What is Zoning in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code (often referred to as “the MPC”) defines the legal requirements of zoning. While addressing the legal requirements, the MPC does not do a great job of explaining what zoning is. In simplest terms, zoning

  1. helps protect your property value and property investment;
  2. helps minimize or mitigate legal nuisances*;
  3. addresses issues of public safety, welfare, and health such as drinking water, storm water run-off, traffic, and compatible land uses (such as not dumping heavy equipment manufacturing in a residential neighborhood); and
  4. helps the community to coordinate development projects.

As detailed below, some criticize zoning as “the government telling me what I can do with my land” or as “a money-making racket for local government.” First, zoning is not the government telling you what you can do with your land. Zoning protects everyone’s investment in real property. Thus zoning is your community and your neighbors reminding community members to “not be a jerk.” Second, the fees associated with zoning are highly unlikely to be money-makers for a local government considering the time and resources required to evaluated zoning issues. The fees simply defray some of the costs.

The Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code

Article VI of the Pennsylvania Municipal Planning Code (often referred to as “the MPC” or Act 247 of 1968 as amended) provides details about zoning and the purpose for zoning in Pennsylvania. Section 604 specifically addresses the stated purposes of a zoning ordinance which largely involve proper population densities, compatible land uses, coordinated development, public safety, parking, transportation, infrastructure, adequate housing, and preservation.

While implicit, zoning thus helps on many levels to protect individual investments in property as well as protecting the community (and taxpayers) from unfair cost-shifting by developers for specific projects or wasteful problems (higher taxes) arising from uncoordinated development.

Zoning Protects Property Value

Zoning divides communities into zoning districts based on a community plan (called a comprehensive plan). Each zoning district defines the compatible uses permitted in the zoning district. With each district the regulations must be uniform and uniformly applied. See Pa. MPC § 605.

For individuals, zoning protects your investment in your property by managing uses that may interfere with the quiet enjoyment of your property and by managing development to avoid expensive infrastructure and services for taxpayers.

Assume that you purchased a home in a typical residential neighborhood. You renovated the kitchen. You spent weekends landscaping. You enjoy sitting on the back porch watching the birds. Unfortunately, a neighbor decides to launch a trucking business and starts parking an 18-wheeler with a refrigeration trailer adjacent to your property. The truck runs early in the morning, and the refrigeration generator kicks on every 20 minutes keeping you awake at night. The neighbor refuses to do anything about the problems.

This scenario illustrates the value of zoning. In most cases, zoning bars the interference from the incompatible trucking business located in the residential neighborhood (trucking businesses might be permitted in a highway commercial zoning district away from residences). Therefore, rather than you needing to take the neighbor to court (costing you a lot of money), the neighbor can be asked to cease the disruption or be cited for a zoning violation. Thus, zoning protects your property investment and helps mediate tense situations.

Zoning Constitutional

For almost a 100 years now, Euclid v. Ambler Realty, and Nectow v. Cambridge, allow zoning as an exercise of the government power to protect health, safety, convenience or general welfare. These U.S. Supreme Court cases agree that a community has a bona fide interest in maintaining community character and in separating land uses. The cases recognize the practical aspects of living in a community and recognizes that bad actors and bad neighbors should not be able to interfere with the property of decent people. In fact, Euclid specifically states that the basis of zoning is to minimize nuisances and to assure that all persons “sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas (so use your own property as not to injure another’s property).” Euclid, 272 U.S. at 387-88.

Unfortunately, some still claim that zoning amounts to the government telling you what to do with your property (Euclid was decided in 1926!). That’s simply not true or accurate. Zoning is public, and thus anyone can check the zoning requirements before buying a property. Second, zoning protects everyone’s investment in a property from incompatible uses and unreasonable interference. Third, zoning implements part of the comprehensive community plan—a community-focused document that helps the community plan for the future.

Zoning Must be Uniform

Importantly, Euclid justified zoning because the zoning regulations applied generally and uniformly to the zoning district. Euclid, 272 U.S. at 395-97. That is, the same regulations and standards apply to all property owners within the district—thus, fairness. The MPC echoes this federal Constitutional standard by requiring that zoning be uniform and uniformly applied within each district.

Where zoning districts are created, all provisions shall be uniform for each class of uses or structures, within each
district….

See Pa. MPC § 605.

These two considerations, generality and uniformity, become critical when addressing “exceptions” to the zoning ordinance such as variances. Variances grant a limited exception to the zoning requirements for a specific property. Variances are an extraordinary remedy (rare) because a variance by definition undermines the Constitutional basis of zoning. Thus, one cannot simply acquire variances to avoid compliance with the zoning requirements without triggering unconstitutionality. The uniformity also addresses issues such as impermissible “spot zoning” where an applicant seeks “re-zoning” (or a zoning amendment) for a specific property that is inconsistent with the surrounding uses. (Additional articles will address the inherently problematic “exceptions” to uniform zoning ordinances.) Thus, uniformity is a Constitutional standard.

Also, zoning regulations must be related to “public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.Nectow, 277 U.S. at 276.This is also reflected in the Pennsylvania MPC. See § 604. In other words, zoning cannot be arbitrary, individualized, or for just any reason. The rational must be community-focused.

Zoning Serves Important Objectives

In Pennsylvania, the MPC defines the statutory requirements for zoning (but be careful because this document only addresses the statutes, not federal laws nor Pennsylvania court cases). In simplest terms, zoning serves an important purpose in your community because it helps to protect your property investment, helps to minimize legal nuisances, and helps to manage taxes by coordinating development activities.

As noted above, zoning must be uniformly applied and consistent with a community plan. Therefore, obtaining “exceptions” to zoning such as variances, “re-zoning”, or even special exceptions or conditional uses are weighty tasks. These tasks are not government “telling people what to do” or money-making enterprises for local government. They are a reasonable balancing of the interest of the whole community (as defined in the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance) with the interest of an individual seeking a special exception or a special status.

For more information, the Pennsylvania DCED publishes a good Planning Series of ten documents and are available for free. See Planning Series (scroll about 2/3 of the way down the page), Planning Series 04 is the Zoning book.

Note—Not Legal Advice

While written by an attorney, the above represents general legal information as a public service and not legal advice. Seek legal advice from an attorney for specific projects and situations.

Legal Nuisances

* A legal nuisance differs from the common usage of the word nuisance. The common word describes many annoyances. A legal nuisance is a nuisance for which the law provides a potential remedy. Usually, legal nuisances require some type of objective unreasonableness to the annoyance or nuisance behavior and usually some type of repetitive behavior.