Justia Zoning, Planning & Land Use Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (“PennDOT”)’s petition seeking review of a Commonwealth Court holding that a de facto taking of an unmined coal estate, owned by Penn Pocahontas and leased to PBS Coals, Inc. (collectively “the Coal Companies”), occurred under the Eminent Domain Code, 26 Pa.C.S. sections 101-1106 (“Code”), when PennDOT’s construction of Highway 219 on an adjoining parcel destroyed options for constructing rights-of-ways to the coal estate’s surface. In reaching that conclusion, the Commonwealth Court held that the feasibility of mining the coal, as measured by the probability of obtaining a legally required permit from the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”), was relevant only to damages. The Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s decision, agreeing with PennDOT that the legality of extracting the coal went directly to the trial court’s duty to determine whether a taking occurred. Furthermore, the Court held the Commonwealth Court erred by failing to remand the case for consideration of whether consequential damages are available to the Coal Companies. The matter was remanded to the Commonwealth Court with instructions to remand to the trial court with respect to the Coal Companies’ consequential damages claim. View "PBS Coals, et al v. PennDOT" on Justia Law

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For many years, Lamar Advantage GP Co. displayed an electronic advertisement on a billboard perched atop Mount Washington, which overlooked downtown Pittsburgh. In 2016, Lamar ratcheted a static, vinyl sign over the electronic advertisement and the underlying structure. Believing that this action “enlarged” or “replaced” the sign, the City of Pittsburgh cited Lamar for breaching the City’s Zoning Code. Pittsburgh’s Zoning Board of Adjustment upheld the citation, agreeing with the City that Lamar’s actions enlarged or replaced the sign. On appeal, the Court of Common Pleas reversed the Board. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the lower court. Both courts held that the Board’s conclusion was unsupported by the record. After its review of the case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concurred with the common pleas and Commonwealth courts: the record here did not support the Board's legal conclusion that by draping the vinyl static sign over the existing electronic sign and sign structure, Lamar violated the zoning code. View "Lamar Advantage v. City of Pgh ZBA, et al." on Justia Law

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At issue was whether the rule of capture immunized an energy developer from liability in trespass, where the developer used hydraulic fracturing on the property it owned or leased, and such activities allowed it to obtain oil or gas that migrated from beneath the surface of another person’s land. Plaintiffs’ property was adjacent to a tract of land leased by Appellant Southwestern Energy Production Company for natural gas extraction. Plaintiffs alleged that Southwestern “has and continues to extract natural gas from under the land of the Plaintiffs,” and that such extraction was “willful[], unlawful[], outrageous[] and in complete conscious disregard of the rights and title of the Plaintiffs in said land and the natural gas thereunder.” Southwestern alleged that Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by, inter alia, the rule of capture, and sought declaratory relief confirming its immunity from liability. The court of common pleas court granted Southwestern’s motion for summary judgment, denied Plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment, and denied the motion to compel as moot. The court agreed with Southwestern’s position that the rule of capture applied in the circumstances and, as such, Plaintiffs could not recover under theories of trespass or conversion even if some of the gas harvested by Southwestern had drained from under Plaintiffs’ property. The Superior Court reversed, holding that hydraulic fracturing could give rise to liability in trespass, particularly if subsurface fractures ... crossed boundary lines. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected the concept that the rule of capture was inapplicable to drilling and hydraulic fracturing that occurred entirely within the developer’s property solely because drainage was the direct or indirect result of hydraulic fracturing. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court found the Superior Court panel’s opinion "to suffer from multiple infirmities," reversed and remanded with directions. View "Briggs, et al v. Southwestern Energy" on Justia Law

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Montour Township (Township) Pennsylvania has a zoning ordinance (Ordinance) under which the Township has been divided into different districts, including agricultural districts. The Ordinance permits several “Intensive Agriculture and Agricultural Support” uses, including “hog raising,” in agricultural districts by special exception. The Nutrient Management Act (Act), required certain agricultural operations to comply with various standards regarding the management of livestock manure, among other “nutrients.” At the heart of the Act is the mandate that certain agricultural operations adopt a “nutrient management plan” or “NMP.” The Act also contained a provision outlining the manner in which the Act, as well as the regulations and guidelines promulgated pursuant to it, preempt local regulation of nutrient management. Scott Sponenberg (Applicant) owned property used as a livestock and crop farm within an agricultural district in the Township. In April 2013, Applicant filed an application for a special exception with the Montour Township Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) based on his desire to build a swine nursery barn with under building concrete manure storage (i.e., a manure storage facility) on his property. Applicant’s planned use was not subject to the various requirements established under the Act, which applied to NMP operations. The ZHB initially granted Applicant’s special exception application subject to conditions. Following two appeals filed by various objectors, including Russell Berner, Donna Berner, Kendall Dobbins, Robert Clark, and Robert Webber (Objectors), the matter returned to the ZHB by way of order from the Commonwealth Court for the ZHB to render necessary findings regarding Applicant’s compliance with the Ordinance’s special exception requirements. In this appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was tasked with determining whether, and if so, to what extent, the Act preempted local regulation of nutrient management by agricultural operations that were not otherwise subject to the Act’s requirements. The Court held the Act preempted local regulation of agricultural operations not subject to the Act’s requirements to the extent that the local regulation was more stringent than, inconsistent with, or in conflict with those requirements. Because the Commonwealth Court reached a contrary result, the Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court’s order. View "Berner,et al v. Montour ZHB" on Justia Law

