River’s Edge Funeral Chapel & Crematory, Inc. v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of Tullytown Borough, 150 A.3d 132 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2016)

Where a zoning ordinance does not define a use, considering how other relevant documents, such as dictionaries or related statutes, define the term is reasonable. When considering whether a use is the principal use or an accessory use, it is proper to consider the relative size of the area utilized by both uses, employment needs, and operations, among other considerations. In addition, zoning hearing boards should enforce an ordinance in accordance with applicable law and not impose their own belief of what the zoning ordinance should require.
Case Details:

Applicant sought approval to operate a funeral home and crematory on property (Property) located in a zoning district that permits operation of funeral homes as a principal use and operation of a crematory as an accessory use, but prohibits operation of a crematory as a principal use. The Borough’s Zoning Officer denied the application, stating the operation of a crematory was the principal proposed use of the Property. Applicant filed an appeal to the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB), which denied Applicant’s appeal for the same reason cited by the Zoning Officer. Further, the ZHB noted the appearance of the facility seemed like it was more like a crematory than a funeral home. Applicant appealed to the trial court, which reversed the decision of the ZHB. The trial court found that, since the plans indicate only 12 percent of the building’s total area would be used for the crematory, the crematory could not be considered a principal use. Further, various services, in keeping with the operation of a funeral home, would be offered at the Property and would be managed by a funeral home director. Therefore, the proposed operation of the crematory was not a principal use, but an accessory use. The Borough appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court considered the term “funeral home.” The term “funeral home” was not defined by the Borough’s Zoning Ordinance, therefore, the Court looked to definitions from a dictionary, the funeral director laws (63 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 479.2(6)), and the State Board of Funeral Director’s requirements for funeral establishments (49 Pa. Code § 13.94), to determine whether the proposed use was a funeral home. The proposed use met the definitions mentioned above and, therefore, was a funeral home.

Next, the Court sought to determine whether the Property’s principal use would be a funeral home or a crematory. The principal use was found to be a funeral home for the same reasons mentioned by the trial court. Though size is not determinative of principal or accessory uses, the fact that the crematory would take up only 12 percent of the total area of the building was considered in this determination. Further, the Applicant’s hiring of a funeral director with over forty years of experience and dedication of a large portion of the building to funeral home services indicated that operation of a funeral home would be the principal use of the facility. Finally, the Court noted the ZHB’s statement about the appearance of the building had no connection to the law and should not have been considered. The Court reminded that zoning hearing boards should enforce an ordinance in accordance with applicable law and not impose their own belief of what the zoning ordinance should require.

Date of Decision: 11/16/16

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