Posted by: Patricia Salkin | December 11, 2016

PA Appeals Court Reverses the Denial of a Zoning Permit Application for a Horse Barn

Suzanne M. Ebbert owned property consisting of 76 acres in Upper Saucon Township, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. On October 1, 2013, Ebbert applied for a zoning permit to build a 9,600-square-foot barn, six 864-square-foot permanent horse run-ins, and a related access road. When Ebbert submitted her zoning permit application, the Township’s Zoning Officer advised her that the Township’s Zoning Ordinance required compliance with all local laws, including the Township’s Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO). The Zoning Officer eventually denied Ebbert’s zoning permit application on the basis that the SALDO required Township approval of a land development plan, which Ebbert had not submitted. This case arose from Ebbert’s appeal from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County, affirming an order of the Upper Saucon Township Zoning Hearing Board, denying Ebbert a zoning permit.

Ebbert argued that the Board’s decision was clearly erroneous because it interpreted the definition of a “farm” in both the SALDO and the Zoning Ordinance as requiring that a parcel of land include a dwelling unit in order to be defined as a farm. The court found that despite the deference afforded to the Board’s interpretation, the Board’s interpretation was clearly at odds with the plain language of the SALDO and the Zoning Ordinance. Here, the language at issue could not reasonably be understood to mandate that a property include a dwelling unit in order to be considered a farm. The first sentence of the ordinance mandated that a farm must be used for “agricultural operations,” i.e., the production of agricultural products, livestock, poultry, or dairy products. The court determined that the language “shall be understood to include” was permissive language demonstrating that a property may include a dwelling unit, as well as structures designed to house animals and store feed.

The Board’s interpretation of the phrase “shall be understood to include,” the definition of a farm required that a parcel of land contain not only a dwelling unit, but “all structures necessary for the housing of animals, storage of feed and equipment, and other operations customarily incidental to farm use.” The court found that to require that a farm contain “all structures necessary for the housing of animals, storage of feed and equipment” would also exclude any farms that solely produce crops rather than raise animals. Here, the Property was used for an agricultural operation: the breeding, raising, and sale of horses, or is otherwise used for the raising of livestock within the definition set forth in the Zoning Ordinance. Moreover, the purpose of the proposed barn was found to be directly in furtherance of the Property’s agricultural purpose, and the record reflected that Ebbert had no intention of changing the character of the land’s usage. The court therefore held that the Board erred in determining that the Property was not a farm within the definitions set forth in the Zoning Ordinance and the SALDO. Accordingly, the order of the trial court affirming the decision of the Board was reversed.

Ebbert v. Upper Saucon Township Zoning Board, 2016 WL 6833081 (PA Commwlth 11/21/2016)

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