Riverfront Dev. Group, LLC v. City of Harrisburg Zoning Hearing Bd., 109 A.3d 358 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2015).

Where language in a zoning ordinance is ambiguous, it should be interpreted in favor of the applicant.
Case Details:

Applicant submitted a special exception and variance request to permit more than two two-unit dwellings on a vacant lot where the Zoning Hearing Board interpreted the provision to permit no more than two units total.  The Zoning Code permitted “one or two-family detached dwellings” but did not specify exactly how many detached dwelling were permitted on each lot.  The trial court affirmed the Zoning Hearing Board’s interpretation and Applicant appealed.

The Commonwealth Court reversed, noting that City Council intentionally placed a hyphen between the words “two” and “family” when drafting the Ordinance.  The Commonwealth Court determined the hyphen signified that “two-family” describes the type of ‘detached dwellings’ permitted rather than the number of ‘detached dwellings’ permitted.”   Further,  City Council “could have simply omitted the word ‘or’ to signify that only one two-family detached dwelling is permitted per lot” in the district because the “or” would not be necessary if the City intended to restrict the number of dwelling buildings. Because such ambiguities are to be construed in favor of the Applicant, the Zoning Hearing Board should have interpreted the language in favor of Applicant and his plan.

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