In April, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued a new ruling that has re-centered how zoning ordinances should be interpreted in the face of validity challenges and otherwise.
While the Slice of Life, LLC v. Hamilton Tp. ZHB decision grabbed headlines in dealing with short-term, web-based rentals (think Airbnb or VRBO), its lasting impact will likely be defined in its holding on how zoning ordinances are to be interpreted.
Narrowly, in Slice of Life, the Court tackled the question of whether a zoning ordinance that defines “family” as requiring a “single housekeeping unit” allows short-term rentals in a residential zoning district. In 2014, a Hamilton Township Zoning Officer issued an enforcement notice to the property owner based on their use of the property as a transient rental facility. The Hamilton Township Zoning Hearing Board denied his appeal in 2015. The Monroe County Court of Common Pleas upheld the ZHB, saying the property owner’s use was prohibited in the property’s zoning district by the Township’s Zoning Ordinance. The Commonwealth Court reversed, holding that that because the phrases “transient lodging” and “transient tenancies” were neither used nor defined in the Ordinance, the Board could not modify the Ordinance to find that such uses were prohibited in the zoning district at issue.
A unanimous Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court and held that the “purely transient use of a house is not a permitted use in a residential zoning district limiting use to single-family homes by a ‘single housekeeping unit,'” where the property owner admitted he purchased the property to use exclusively for short-term rentals. Justice Donohue wrote that “single housekeeping unit” is a commonly-used term in zoning ordinances that clearly means a single family continuously occupying the property. Going forward, if an Ordinance includes the phrase “single housekeeping unit” at the heart of the definition of “family”, any zoning district that permits the use of a single-family detached dwelling requires use by a single unit under the current standard.
The Court found that the Commonwealth Court, in a handful of recent decisions – including Shvekh v. ZHB of Stroud Twp., and Marchenko v. ZHB of Pocono Twp., – had improperly narrowed the scope of the Supreme Court’s past decisions. The Court also noted that the “rule announced by the Commonwealth Court is impossible for drafters of zoning ordinances to execute.” The Court found that the standard imposed by the Commonwealth Court, which required the zoning ordinance state every conceivable impermissible use of a property would negate the role of a Zoning Hearing Board in interpreting its municipality’s zoning ordinance.
Requiring that zoning ordinances state every possible impermissible use undermines the authority of a zoning hearing board to interpret its municipality’s zoning ordinances. This ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has shifted the focus on how zoning ordinances should be interpreted in the face of validity challenges and otherwise, as well as the role of a ZHB in applying those ordinances.
If your municipality wishes to revise their Zoning Ordinance, please contact us.
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