Most municipalities have enacted zoning ordinances which regulate how land can be used, and for what purpose. Most zoning ordinances set up a system of zoning classifications. The classifications, or zoning districts, which apply to a particular piece of land determine for what purposes the land can be used. The most common classifications are residential, commercial, and industrial, but each municipality can have a different system of classifications and regulations. In addition to determining what purposes real estate can be used for in particular zoning districts, these ordinances also regulate matters such as set-backs from roadways, minimum distances between buildings, sizes of yards, maximum height of buildings, minimum lot areas, and similar items. For commercial properties, matters such as the permitted sizes of signs, required number of parking spaces, sidewalk construction, and similar topics are also controlled by zoning ordinances. Zoning ordinances are legal restrictions, and can be enforced in court by the municipality, or by adjoining property owners.
Most zoning ordinances also require that before construction can begin a building permit, certifying that the proposed construction complies with the zoning ordinance, must be obtained from a municipal office. The building permit must also comply with the building code (which is separate and apart from zoning issues); a building inspector will work with you to review any proposed construction.
It is sometimes possible to obtain variances, or exceptions from zoning restrictions, by appealing to a municipal zoning hearing board. The zoning hearing board acts as a type of court and conducts formal hearings on such appeals. It is necessary to show some type of hardship in order to secure a variance. The hardship which is required is not personal or financial hardship, but rather must relate to the property itself. An example of such a hardship is a claim that, because of the unique size, shape or topography of the land, it cannot be used realistically for the purposes permitted by the ordinance. Neighboring property owners who are opposed to a variance or exception have a right to participate in such hearings.
The results of a hearing before a zoning hearing board can be appealed to the Court of Common Pleas. Usually, the evidence on which the Court bases its decision is the same evidence which was presented to the zoning hearing board. Because of this, it is important to treat these hearings as very serious matters. If you are a neighbor who is opposed to a variance, your right to take an appeal to court can depend on whether your opposition was recorded at the hearing.
There are many technical legal rules that apply to zoning issues. If you have a question about the interpretation of a zoning ordinance, if you wish to make an appeal to a zoning hearing board from the rejection of a building permit, or if you wish to oppose an application by another person that you think will affect you, it is advisable to consult with legal counsel experienced in such matters. 7/11
If you need an attorney and don't have one, the Lawyer Referral and Information Service can help.