Gorsline v. Bd. of Supervisors of Fairfield Twp., 186 A.3d 375 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2018)

Where a “savings clause” in a zoning ordinance permits a proposed use as a conditional use or special exception if it is similar to and compatible with other uses permitted in the zoning district, there must be sufficient findings of fact establishing that similarity and compatibility. Additionally, a proposed use is not similar to nor “of the same general character” of a “public service facility” use or an “essential services” use if the proposed use does not provide services to residents of the municipality.
Case Details:

Pursuant to the Township’s Zoning Ordinance’s (Ordinance) “savings clause” for uses not provided for, Applicant submitted a conditional use application to the Board of Supervisors (Board) proposing the drilling and operation of gas wells in a residential-agricultural zoning district (R-A District).  The “savings clause” permitted an unaccounted for use by conditional use only if (1) it is similar to and compatible with the other uses permitted in the zone; (2) it is not permitted in any other zone under the terms of the Ordinance; and (3) it is not in conflict with the general purposes of the Ordinance. In addition, the Ordinance stated Applicant had the burden of showing that the proposed use meets the listed criteria in the savings clause and that it “would not be detrimental to the public health, safety, and welfare of the neighborhood where it is to be located.”

During the hearing on the application, Applicant argued the proposed use was similar to a “public service facility” which was a use permitted in the R-A District; however, the evidence on that issue was inconclusive.  The Ordinance defined a “public service facility” as “the erection, construction, alteration, operation or maintenance of buildings, power plants or substations, water treatment plants or pumping stations; sewage disposal or pumping plants and other similar public service structures by a utility, whether publicly or privately owned, or by a municipal or other governmental agency, including the furnishing of electrical, gas, communication, water supply and sewage disposal services.”  The Board, without explanation, determined the criteria in the “savings clause” were satisfied. The Board’s finding of fact and conclusions of law did not reference the first criterion, nor did they point to any permissible use that would be considered “similar to” Applicant’s proposed use.

Objectors appealed the Board’s decision to the trial court and won.  The Commonwealth Court overturned on appeal, the Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and held Applicant’s proposed use “is not, in any material respect, of the ‘same general character’ as any allowed use in the R-A zoning district, including the ‘public service facility’ use referenced by the trial court, and the ‘essential services’ use referenced by the Commonwealth Court.”  Per the Supreme Court, the Commonwealth Court improperly relied on a prior decision and applied the meaning of “of the same general character,” as utilized in that case, as the meaning of “similar to” in this case.  The Supreme Court further stated that, while the Commonwealth Court “insisted that the record contained ‘detailed findings of fact,’” the Board’s decision did not contain any findings of fact regarding similarity of use.” The Supreme Court stated Applicant’s proposed use was not of the “same general character as,” or “similar to,” “public service facility” or “essential services” uses because Applicant’s proposed use does not provide public or essential services to residents of the R-A district. It also does not provide infrastructure that would support and promote both agricultural and residential development in the Township. Instead, the Supreme Court found Applicant’s proposed use was intended only for Applicant’s “own commercial benefit.”

Date of Decision: 6/1/18

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