Pennsylvania Case of the Month: Commonwealth Court Views Municipal Ordinance Requirements Separately If Developing Parcel Located in More Than One Municipality

November 2010Newsletters In the Zone

This case—Hamilton Hills Group, LLC v. Hamilton Township Zoning Hearing Board, 2010 WL 3419222 (Pa. Cmwlth. September 1, 2010)—before the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania involves the development of a tract of land extending into three municipalities. The issue before the court was whether a municipal zoning hearing board could require the provisions of the municipal zoning ordinance be satisfied only by the land situate within its municipal borders and without considering the portions of the tract in the adjacent municipalities. While not a common occurrence, multimunicipal properties are encountered in our practice, especially for development projects where contiguous parcels are assembled as a part of a comprehensive or regional development.

In this case, Hamilton Hills Group, LLC (the developer) proposed to develop a tract of 89.37 acres of land that extended into the municipalities of Hamilton Township, Berwick Township and the Borough of Abbottstown, Adams County, Pennsylvania. The portion of the property within Hamilton Township was located in the R-3 Zoning District, which permitted the construction of a townhome development by special exception. However, the zoning ordinance also included specific requirements to be satisfied in order to obtain approval of the special exception. Among the requirements for a townhome development was a condition that any development proposing more than 12 townhouse units must contain a “designated open space or recreation area,” containing a minimum of 300 feet of open space per unit.

Under the developer’s proposal, all of the 325 proposed townhouse units would be built on that portion of the tract within Hamilton Township. The portion of the tract in Berwick Township and in the Borough of Abbottstown would be used to satisfy the open space or recreation area requirement. In the developer’s case before the Hamilton Township Zoning Hearing Board, the developer’s consultant was not able to identify how much of the open space would be located within Hamilton Township or whether the developer could satisfy the open space requirement if the portions of the tract located in Berwick Township and in the Borough of Abbottstown were not considered a part of the proposal.

In reviewing the testimony before it, the Zoning Hearing Board of Hamilton Township determined the developer failed to prove compliance with the requirements of the zoning ordinance for the grant of a special exception—specifically, the requirement for the plan to include open space or recreation area containing a minimum of 300 feet of open space/recreation area per unit. The developer appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, and in its decision, the trial court held the Hamilton Township Zoning Hearing Board did not have authority to exert control over any municipality outside of its borders. Therefore, the trial court concluded it would have been improper for the Hamilton Township Zoning Hearing Board to consider those portions of the subject tract located outside of Hamilton Township. The trial court affirmed the decision of the Zoning Hearing Board, and the developer appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

In its appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the developer argued the Hamilton Township Zoning Ordinance must be construed in favor of the property owner since the ordinance does not unambiguously state the open space requirement must be satisfied solely by use of land located within the township’s borders. In considering the developer’s argument, the Commonwealth Court examined the provisions of the Hamilton Township zoning ordinance and the intent of the R-3 Zoning District of the township. Following its review, the Commonwealth Court determined the zoning ordinance clearly reflected an over-arching concern of the township to effect zoning and land use regulations within the township and did not mention any consideration to neighboring municipalities. The Commonwealth Court found its interpretation of the Hamilton Township zoning ordinance was consistent with the statutory authority granted to municipalities that possess no power beyond that which is expressly delegated to them.

In noting each municipality is responsible for the well-being of citizens within its borders, the Commonwealth Court explained the well-being of the citizens of the Borough of Abbottsown and Berwick Township belong to the governing bodies of those municipalities. The Hamilton Township Zoning Hearing Board had neither the duty nor the authority to exercise its zoning power for the benefit of any citizens of the neighboring municipalities. Furthermore, the Hamilton Township Zoning Hearing Board would be unable to ensure the developer did not develop the designated open space in the future or the neighboring municipalities would not consent to some other use or development of the property within its borders. As a result, the Commonwealth Court concluded the decision of the Hamilton Township Zoning Hearing Board, refusing to allow consideration of those portions of the tract outside of Hamilton Township, was not an abuse of discretion, and the Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s order.

For more information, please contact Loren D. Szczesny at 610.397.7967 or [email protected]