Reihner v. City of Scranton Zoning Hearing Board, 176 A.3d 396 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2017)
A court is required to interpret ordinance provisions in the applicant’s favor if ambiguity exists in an ordinance provision. Here, there was ambiguity in the definition of "Bed & Breakfast Use" and, interpreting the ambiguity in favor of the application, the court ruled that the property owners did not operate a Bed & Breakfast because they did not serve breakfast to guests.
Applicants offered a bedroom in their single-family home for rent, using Airbnb, and were issued a Notice of Violation (Notice) for the illegal operation of a bed & breakfast in a residential district. “Bed & Breakfast Use” is a prohibited use in the residential zone in which the Applicants’ property was located. The City of Scranton (City) defined “Bed & Breakfast Use” as:
The use of a single family detached dwelling and/or accessory structure which includes the rental of overnight sleeping accommodations and bathroom access for a maximum of 10 temporary guests at any one time (except as otherwise provided for in this Ordinance), and which does not provide any cooking facilities or provision of meals for guests other than breakfast. This use shall only include a use renting facilities for a maximum of 14 consecutive days to any person(s) and shall be restricted to transient visitors of the area.
Applicants appealed shortly after receiving the Notice and, after a subsequent hearing, the City’s Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) upheld the Notice. After unsuccessfully appealing the ZHB’s decision to the trial court, Applicants appealed to the Commonwealth Court.
The Commonwealth Court held that any ambiguity and conflict in the language of an ordinance must be interpreted in favor of a landowner, and in the least restrictive use of the land. The Court determined that the requirement in the definition of “Bed & Breakfast Use” that the property “does not provide any cooking facilities or provision of meals for guests other than breakfast” was ambiguous. Applicants argued that this language meant that a bed & breakfast property must either provide breakfast or cooking facilities for guests to prepare their own breakfast in order to qualify as a bed & breakfast. The ZHB argued that this language meant that breakfast and cooking facilities were not required to meet the definition. Given the ambiguity, the Court sided with Applicants’ interpretation of the “Bed & Breakfast Use” definition, since it provided the Applicants with the greatest use of their property and overturned the Notice.
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