appeals which deal with zoning issues of any kind.

Generally speaking, it is best to speak to an attorney if you have any questions about zoning, land use, variances, and potential structural improvements.  An attorney can help you to navigate the applicable Zoning Code for your area, and provide any representation you may need during hearings and appeals.  If you have any zoning or land use questions, feel free to contact us.  We would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

For a confidential analysis of your zoning issues, or questions about TRC’s real estate and municipal practice areas, please contact Ashley Griffin, Esquire at (412) 316-8652 or [email protected].

Important NoticeThis information is intended for general guidance only, and should not be used as a substitute for specific legal advice.  For specific legal advice applicable to your situation, you should consult an attorney of your choice.  Although believed to be accurate when written, no guarantee of completeness or accuracy to your particular circumstances should be implied.  Laws, regulations, and court decisions in this area change frequently, and you should consult the attorney of your choice for up-to-date information.