Twp. of Robinson v. Esposito, 2019 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 493 (May 31, 2019)

Enforcement notices for zoning violations must comply with section 616.1(c) of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code.
Case Details:

A building owner (Owner) was issued a certificate of occupancy listing the Owner’s property (Property) as an “Office” within the C-2 Community Commercial Zoning District in the Township.  Examples of allowable “Office” uses under the Township’s zoning ordinance (Zoning Ordinance) included banks or professional or medical offices.  Owner used the Property to house a counseling business (TCI) and a realty office.  The Township sent Owner two letters alleging that TCI’s operations, without a certificate of occupancy, violated the Zoning Ordinance.  The first letter demanded that TCI cease and desist operations within 48 hours of Owner receiving the letter, and that the Township would enforce the Zoning Ordinance if Owner did not comply.  The second letter, which was sent one week later, explained that the Township intended to file citations against Owner and that Owner needed a new zoning permit if he was to continue operating TCI at the Property.  Owner continued operating TCI and was found guilty of a criminal summary offense under the Township Municipal Code Violations for violating the Zoning Ordinance.  Owner appealed the summary offense to the Trial Court, which dismissed his appeal, stating he had to either file an application for a certificate of occupancy or zoning permit or appeal the conviction to the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB).

On further appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Owner argued that the citation was invalid because the Township did not provide proper notice of its enforcement action as required by section 616.1(c) of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC).  Section 616.1(c) provides that a notice must include at least the following six items:

  1. The name of the owner of record and any other person against whom the municipality intends to take action.
  2. The location of the Property in violation.
  3. The specific violation with a description of the requirements which have not been met, citing in each instance the applicable provisions of the ordinance.
  4. The date before which the steps for compliance must be commenced and the date before which the steps must be completed.
  5. That the recipient of the notice has the right to appeal to the zoning hearing board within a prescribed period of time in accordance with procedures set forth in the ordinance.
  6. That failure to comply with the notice within the time specified, unless extended by appeal to the zoning hearing board, constitutes a violation, with possible sanctions clearly described.

The Commonwealth Court held that neither of the Township’s alleged enforcement notices (the letters) complied with the requirements of Section 616.1(c) of the MPC because they (1) did not identify dates before which steps for compliance needed to be commenced nor the date before which steps had to be completed and (2) did not advise Owner of his right to appeal the alleged noncompliance.  Additionally, the first letter was addressed to Owner personally, not to the Property’s owner of record (an LLC operated by Owner) and did not adequately state any specific violation of the ordinance.  The second letter also failed to clearly describe the possible sanctions.  Because both letters failed to comply with Section 616.1(c) of the MPC, the Court concluded that the summary offense was invalid.

Date of Decision: 5/31/19

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