Pennsylvania Case of the Month

December 2010Newsletters In the Zone

The case of Miravich v. Township of Exeter, 2010 WL 4242559 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2010), addresses the issue of standing in matters involving subdivision and land development applications.

In this case, the protestants own land adjacent to and near a proposed 34-lot development. The Exeter Township Board of Supervisors approved the landowner’s preliminary subdivision and land development application for 26 of the lots in question. (The remaining eight lots are located outside of Exeter Township and were not subject to this appeal.) The protestants appealed the board’s approval of the preliminary subdivision and land development application to the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County, where the court held the protestants lacked standing to appeal the township’s approval.

The protestants appealed the decision of the Court of Common Pleas to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, which reversed and found the protestants did in fact have standing to appeal.

By way of background, in 2005, an application for preliminary subdivision and land development approval was submitted to the township. The township’s planning commission reviewed the application at several meetings, and the board reviewed the application at one meeting. The board approved the application in 2008. There is no indication in the record or in the arguments of the parties that the protestants received notice of the meetings, nor is there any indication the protestants attended any of the meetings.

Within 30 days of the board’s approval, the protestants filed an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. The Court of Common Pleas found the protestants lacked standing, and the protestants appealed to the Commonwealth Court, where they argued the Court of Common Pleas erred in finding they lacked standing.

The Commonwealth Court pointed out the Court of Common Pleas found the protestants lacked standing because they had not appeared before the board or the township’s planning commission and the Court of Common Pleas relied on cases analyzing standing in matters involving zoning hearings boards (ZHB).

The Commonwealth Court provided that standing comprises two concepts: (1) substantive standing (“whether the putative litigation has a sufficient interest in the outcome of the litigation to be allowed to participate”) and (2) procedural standing (“whether one has asserted his right to participate sufficiently early”).

The Commonwealth Court found it was an error for the Court of Common Pleas to apply the procedural rule of standing to this matter. The Commonwealth Court stated the procedures identified in the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) involving matters before the ZHB and matters before a governing body - such as for an application for subdivision and land development approval - are so different “that applying the same procedural standing rules to such appeals is inappropriate.”

The Commonwealth Court stated the MPC provides specific procedural requirements for ZHB hearings, but the MPC has virtually no procedural requirements for a governing body considering subdivision and land development applications.

The Commonwealth Court concluded it understands the reasoning for the rule requiring an appearance before the ZHB before a party is granted standing in a zoning appeal and held that “because similar procedural protections are not required in subdivision and land development proceedings, it would be manifestly unfair, if not a denial of due process, to impose such a stringent rule as a prerequisite to subdivision and land development appeals.”

The Commonwealth Court did state that if the Board had voluntarily followed the procedures required of a ZHB and provided notice and a hearing on the record with a clear procedure for entering an appearance, it would agree with the Court of Common Pleas that the protestants were required to meet both the substantive and procedural standing requirements.

However, the Commonwealth Court held the only applicable standing requirement in this case was substantive, and it reversed the decision of the Court of Common Pleas and remanded the matter for further proceedings on the protestants’ appeal.

For more information, please contact David H. Comer at 610.397.7963 or [email protected].