Shvekh v. Zoning Hearing Bd., 154 A.3d 408 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2017)
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.
Landowner owned real property (Property) in a district that did not allow properties to be used as “tourist homes.” Landowner and her family resided in the home some weeks but rented out the entire home for other weeks as a “vacation rental.” The Township’s zoning officer issued a notice of violation (Notice) to Landowner, stating the Property was being used as a tourist home in violation of the zoning ordinance. Landowner appealed the Notice and the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) conducted hearings concerning the alleged violation. The ZHB denied Landowner’s appeal because it found the Property was being used as a tourist home. Landowner appealed to the trial court, which affirmed the decision of the ZHB. Landowners then appealed to the Commonwealth Court.
On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Landowner argued the ZHB misinterpreted the zoning ordinance in a way that does not match its actual language. The Court agreed. Zoning hearing boards have a duty to construe ambiguous words of an ordinance broadly so that any doubt in interpreting the zoning ordinance is resolved in favor of the landowner and the least restrictive use of the land. Further, municipalities may not advance a new and strained interpretation of its zoning ordinance in lieu of amending the provision. Here, the interpretation was too restrictive because (1) the zoning officer admitted that homeowners who rent out the entire dwelling as opposed to individual rooms are not engaging in tourist home activities; (2) single family dwellings are defined under the zoning ordinance as those that are designed for one family, and the home on the Property is designed for one family; and (3) there is no provision in the zoning ordinance that precludes vacation rentals. Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the trial court.
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