Great Valley School District v. ZHB of East Whiteland Twp.
863 A.2d 74 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004)

Case Details:

Great Valley School District requested a variance to construct four light structures eighty-five feet high to illuminate a high school football field. The ordinance limits non-residential structures to thirty-five feet in the Residential Zoning District in which the high school was located. In considering the request, the ZHB first determined that the School District requested a dimensional variance, which has a more relaxed standard for “unnecessary hardship” than a use variance. Despite the relaxed standard, the ZHB denied the School District’s application for a variance because the ordinance did not pose an unnecessary hardship on the School District and that the lighting structures would adversely impact the neighboring properties because of the excess noise and light from football games played at night.

The School District appealed the ZHB’s decision to the Trial Court. The Trial Court reversed the ZHB’s decision holding that the ZHB incorrectly applied the relaxed standard of unnecessary hardship under the dimensional variance analysis. It stated that the School District’s property had unique characteristics that made a variance necessary for it to reasonably use the property. The Trial Court also dismissed the concerns over an adverse impact of the lights on the neighboring properties as mere speculation.

An objector to the variance appealed the Trial Court’s Order to the Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth Court reversed the Trial Court’s Order and affirmed the ZHB’s decision to deny the application for the variance. The Court first noted that the Trial Court did not specify what the unique characteristics of the property were that created an unnecessary hardship under the ordinance. Next, the Court explained that under the analysis for a dimensional variance, the landowner must show an unnecessary hardship; however, the Court is permitted to weigh several more factors than under the use variance analysis. Such factors include the economic hardship on the landowner to conform the property to the dimensional requirements and the characteristics of the surrounding neighborhood. The Court emphasized that there still remains a substantial burden for the landowner to prove that the ordinance creates an unnecessary hardship for him to comply. The Court held that the ordinance did pose an unnecessary hardship on the School District when the School District has been able to, and continues to, run a functioning high school using existing and conforming thirty-five foot light standards.

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