Hazelton Area School District v. Zoning Hearing Board of Hazle Township, 720 A.2d 220

The right of a zoning hearing board to impose conditions on the grant of special exceptions and variances for the operation of a public school recreation facility used for non-school purposes.
Case Details:

Note: Appeal Denied- case caption states it is a “recent decision”; Kee v. Pa Turnpike

Cross Reference: MPC Section 305

The zoning hearing board had granted to the School District a special exception along with certain variances to the for the construction of a public school, including athletic fields. Two years later the School District requested amendments to the conditions imposed previously which restricted the district’s right to use its ball fields for non-school-related baseball games. The Board denied the request citing the detrimental effect of the requested change on the residential uses in the vicinity of the ball fields, including traffic, parking, restrooms and security.

The School District appealed and the Court of Common Pleas affirmed the ZHB denial of the School District’s request. The School District then appealed to the Commonwealth Court which also affirmed the decision. The District alleged that the decision was arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion and that the decision improperly “pre-empted the School Districts statutory authority to manage its properties under the School Code. The District also raised the argument that the ZHB decision should be considered as merely advisory and not binding, citing MPC 305. On the latter issue, the court found that the cited language was clearly limited to recommendations of a Planning Commission and not to a Zoning Hearing Board.

On the key issue of preemption the Commonwealth Court found in favor of the ZHB, upholding the legality of the conditions imposed on the previously granted special exception and variances. The court focused on the fact that the proposed recreational uses were not necessary in order for the School District to carry out its legislative mandate related to meeting the educational needs of the community. The court concluded that in prohibiting non-school-related athletic activities the ZHB did not interfere with the School District’s educational responsibilities. It found that leasing the ball fields to outside agencies was not necessary for the school district’s to carry out its educational mandate. In a footnote, the court indicates that a ZHB could not preempt a School District’s right to use its fields for activities related to the school program.

The School Board cited Section 7-775 of the Public School Code as the basis for its claim to be free from zoning restrictions on its proposed use of the fields. Section 7-775 includes the power to lease school facilities, including recreational fields. The School District argued that this power should be preeminent over municipal zoning regulation. The District also argued general statutory construction principles that “specific” legislation should prevail over “general” legislation, with Section 7-775 being “specific” and the Municipalities Planning Code being “general” legislation. The ZHB argued that the School Code mandate did not “specifically” mandate preempting municipal zoning regulation and that the School District’s power to regulate school property only applied to school related activities.

The Supreme Court reiterated the two-pronged test previously employed in Commonwealth Department of General Services v. Ogontz Area Neighbor’s Association, 505 Pa. 614, 483 A2d 448 (1984). The test was held to be the proper method to resolve the proper result in the presence of allegedly conflicting statutes. Under Ogontz the first step of statutory interpretation in these “conflict” cases “requires the reviewing court to determine through examination of the statutes, which governmental entity, if any, the General Assembly expressly intended to be preeminent.”, id at 452. If the court finds no such express legislative mandate for preemption, the second step requires the court “to determine legislative intent as to which agency is to prevail” by finding legislative intent inherent in the consequences of a particular interpretation. Id. At 628.

In Ogontz the court concluded that the mandate for DPW to care for the mentally retarded was not preeminent over municipal zoning which did not permit such use (specifically, a center for the mentally retarded) in that particular district. Not finding any express legislative mandate for either the MPC or the DPW authorizing statute to be preeminent, the court focused on the second prong of the test, the consequences of finding either law preeminent. The court opined that if DPW was preeminent the Philadelphia zoning scheme “would be frustrated” while a finding in favor of city would only “inconvenience” and not frustrate DPW’s mandate. The court therefore held that DPW’s mandate did not preempt local Zoning.

A similar analysis and conclusion was reached in Kee v. Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, 722 A.2d 1123 (1998) summarized elsewhere in this site in which the Turnpike’s right to construct rest areas was found to be subject to municipal zoning and land development regulations. Again, in County of Venango v. Borough of Sugarbush, 534 Pa. 1, 626 A2d 489 (1993) the court found that the County Code’s authorization of jails was in fact subject to the Borough’s zoning regulations. It remains clear, however, that the courts will not uphold the use of zoning to zone out the construction and uses of schools for school related purposes.

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