This week, we continue our 7-part series on land planning in Pennsylvania. So far, we looked at the Municipal Planning Code and Planning Commissions. Now it is time to start getting into the process of land planning. The first element to land planning is zoning.
What is zoning? Zoning allows a municipality to regulate the use of land and structures. By regulating use, a municipality maintains character and creates livable communities. These regulations encourage certain development, in certain areas. The zoning ordinance codifies the regulations. It is a locally enacted law that protects health, safety and welfare.
Municipal Planning Code (MPC) states that a zoning ordinance achieve the following:
- Promote, protect and facilitate public health, safety, welfare and development.
- Prevent overcrowding, blight, congestion, or loss of health, life or property.
- Preserve prime agriculture
- Provide for the use of land for various dwelling types
- Accommodate reasonable community growth
- Municipal Planning Code and Local Land Use Controls
- Planning Commissions
- Zoning and Zoning Officer
- Zoning Hearing Board
- Special Exceptions, Conditional Uses and Variances
- Subdivision and Land Development
- Agricultural Planning
The written zoning ordinance contains the specific regulations. Zoning ordinances establish zoning districts. The districts guide the development of the community. The zoning map shows these districts location and boundary. Each district follows a unique set of rules for. These include permitted uses, density, dimension and other requirements. Besides standard zoning districts, ordinances can establish overlay districts. These districts supplement the underlying zoning requirements. Some examples are historical districts, natural resource districts and highway corridors.
District specific regulations cover use and dimensional limitations. Usage regulations set specific types of housing, business, etc. in a district. There are three types of usages: by right, special exceptions or conditional use. We will look more at these in the coming weeks. Dimensional regulations establish the size of lots and buildings. Their intended purpose is to maintain character and prevent overcrowding. Lot size, building setback, percent impervious coverage, and building height, are dimensional regulations.
The zoning ordinance also contains non-district specific regulations. These can include off-street parking requirements, sign limitations, and floodplain regulations. The intended purpose is to establish guidelines for safety and prevent nuisances. Off-street parking ensures there are enough spaces for the land usages. An example is a commercial shopping center. They must have enough capacity to handle the busiest times. The goal is to prevent the need for people to have to park on roadways or unsafety access a property. Sign regulations cover location, size and quantity. The goal is to not distract drivers or create a nuisance. Another example are floodplain regulations. These ensure construction does not increase hazards.
Finally, a zoning ordinance contains a section for administration of the ordinance. The administration includes zoning permits, enforcement, fees, the zoning hearing board, and non-conformance. A non-conformance occurs when an existing use or structure no longer conforms because of a revision to the ordinance. These non-conformances are constitutionally protected until abandoned. An example would be a building used for industrial use but now in a residential zone. If the industrial usage ends, then the parcel must conform to the current zoning.
The administration of the municipality’s ordinance falls on the Zoning Officer. The governing body appoints the zoning officer, per the MPC. The officer cannot hold elective office in the municipality. They must meet qualifications and administer the ordinance in literal terms. The officer does not have the power to allow a permit that does not conform to the zoning ordinance.
Zoning permits authorize the use of land, structure or sign that meets the ordinance. The zoning officer has the exclusive right to approve an application. Some instances need a special exception, conditional use or variance. In these instances, a hearing occurs.
The zoning officers do not drive around looking for violations. Instead, inspections occur by chance, as part of an approval, or complaint. In the case of inspection by chance or complaint, the officer must get consent to access the property. Though the inspection may occur from the right-of-way or public property without consent. The officer obtains an administrative search warrant to access without consent. This comes from the magisterial district judge. The inspector generates a formal report to the owner and governing body.
Finally, if an inspection results in a violation, the zoning officer initiates enforcement. In most instances, the violators are unaware they are in violation of the ordinance. In these cases, most violations are voluntarily resolved without formal proceedings. In the instance of formal action, the officer issues an enforcement notice. The goal of the notice is to gain compliance, not to apply a fine or punishment. The notice must contain the owner's information and property information. It must state the specific violation, the date of compliance, a notice of right to appeal and what happens if failure to comply. The zoning hearing board hears appeals of violations.
Who is ACA?
Started in 1992 and located in Chester County, PA ACA has grown to become a full-service engineering firm. Today, we merge professional services with practical knowledge for residential and commercial projects. No matter the scale, from installing a fence, to building a structure or developing land, you need permits. Because the approval process includes many permits and agencies, it can be a headache. Working with ACA’s full-service team saves you time, money, and headaches. Every step of the way, we are here to support you and educate you about the process. Here are some of the basic services we provide:
Construction Management | Civil Engineering | Environmental Permitting | Septic System Testing and Design | Land Surveying | Wetland Delineations and Mitigation
Please feel free to browse our website or if working on a project or need help, contact us at (610) 469-3830.