Posted by: Patricia Salkin | September 29, 2020

PA Appeals Court Upholds Town Zoning Hearing Board’s Decision to Retract Ordinances Which Constituted Spot Zoning

This post was authored by Joseph Rose, Touro Law Center

In March 2016, Appellant Allen Distribution (Allen) filed an application with the West Pennsboro Township, Pennsylvania, Zoning Hearing Board (Board) seeking to rezone two tracts of land from High Density Residential (R-2) to Industrial (I). One tract of land contained 70 acres of land and the other contained 62 acres, totaling 132 acres. Allen intended to purchase both tracts of land and intended to build cross-docking facilities on both tracts. After public hearings, the Board granted ordinances which rezoned both tracts of land from R-2 to I.

The ordinances were subsequently objected to by two nearby residents, and after several hearings, the Board concluded the ordinances were invalid stating the ordinances “ unjustifiably, arbitrarily, and unreasonably single out land for different treatment than from that accorded to similar surrounding land of the same character for the economic benefit of Allen” and is considered spot zoning. The decision was appealed to the state trial court. The trial court affirmed the Board’s decision and the Allen appealed further.

In their decision to retract the ordinances, the Board concluded both tracts were considered one tract of land because the proposed use showed no indication the tracts will remain separate. Further, the Board also found the tracts were being used in a different way than surrounding property, stating “the industrial use is inconsistent and incompatible with surrounding residential uses”.

Allen argued that the trial court erred in affirming the Board’s determination and that zoning classifications should not be interfered with except in cases where “it is obvious that the zoning classification has no substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.” Allen further argued that “a properly enacted zoning ordinance enjoys a presumption of constitutionality, and if the question of whether the rezoning was proper is debatable, a zoning hearing board must defer to the legislative judgment.” Finally, Allen argued that the property’s size fits with other industrial zoned properties in the surrounding area, the rezoning is consistent with the Township’s Comprehensive Plan, and would not constitute a spot zoning when compared to the overall zoning map in the nearby area.

Under Pennsylvania law, spot zoning is “a singling out of one lot or a small area for different treatment from that accorded to similar surrounding land indistinguishable from it in character, for the economic benefit or detriment of the owner of that lot.” If the property is being treated differently, from surrounding land, the issue turns to whether there is a justification for that treatment. Generally, Pennsylvania courts typically find spot zoning when small tracts of land are contested. However, the disputed tract of land being larger is not the sole determining factor in finding a spot zoning.

The Court noted the ordinances were passed for the sole benefit of Allen and were not enacted to “enhance the public’s health, safety, morals, or general welfare.” The Board’s determination in finding both tracts of land to be considered a single tract of land was not an abuse of discretion. According to the Court, there was no justification to treat Allen’s tracts of land differently than the surrounding land and the ordinances singled out land for the economic benefit of Allen.

The Court, therefore, determined there was no error or abuse of discretion in the Board’s determination. The Court found the ordinances to constitute spot zoning and are invalid.

Allen Distribution v. West Pennsboro Township Zoning Hearing Board, 231 A.3d 90 (PA Cmwlth., 5/11/2020)


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