Appeal of Chester Cty. Outdoor, LLC, 167 A.3d 280 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2017), aff’d. Appeal of Chester Cty. Outdoor, LLC, 2018 Pa. LEXIS 545.
Where a proposal is not appended to a validity challenge of a zoning ordinance, the one-year time limitation to file for a building permit under Section 10916(g) of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) is not applicable. Further, a trial court does not have jurisdiction to grant site specific relief if the developer did not first file an appropriate application with the local municipality. Finally, while a developer must first submit its request for site specific relief to a municipality, the trial court is the ultimate decision maker and has broad discretion as to its review of the record and additional evidence.
Developer successfully challenged Township’s zoning ordinance in a claim that billboards were unlawfully excluded. Developer did not append a proposal or plan to the application for the validity challenge. Developer did not seek a building permit within one year of winning its validity challenge. During this process, the Township approved its own curative amendment. Three years after winning its validity challenge, Developer sought site-specific relief and the Township’s Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) appointed a special master and denied the requested relief. Deferring to the ZHB’s findings of fact and conclusions of law, the trial court denied Developer’s appeal from the ZHB without reviewing the evidence de novo. In addition, the trial court held Developer’s permit application was untimely. Developer appealed to the Commonwealth Court.
The Commonwealth Court held Developer was not untimely in filing its request for a building permit. Section 916(g) of the MPC states, in part: “[w]here the proposal appended to the . . . validity challenge is approved but does not require further application under any subdivision or land development ordinance, the developer shall have one year within which to file for a building permit.” Since Developer did not append a proposal to its validity challenge, Section 916(g) was inapplicable. Section 916(g) applies only where a proposal is appended to a validity challenge.
In addition, the Court held Developer’s arguments regarding jurisdiction to determine whether site-specific relief is warranted failed. Per the Court, trial courts are not authorized to approve site-specific relief unless the relief originally was sought from the municipality. Indeed, a trial court lacks jurisdiction to “review plans or applications that had never been submitted to the appropriate authority for consideration.” Accordingly, Developer could not have sought site-specific relief directly from the trial court.
Finally, when a trial court has jurisdiction to review a request for site-specific relief, the trial court is required to “conduct a de novo review of the evidence.” After conducting its de novo review, the trial court is permitted to accept a zoning hearing board’s findings as its own. It also may hold a hearing and take additional evidence. Following its review, the trial court must grant site-specific relief, unless the municipality proves the challenger’s (Developer) proposal is incompatible with “the materiality of certain unchallenged, pre-existing, and generally applicable provisions of the Ordinance.” In addition, where a zoning ordinance has been amended after a validity challenge was filed, the trial court may not apply the new adopted provisions. Further, if the trial court determines the proposed site-specific relief is improper, it must “consider alternative sites and/or alternative configurations for the proposed [use] and fashion some form of site-specific relief.” In Developer’s case, the trial court failed to comply with all of the procedures and requirements above. Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court remanded the case for the trial court to properly review the matter.
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