Citation:

Marchenko v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of Pocono Twp., 147 A.3d 947 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2016)

Summary:
Where an ordinance is vague or ambiguous, zoning hearing boards have a duty to construe the words of an ordinance broadly to ensure that any doubt in interpreting the zoning ordinance is resolved in favor of the landowner and the least restrictive use of the land.
Case Details:

Landowner owns a single-family dwelling (Property) in the Township’s Low Density Residential Zoning District. Landowner lives at the Property for most of the year and rents it out on weekends to help with her housing costs. The Township’s zoning officer issued a notice of violation (Notice) to Landowner, citing the use of the Property for commercial purposes, in contravention of the zoning ordinance. Landowner appealed the Notice to the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB), which found that Landowner was not using the Property as a single-family dwelling. Rather, the ZHB determined Landowner was using the Property as a “lodge,” which was transient usage and was not a permitted use under the zoning ordinance. Landowner appealed to the trial court which affirmed the ZHB’s decision. Landowner then appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

In reversing the decision of the trial court, the Commonwealth Court stated zoning hearing boards must construe ambiguous terms of a zoning ordinance broadly to ensure that any doubt in interpreting the zoning ordinance is resolved in favor of the landowner and the least restrictive use of the land. Under the zoning ordinance, a single-family dwelling is one that is occupied exclusively by one family. A “family” is defined as one or more persons, related or unrelated, living together as a traditional nuclear family would. Since Landowner used the Property as her primary residence and lived there alone when she was there, she was considered a “family.” Further, the zoning ordinance’s definition of single-family dwelling does not prohibit the weekend rental activity that Landowner engaged in. Concerning the claim that the weekend rentals are tantamount to “lodge” usage, the Court also disagreed. Referring to the dictionary definition of “lodge,” which is “a house or hotel in the country or mountains for people who are doing some outdoor activity,” the Court found the usage at issue did not meet the definition of lodge. Landowner used the Property as her primary residence and only rented it on weekends to defray her housing expenses; therefore, the Property was not being used as a “lodge.”

Date of Decision: 9/19/16

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