A PA Zoning Primer: A to Z

Columnist : Albert Paschall

It is spring in Pennsylvania that means its zoning season. This is the time of year when developers roll out their plans for changing the landscape of townships. This zoning primer is offered as a service to anyone in the state that is planning to go to a township meeting and scream: “not in my backyard!” anytime soon.

Advocate: Season ticket holder at township meetings who generally needs to get a life.

By-right: Plot zoned years ago for some awful use, now that it’s surrounded by homes; developer is offering the township either a giant pig farm or a big box store. Which is worse?

Commissioners: Govern some townships; unlike supervisors they can raise more taxes.

Developer: Buys your neighbor’s land to build on and he’s trashing the township; offers you top buck for your land and he’s improving the neighborhood.

Environmentalists: People who save open space by opposing developments; really they just don’t want anybody living next door, especially the pig farmer.

Fast track: Opponents’ constant claim that the developer has paid off township officials to approve a development quickly. See timing below.

Grading: Directing rainwater away from a development either into your backyard or your neighbor’s driveway.

Highest and best use: The development that will pay top buck for open land usually a big box store.

Internal discretion: Poor townships welcome development; rich townships hate development.

Justice: Pennsylvania’s property tax system does not provide for any.

Knowledge: Most people don’t have any when they try and fight a development.

Land use: Pennsylvania Supreme Court term for zoning.

Marginal use: Developer’s excuse for cramming as many townhouses as possible on a lot. Claims it is a marginally profitable use of the land as opposed to a big box store that will pay top buck.

NIMTOO: Not-in-my-term-of-office. Stalling tactics by townships when faced with a development they can’t legally stop.

Open space: Election promise by supervisors and commissioners, rarely delivered. However beware if buying a home next to some, see by-right above.

Parcel assembly: Developers secretly buy lots that are next to each other. A good thing in boroughs usually means new townhouses in a township.

Quotient: Pennsylvania law requires that townships set aside land for trailer parks, big box stores and trash dumps.

Re-development: A good thing in downtowns something to watch for in townships, usually means a big box store.

Slap-suit: A legal tactic used by developers to get opponents out of their faces.

Timing: Pennsylvania law requires townships to make zoning decisions in a short time. If something didn’t, they never would.

Unanticipated use: The little pig farm next door to you is preserved when purchased by a big pig farmer. It’s an approved use because a pork chop is a pork chop and people like pork chops.

Vacant lot: In a borough all too often an ugly thing strewn with trash; in a township its bucolic open space worthy of taxpayer funding.

Wastewater: Sewage. Something smells if suddenly your township wants to build a lot more sewer plants. Be careful if you complain, you don’t one built upwind.

X-rated: Language you don’t want to use when opposing development. Townships often broadcast their meetings on cable TV.

Yard: Something we used to have in back of our homes, now we have setbacks. Same thing but sounds more technical on cable TV.

Zoning: Something residents think townships can control.

Last year in a bizarre decision changing land use laws, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that large parcels surrounded by development are subject to “reverse spot zoning” and gave a developer a blank slate on a 130 acre plot in Montgomery County. The precedent basically renders local zoning useless on any large parcel that a township does not own. Especially in townships that face a lot of development pressure. The residents of the affected township are now being sued for $150 million by the owner of the ground. That decision now governs townships all over the state. Someday its ramifications could make their way right into your backyard.

Albert Paschall
Senior Commentator
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.

[email protected]