The Commonwealth Court recently issued a ruling that emphasized the importance of statutory drafting when it comes to Zoning Ordinances.
In Hoefling v. ZHB of Monroe Township, the Court held that because the Township’s Zoning Ordinance did not expressly prohibit short-term rental of the entire property, such rentals are permissible. (1437 C.D. 2017).
The property owners who would rent out the entire house to one group a time, were cited for operating a “lodging house” and offering overnight accommodations to guests in the Suburban Residential Zone, in violation of the Zoning Ordinance, despite the fact that “lodging house” was not a defined term under the Ordinance.
The Court rejected the Township and ZHB’s argument that the Ordinance should be interpreted broadly enough to cover such conduct, instead ruling that the Ordinance language applied only to the rental of portions of a dwelling to individuals or groups. The Court applied the general rule that ambiguities must be revolved in favor of a landowner, and ruled that because the Zoning Ordinance did not “unambiguously forbid” the short-term rental of an entire Property, the enforcement action could not stand.
The result in this case reaffirms the important lesson of legislation within Zoning Ordinances. With the rise of rental websites such as Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway, it has become easier for property owners to advertise and rent their properties out as vacation homes or weekend getaways. If your municipality seeks to control this kind of activity, the Hoefling case is a reminder that the key to an enforceable ordinance is to be specific and explicit. The market is currently ahead of zoning laws on this issue, but as municipalities begin to crack down on vacation rental properties, now is the perfect time to review your Zoning Ordinance to ensure that terms are enforceable and clearly defined in order to prevent confusion among your residents.
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