Blue Mountain Preservation Assn. v. Twp. of Eldred,
867 A.2d 692 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2005)
On a 350-acre parcel adjacent to the Appalachian Trail, a developer planned to build a resort featuring a road course designed specifically for high-performance vehicles. The developer submitted a preliminary land development plan to the township’s Board of Supervisors (Board). Although the township had no zoning ordinance and no zoning hearing board, the township’s subdivision and land use ordinance (SALDO) required Board to review the land development plan and approve, conditionally approve, or reject such plans. The Board approved the plan on the condition that the area’s ambient noise levels would remain within 5 decibels of pre-development levels.
Objectors concerned with the resort’s potential impact on the Appalachian Trail appealed the Board’s decision eventually to the Commonwealth Court. Addressing multiple distinct legal theories raised by the objectors, the Commonwealth Court confirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded to the lower court to further clarify where the noise level monitoring sites would be located, because the developer’s plan did not specify where the benchmark measurements were taken, nor did the Board’s condition specify where the measurements would be taken in the future.
In reaching its decision, the Commonwealth Court had to decide several important land-use related issues. First, it held that Section 1005-A of the Municipalities Planning Code does not require common pleas judges to make specific findings of fact on all issues when hearing new evidence–such as determining the credibility of each new witness. The court affirmed its prior precedent that to satisfy Section 1005-A the judge need only “set forth sufficient factual findings to enable appellate review.”
Second, finding a distinction between special exception applications and land development applications, it concluded that the court of common pleas did not err by allowing the developer to modify the plan at the common pleas level without requiring review and approval of the modification by the Township’s Board (distinguishing its prior holding in Lafayette that it was error for a court of common pleas to allow modification of a special exception application without also requiring the municipality’s review and approval of the modification).
Third, on the issue of whether common pleas erred in finding that Developer’s promise to comply satisfied Township’s condition–notwithstanding Developer’s own data suggesting that several locations could exceed the 5 decibel requirement–the Commonwealth Court again distinguished a land development application from a special exception applicant. It held that whether the plan complied with the SALDO condition was a question of fact to be argued by experts and resolved at the trial court level (distinguishing its prior holdings in Baird and Edgmontwhich held that a promise to comply with certain conditions associated with a special exception application–that on its face was contravened by the promisor’s own data–should be denied as a matter of law and required no determination of fact at the common pleas level).
Fourth, consistent with longstanding precedent, the Commonwealth Court confirmed the unenforceability of ordinance provisions that require development plans to address the “harmony” of the proposed use with the surrounding environment. In addition, in “declin[ing] to micromanage the Board’s process for reviewing and approving development plans,” it rejected the argument that common pleas and the Board could not look outside of the Community Impact Analysis–as required by the SALDO–to determine whether Developer complied with the requirement that it address how the proposed use would impact the “natural ecology” of the area.
Fifth, the Commonwealth Court rejected Challenger’s argument that Article I Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and the Appalachian Trail Act (which implements Art. I Section 27) affirmatively obligated the Township to enact a zoning ordinance or to amend its SALDO to protect the Trail and its “soundscape.” First, the court noted that the MPC does not mandate municipalities to adopt zoning ordinances. Second, consistent with its decision in Payne, the court concluded that Art. I Section 27 only required a “consideration” of the Trail Act and the SALDO, and that neither of the two affirmatively obligated the Township to create special zoning around the Trail or enact noise ordinances around the Trail.
Finally, the Commonwealth Court applied prior Supreme Court precedent from Menger and affirmed the common pleas finding that the resort did not constitute a nuisance per se. Applying Menger, the court concluded that the resort would not “deleteriously affect the health and comfort of the community.”
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