Posted by: Patricia Salkin | April 14, 2015

PA Appeal Court Finds City Zoning Provision Permitting “One or Two-Family Detached Dwellings,” Without Limiting How Many Detached Dwellings Permitted, Ambiguous

Riverfront Development Group, LLC (Applicant) filed an application for a special exception and a variance from the City of Harrisburg Zoning Code section 7–309.16, which the Board interpreted as providing a restriction of a maximum of two units per lot, in order to erect two, two-unit rental apartment buildings and to waive portions of the setback and accessory parking requirements. Riverfront appealed from an order of the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, affirming the decision of the City of Harrisburg Zoning Hearing Board that denied Applicant’s variance and special exception application.

The Applicant first argued that the Board abused its discretion in interpreting the Zoning Code contrary to its plain meaning. Section 7–309.14(a) of the Zoning Code permits the construction of “one or two-family detached dwellings having a floor area of four hundred (400) square feet or more for each family” in an RLB so long as the buildings are in conformance with the remainder of the Zoning Code. The Board argued that, in interpreting its own ordinance, the language of the Zoning Code prohibits the construction of more than one two-family unit per lot in an RLB.  However, the Applicant asserted that section 7–309.14(a) allows for the construction of as many units as feasible within the dimensional restrictions of the Zoning Code, so long as the units are one- or two-family. The court found that the Board had an obligation to construe the words of an ordinance as broadly as possible to give the landowner the benefit of the least restrictive use when interpreting its own Zoning Code, and any doubt must be interpreted in favor of the landowner. Thus, the Board improperly read into the Zoning Code a rule that there may only be one dwelling per lot. Accordingly, the court held that the Board abused its discretion in denying Applicant’s variance and special exception application on the grounds that Applicant’s proposal to build two dwellings on one lot was not in accordance with the Zoning Code, and reversed the trial court.

Riverfront Development Group, LLC v City of Harrisburg Zoning Hearing Board, 109 A.3d 358 (PA Commwlth 1/30/2015)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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