Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 8, 2014

PA Appeals Court Holds that Presence of an Easement Does Not Diminish or Extinguish the Possessory Interest of a Fee Holder and Therefore Rules for Specially Planned District Apply

Prior to this case, Allegheny Valley Railroad Company (“Railroad”) appealed from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, denying its land use appeal in which it sought to invalidate a recently enacted ordinance amending the City of Pittsburgh’s Zoning Code, which created a new Specially Planned District (“SP District”), designated SP 8/Riverfront Landing, on a parcel where Railroad asserted it had an easement. Railroad asserted that its easement rendered the parcel ineligible for the new zoning classification. Noting that rezoning constitutes a legislative act subject to limited judicial review and that Railroad had failed to raise either a procedural due process or a substantive validity challenge to the ordinance, The Court of Common Pleas concluded that it lacked authority to review the matter and denied the appeal.

Pursuant to Zoning Code Section 909.01.D.1, Criteria for Establishment of an SP District, “One hundred (100) percent of the land in an SP District shall be controlled by the applicant for the SP District at the time of application through ownership or sales options.” According to Railroad, it advised the City by letter prior to enactment of the Ordinance that it owns a rail easement across the Buncher property in the proposed SP 8 District, which prevented Buncher from satisfying the Section 909.01.D.1 requirement that the applicant control 100% of the land. The court, however, disagreed and stated that it would be illogical to construe the Code to provide that on the one hand, public thoroughfares, railroad tracks and other rights-of-way running through and separating an applicant’s land will not preclude the applicant from meeting the minimum acreage required for a development in an SP District, but on the other hand, such rights-of-way will prevent the applicant from satisfying the unified control requirement.

Accordingly, the Court held that a fee simple interest may be burdened by an easement and that easement may indeed decrease the value of the land by limiting its development, but the presence of the easement in no way diminishes or extinguishes the possessory interest of the fee holder. The ruling of the Court of Common Pleas was therefore affirmed.

Allegheny Valley Railroad Company v City of Pittsburgh, 95 A.3d 938 (PA Cmwlth 7/7/2014)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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