Appeal of Bartkowski Inv. Group, Inc., 106 A.3d 230 (Pa. Commw Ct. 2014).

Discussion of the process for evaluating site-specific relief after a successful validity challenge.
Case Details:

Applicant submitted applications for several billboards in the Township and filed a substantive validity challenge alleging that the Township’s Zoning Ordinance excluded billboards.  The Township opposed the Applicant.  Multiple experts testified on the Township’s behalf, including the Deputy Police Chief who testified to the type and number of accidents along the relevant roads, an engineer who testified the billboards could be more distracting than typical on-premise signs because of their size, a land use planner who testified that the billboards would negatively affect the “scenic, historic, and aesthetic values” of the Township, and another engineer who testified regarding safety issues and the possibility that the billboards would collapse.  Relying on that evidence, the Zoning Hearing Board determined that the Zoning Ordinance did not totally exclude billboards.   On appeal, the trial court concluded that the Zoning Hearing Board’s decision was in error, but that the evidentiary record was sufficient to support the Zoning Hearing Board’s determination that Applicant’s requested site-specific relief was not warranted because it would harm the public health, safety and welfare.

On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, the Commonwealth Court began by stating that a successful challenge to a zoning ordinance does not automatically permit carte blanchedevelopment of the site by the challenger.  Rather, such a determination merely permits a trial court to consider whether site-specific relief is appropriate.  However, only a trial court, and not a zoning hearing board, can make such a determination as the MPC grants that original jurisdiction solely to the trial court.  In the instant matter, the trial court erred by “affirming” the Zoning Hearing Board’s site-specific relief determination.  The trial court should have not relied on the Zoning Hearing Board’s findings and, instead, conducted its own proceedings to create its own findings.  The error was without consequence, though, and remand was inappropriate, because the Court was “convinced that the result would not be any different.”  Accordingly, the Court affirmed the trial court’s decision regarding site-specific relief.

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