Does Your Community Need a Zoning Ordinance?

Zoning Ordinances are designed to promote, protect, and facilitate the public health and safety, conserve natural resources, and encourage the orderly growth and development of the community. Zoning of the community insures the best usage of available areas and avoids the juxtaposition of incompatible elements. They minimize the problems of land use conflicts and encourage clustering of similar development within various sectors of the community according to highest and best use considerations of: topography, soil type, and current usage. Zoning provides information for judicious planning for infrastructure extension and/or improvement, the delivery of municipal services, and preservation of the natural beauty and character of the community.

Required changes in local municipal Subdivision and Land Development ordinances are included in the new rules and regulations of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, Act 247 as amended by Act 170 of 1988. In order to plan for and guide the development of the community, Subdivision and Land Development Ordinances provide the basis for conformance to municipal codes and regulations and sound community planning practices. Municipal officials are provided with information to use in the decision making process involving land usage and to insure compliance with all regulations and applicable rules including those of PA DER under the Sewage Facilities Act 537.

Municipalities throughout the Commonwealth are re-evaluating their existing zoning ordinances in light of recent changes in federal laws, state laws, land use regulation strategies, development patterns, and local conditions. As a result we seized both an opportunity and a need to provide municipalities with ordinances that are simpler to use, in common language rather than legalize, and stronger, while being more detailed. We believe our new approach to ordinances have produced one of the finest formats in the Commonwealth and addresses many new issues relevant to your municipality. As you consider our firm for the writing or updating of your ordinances, ask yourself the following questions:

Does your ordinance regulate "group homes" in accordance with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Fair Housing Amendments Act? Many -- if not most Pennsylvanian zoning ordinances regulate group homes in ways that these acts have deemed illegal, making both municipalities and municipal officials subject to substantial penalties, fines, and plaintiff attorney fees if successfully challenged. At the firm of Richard C. Sutter and Associates, our staff is very familiar with these statutes and the case law that surrounds them. We work hard to keep our clients safely clear of potential court challenges.

Does your ordinance properly address the current growth in the cellular telecommunications industry? The Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 (P.L. No. 104-104) will have a major impact on many municipalities: it largely deregulates the telecommunications industry, allows new communications providers to move into each area (each new provider will usually build its own tower), and sets up a framework that strictly controls how municipalities may regulate the placement of these towers. Many -- if not most Pennsylvanian zoning ordinances fail to address this legislation or ignore the current proliferation of cellular communications facilities. At RCS&A, our staff stays on top of legislative and technological changes in the telecommunications industry. We work with each of our clients to guarantee that both the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the public's need for cellular communications will be respected without compromising the client's appearance or quality of life.

Does your ordinance comply with recent amendments to the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (P.L. 805, No. 247, as amended)? On February 18, 1997, four changes to this code went into effect. Some of these changes affect the procedures that zoning hearing boards must use in handling enforcement appeals, and that governing bodies must use in handling conditional use applications. At RCS&A, we work to insure that our clients and their ordinances will keep abreast of such changes in the Municipalities Planning Code.

Does your ordinance properly address sexually oriented businesses? Many Pennsylvanian municipalities who are concerned about the growth of these facilities simply do not permit them in any of their zoning districts, assuming that this will be enough to keep them out. However, Pennsylvanian case law holds that sexually oriented businesses usually have a right, as a reasonable land use, to locate in every municipality (see Gascoe, Ltd. V. Newtown Township, 1988). At RCS&A, we are experienced in (1) adjusting zoning ordinances so that sexually oriented businesses will be limited to the area of a municipality where they will do the least damage, and (2) writing separate ordinances that place these businesses under a wide variety of regulations and permitting requirements.

Is your ordinance consistent with your comprehensive plan? Although Section 303 of the Municipalities Planning Code states that municipal actions shall not "be subject to challenge or appeal on the basis that such action is inconsistent with . . . the comprehensive plan," recent Pennsylvanian case law suggests that zoning ordinances and enforcement actions are weaker in court challenges if they do not follow the municipality's comprehensive plan (see Baker v. Chartiers Township Zoning Hearing Board, 677 A.2d 1274 [Commonwealth Court 1996]). At RCS&A, we place purpose statements in each section of each of our ordinances that explain the rationale behind the regulations through explicitly tying the regulation to supporting objectives and conclusions from the involved comprehensive plan. Not only does this legally strengthen our ordinances, it also explains to landowners exactly why their property is being regulated as it is.

Does your ordinance properly respect home owners, business owners, and their property investments? Many zoning ordinances force the involved zoning officer to either "look the other way" or enforce a provision that was not completely thought out, that is not backed by the community's true goals and objectives, and that could drastically diminish the value of a popular home or business. At RCS&A, we work with each of our clients to develop an ordinance that fits their community as closely as is possible, that guides their community toward its desired future, and that only requires individual sacrifices when (1) this future is clearly at stake, and (2) this sacrifice is not overly burdensome.

Is your ordinance too hard to enforce? All zoning ordinances in Pennsylvania must require that zoning officers, zoning hearing boards, and governing bodies make certain findings before they make a decision regarding a citizen or his/her property. However, many ordinances provide only general, unquantified statements about what these findings should be. Wherever possible, our ordinances quantify their requirements using standards that we have developed over our two decades of experience in Pennsylvania.

Is your ordinance too complicated? Many modern zoning ordinances are patch works of dense, archaic "legalese" without an easily-detected organization. Understanding these ordinances can be difficult to even experienced zoning officers, let alone to the citizens that are being regulated. At RCS&A, we place a premium on simplicity, believing that an ordinance has failed if it cannot be quickly read and understood by common high school students. Our ordinances are simply organized and self-directing -- a "Readers Guide" to the ordinance, in the ordinance's preface, explicitly tells the reader which sections do and do not apply to his or her concerns. Furthermore, purpose statements are put at the head of each section that state what that section regulates and why -- in terms of the public good being promoted. We highly emphasize the use of tables, charts, and graphics over paragraphs of monotonous text. Where textual clarifications are necessary, we place them in the definitions section of the ordinance.





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