McGonigle v. Lower Heidelberg Twp. ZHB
858 A.2d 663 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2004)

Case Details:

A landowner presented multiple challenges to an agricultural preservation district that required properties to maintain a size of at least 40 acres and permitted by special exception subdivision to accommodate detached single-family homes on minimum one acre lots. A landowner of a 38.5-acre farm wanted to build two commercial office buildings, each two stories, on his property. The landowner claimed that the ordinance was invalid because it did not relate to preserving agriculture; that the regulations of the district as applied to the property were de facto exclusionary because the property was in the path of growth and no reasonable use could be made of the property; and sought, in the alternative, a use variance. The court held that the ordinance was valid under all three theories.

The landowner claimed that the ordinance did not relate to the preservation of agriculture. The court stated that to determine if an ordinance preserving agriculture is valid, the interests of a property owner to use his land must be weighed against the interests of the community as a whole to preserve prime agricultural lands. The court first opined that the preservation of agricultural lands is recognized as a legitimate governmental goal that can be implemented through zoning regulations and that zoning for density is a legitimate exercise of the police power to preserve farmlands. The court also opined that the Supreme Court decision in C & M Developers v. Bedminster Twp. ZHB, 820 A.2d 143 (Pa. 2002), was not applicable because the landowner was seeking to develop offices, not single-family dwellings on his property. The Court concluded that the minimum lot size requirements were reasonable and substantially related to the Township’s interest in preserving farmlands and held that the ordinance was valid. The Court explained that the landowner’s right to use his land was not unreasonably restricted because he was able to build twenty single family detached dwellings. The Court also recognized the testimony of the township’s expert that, in his opinion, forty acres prevents farmland from being subdivided into lots too small for farming to be an economically viable option.

Next, the landowner presented a validity challenge claiming the application of the requirements of the ordinance on his property was de facto exclusionary because the property was in the path of growth and could not reasonably be used in full compliance with the ordinance. To prove that an ordinance is invalid because it is exclusionary, the landowner must demonstrate that (1) the community is a logical area for growth, (2) the community is in the path of population growth, and (3) the ordinance has the effect of unlawfully excluding the legitimate use in question. The landowner argued that, where the property abuts a major roadway, water and sewer facilities, is within a half mile of a highly developed area in an adjacent township and lies opposite a property rezoned to permit a suburban residential development, the property is in the path of growth. Notwithstanding these features, the Court gave great weight to the presence of an intervening creek, municipal park, and adjacent agricultural property as establishing a boundary between the agricultural uses and growth and development emanating from the adjacent township to conclude that the property is not in the path of growth.

Finally, the landowner argued that the ordinance resulted in spot zoning because a neighboring property was zoned residential to permit the development of a suburban density residential neighborhood. However, the court stated that the proper argument would be “reverse spot zoning,” because the landowner was complaining about the rezoning of a property other then his own. The court concluded that because every other property was in the agricultural preserve district, the landowner could not show that the ordinance resulted in reverse spot zoning.


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