By Matthew M. McKeon
You were just informed by your municipality that you need zoning relief for your project. You’re intelligent, accomplished in your trade or profession, and a “DIY” (Do it Yourself) person to boot. So when it comes to that zoning variance (or special exception, or conditional use, etc.), why wouldn’t you simply represent yourself before the zoning hearing board or any other municipal body? Afterall, it’s not like you’re in court – right?
This reasoning – while perfectly understandable – is wrong, and leads to property owners not obtaining the municipal approval they require for their project.
It makes sense why many property owners think they don’t require a land use/zoning attorney to get the relief they need. Hearings before zoning hearing boards and even governing bodies can seem very informal compared to that of a court. Rather than staring up at a stern-looking, be-robed judge, you may find yourself sitting across from three to five people who you may know personally. The members of the municipal body might be dressed in anything from a business suit to basketball shorts.
However, there is nothing informal about the powers of the municipal body as to your application for relief. By statute, zoning hearing boards (in the case of variances and special exceptions) and the governing body (in the case of conditional uses) have the power to make findings of fact and conclusions of law – in other words, they occupy the same role as a trial court. The Court of Common Pleas hears appeals from the decisions of local municipal bodies, and in most cases the court does not take additional evidence. In other words, your first and best opportunity to obtain the necessary zoning relief is before your municipal body.
Additionally, there are specific legal burdens and criteria which applicants before municipal bodies are required to meet. Many property owners applying for relief without an attorney represent themselves with “common sense” arguments for why they should have zoning relief such as a variance, special exception, or conditional use. However, these efforts almost always fail because the municipal body is actually looking to see if an applicant complies with specific, multi-part requirements for these types of relief which are set by local ordinance and Pennsylvania statute.
Even applicants who read the text of the local ordinance’s requirements will not receive the full context of their meaning – and not through any fault of their own. The text of these specific requirements are often vague and in many cases have only been given meaning by hundreds of precedential decisions by Pennsylvania appellate courts. The solicitor (the attorney who advises the board you will be before, and who will be present at the hearing) will be well-versed in the meaning of these requirements and will advise their municipal body accordingly. Any applicant for relief should have counsel who similarly understands how relief requirements are interpreted and how to establish that you have met them.
If you have questions about your rights concerning your property lines or other land use or zoning issues, you may contact Matthew McKeon at [email protected], or by telephone at 610-840-0225. This article provides a general overview of the law. It is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal advice for any particular fact situation.