Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of the Borough of State College, 899 A.2d 399 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2006).

There is no particular percentage of a structure’s floor-area ratio that automatically defines the structure’s primary as opposed to accessory use; such a comparison is relevant, but not a controlling factor in any primary use inquiry.
Case Details:

The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown desired to transform three contiguous parcels of land into a “Catholic Student Center.” The land was located in the Borough of State College’s R-2 District, which allowed property to be used as a church or other place of worship, including accessory uses for religious instruction and religious schools, but precluding secular student centers. The proposed Center included, among other things, a seventy seat chapel where daily mass would be held, study rooms, kitchen, living room and a residential structure for three Benedictine monks who would oversee the facility.

The Borough’s Planning Officer approved the Concept Plan for the Center finding that the proposed uses of the Center are “religious in nature akin to a church” and any secular uses are incidental and logically connected with the principal use. Neighbors appealed the Planning Officer’s decision to the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB).

The ZHB overturned the Planning Officer’s approval finding that the primary proposed use of the facility was that of a student center, not a church or place of worship; that the structure was primarily for secular uses; and that the Center neither aligned with the character of the neighborhood nor promoted area homogeneity. The ZHB based its decision on the disparity in floor-area ratios between the chapel and the remainder of the facility finding that the residential portion of the structure was substantially larger then the chapel. Therefore, the primary use of the facility was a student center which the Zoning Ordinance did not permitted in an R-2 district. The Diocese appealed to the Court of Common Pleas.

The trial court reversed the ZHB reasoning that the Center was a “church” which is permitted as of right within the R-2 District. The trial court broadly defined a church as a “building dedicated to religion” and relied on testimony to establish that reaching out to youths in the community involves emersion in the vestments and traditions of the Catholic faith which is not limited to the use of the chapel itself.  Neighbors appealed.

The Commonwealth Court affirmed the trial court and rejected the Neighbors arguments that the Center’s primary use was a secular student center and not as a church; that even if the primary use was a church that the non-chapel portions are impermissible accessory uses; and the Center would disrupt the homogeneity of the historic district. Rather, the Commonwealth Court concluded, the primary use of a structure is not defined by any particular floor-area ratio and, furthermore, the ratio is only a relevant, not a controlling factor in a primary use inquiry. In addition, the Court held that because all of the Center’s uses, both chapel and non-chapel, are tied to providing a “religious home” to Catholics, the Center is a permissible accessory use within the “Religious Instruction” amendment to the ordinance. Finally, the Court determined that there was nothing in the record to indicate that the proposed structure would be an architectural eyesore and detract from the character of the neighborhood.

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