Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds That “Parties to the Hearing” Cannot Continue a Challenge to an Ordinance Where the “Party Appellant” Withdraws the Challenge

February 2014Articles In the Zone

In Stuckley v. Zoning Hearing Board of Newtown Twp., --- A.3d ---, 2013 WL 5825059 (Pa.), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether parties to an appeal can continue a challenge to a zoning ordinance once the original challenger has withdrawn. The Court held that because “parties to the hearing” are distinct from “party appellants,” unless the former have taken steps to become party appellants, they cannot continue the challenge.

The ordinance at issue was amended so as to accommodate a major development project by Toll Brothers. Leo Holt, a property owner affected by this amendment, appealed to the zoning hearing board (the Board), alleging substantive and procedural defects. As a result, Holt became a “party appellant” pursuant to Section 913.3 of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), 53 P.S. § 10913.3. At the first hearing on Holt’s appeal several neighbors appeared and were designated “parties to the hearing” pursuant to Section 908(3) of the MPC. 53 P.S. § 10908(3). Ultimately Holt withdrew his challenge before a decision was rendered by the zoning hearing board and the proceedings were terminated.

Thereafter, the township repealed the subject ordinance and enacted a new ordinance to cure any procedural defects. The new ordinance mirrored the ordinance Holt had challenged and the neighbors sought to continue Holt’s challenge. The neighbors filed a writ of mandamus with the trial court to compel the Board to either continue hearings or render a final decision on Holt’s challenge. The trial court declined to compel the Board to continue hearings, but ordered the Board to make written filings on Holt’s challenge, which it did. The Board found that the neighbors did not have the right to continue the challenge because the MPC distinguishes “party appellants” from “parties to the hearing” and the only “party appellant” had withdrawn. The Board noted that none of the neighbors seeking to continue the challenge had filed an application as required by the MPC – in order to pursue the action, a party must be “aggrieved” and file the required written application with reasons for the challenge. See 53 P.S. § 10916.1.

The neighbors appealed to the trial court and Toll Brothers intervened. The trial court reversed the findings of the Board, finding no distinction between party appellants and parties to the hearing, and ordered the Board to permit the neighbors to continue Holt’s challenge. Toll Brothers appealed to the Commonwealth Court but subsequently filed an application to dismiss the appeal and vacate the order as moot on the grounds that the ordinance challenged by Holt had been repealed and the new ordinance had never been specifically challenged. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court’s decision, finding that the MPC does not specifically state that rights of parties to the hearing are contingent on the existence of the party appellant remaining in the action. The Court also found that the repeal and reenactment of the subsequent ordinance, which was substantially the same as the original ordinance, did not render the challenge moot. Toll Brothers appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which granted allowance of appeal.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed that repeal of the ordinance did not render the challenge moot because it was reenacted in substantially the same form. The Court found that had Holt wanted to continue his challenge after the ordinance was repealed and reenacted he could have done so. However, the question was whether the neighbors, as parties to the hearing rather than party appellants, could continue Holt’s challenge to the reenacted ordinance. The Court found the answer to be no.

The Court reached this decision based upon distinctions between “parties to the appeal” and “parties to the hearing.” The Court held that the former must be aggrieved by the ordinance; the latter need only be “affected by the application” (namely, the aggrieved party’s challenge). The Court concluded that the latter therefore cannot exist without the former. The former must file a written appeal, state specific reasons for the challenge, and may be required to provide documentation; the latter need file no reasons for their interest or document how they are “affected.”

The Court reasoned that while parties to the hearing cannot be denied the ability to provide input, providing input is not the same as a challenge any more than being a witness makes one a litigant. The status of party to a hearing merely allows one to be heard. As the Court explained, “[i]t gives them a voice, not a vote.” The Court found that to hold otherwise would preclude any meaningful ability to settle such cases. For example, if Holt and the township reached a settlement resolving the challenge, it could not be implemented if the neighbors could prolong the litigation.

The Court held that the trial court erred when it ordered the Board to issue findings on the challenge after it had been withdrawn and that the Commonwealth Court’s order must be reversed. In a concurring opinion, Justice Saylor cautioned that the statutory term “parties to the hearing” is troublesome in that it has the potential to mislead participants into believing they have attained “party” status, when, in fact, without further action on their part, their role is much more limited. Justice Saylor cited a need for clarifying amendments to the MPC and, in the meantime, called on zoning hearing boards to make the limitations associated with the status of “parties to the hearing” plain to those who attain this status so they may further protect their interests as necessary.

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