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In this appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to determine whether Subsection 508(4)(i) of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), which protected pending land development applications filed with a municipality’s governing body, extended to zoning applications submitted to its zoning hearing board that were: (1) related to the land development application; and (2) filed with the zoning hearing board during the pendency of the land development application and after an adverse zoning change. The Court concluded that Subsection 508(4)(i)’s protection did indeed extend to zoning applications under these circumstances. View "In Re: ZHB of Cheltenham Twp 12-16-15 Decision" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Appellee City of Lebanon (the “City”) was considering creation of a business improvement district (a “BID”), a type of Neighborhood Improvement District (“NID”) to revitalize its downtown area. After a hearing, at which citizens voiced their comments, the City accepted a plan devised by City officials and hired consultants as final and sent another letter to property owners and lessees within the proposed BID, advising how to file an objection, or to vote against the establishment of the Lebanon BID. Appellant Edward Schock, the owner of a non-exempt property in the Lebanon BID, filed suit at the county court under the caption: “Complaint for Declaratory Judgment to Declare Bid Dead.” In the complaint, Appellant advanced the position that, under NIDA, “the objection threshold is 40% of the assessed parcels,” as opposed to forty percent of all parcels within the geographic boundaries of a BID. Given that, by his calculus, only the owners of 280 properties within the geographic boundaries of the BID were eligible to vote, Appellant concluded that the final plan had been vetoed by the 132 negative votes. The City filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer, contending that the term “affected property owners,” in Section 5(f)(2), unambiguously encompasses all of the owners of properties within the geographic boundaries of a BID, regardless of whether they will be subject to or exempt from monetary assessments. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found, as did the court of common pleas, there were substantial, competing policy considerations in the design of the voting scheme pertaining to the establishment of NIDs. “Ultimately, although we find the shifting terminology within the Act to be awkward and ambiguous, we conclude that the statute’s veto provisions pertaining to final NID plans concern only assessed property owners.” The order of the Commonwealth Court was reversed and the matter remanded for entry of declaratory judgment reflecting the Supreme Court’s opinion. View "Schock. v. City of Lebanon" on Justia Law

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The issue presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s review in this case centered on the question of whether a municipality, in addressing a natural gas extraction company’s conditional use application for the construction and operation of a well site, could consider as evidence the testimony of residents of another municipality regarding the impacts to their health, quality of life, and property which they attribute to a similar facility constructed and operated by the same company in their municipality. After careful review, the Supreme Court held such evidence could be received and considered by a municipality in deciding whether to approve a conditional use application, and, thus, vacated the Commonwealth Court’s order, and remanded this matter to that court, with instructions to remand this matter to the trial court for further consideration. View "EQT Production v. Boro of Jefferson Hills" on Justia Law

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted discretionary review to determine whether a zoning ordinance that defined “family” as requiring “a single housekeeping unit” permitted the purely transient use of a property located in a residential zoning district. This question arose based on the increasingly popular concept of web-based rentals of single-family homes to vacationers and other short-term users (usually for a few days at a time). The Supreme Court concluded that pursuant to its prior decisions in Albert v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of N. Abington Twp., 854 A.2d 401 (Pa. 2004), and In re Appeal of Miller, 515 A.2d 904 (Pa. 1986), the purely transient use of a house is not a permitted use in a residential zoning district limiting use to single-family homes by a "single housekeeping unit." View "Slice of Life, et al v. Hamilton Twp ZHB" on Justia Law

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Appellees Steven and Mary Szabo, owned real property where they operate a hair salon and skin care business. The property abutted Route 19 and Old Washington Road, was improved with a parking lot and commercial structure. Appellant, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT or Department) developed a road expansion plan to connect Route 19 with Old Washington Road by means of an exit ramp that would run across a section of the Szabos land, identified in the declaration of taking as Parcel 5. The Department attempted to purchase the property from the Szabos; however, the parties could not come to an agreement. The issue this case presented for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's review was whether a failure to file preliminary objections to a declaration of taking resulted in waiver under Section 306 of the Eminent Domain Code, 26 Pa.C.S. sections 101-1106 (Code). After careful review, the Court held that the declaration did not establish the extent or effect of the taking. Accordingly, the failure to file preliminary objections within thirty days of service did not result in waiver of the right to assert ownership and seek just compensation, and therefore the Court affirmed the decision of the Commonwealth Court to remand the matter for an evidentiary hearing. View "Szabo v. PennDOT" on Justia Law

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This appeal involved a constitutional challenge to a provision of the City of Philadelphia's Property Maintenance Code that required owners of vacant buildings that were a “blighting influence” to secure all spaces designed as windows with working glazed windows and all entryways with working doors. Appellees, owners of a vacant property that was cited for violating this ordinance challenged the provision, largely contending that it was an unconstitutional exercise of the City’s police power. The City’s Board of License and Inspection Review (“Board”) rejected Owners’ arguments; however, the trial court agreed with Owners and deemed the ordinance unconstitutional. The Commonwealth Court affirmed, concluding that the ordinance was an unconstitutional exercise of the City’s police power because it was concerned with the aesthetic appearance of vacant buildings, not the safety risks posed by blight. After review, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Commonwealth Court and trial court erred in this regard, and vacated their orders and remanded the matter to the trial court for consideration of Owners’ remaining issues. View "Rufo v. City of Phila." on Justia Law