Zoning is the legal process established through the Municipalities Planning Code to regulate the use of land and structures in a community. Zoning is implemented through the adoption of a zoning ordinance designed to protect the public health, safety, and welfare and to guide growth within the community. A zoning ordinance is comprised of both the zoning map – which delineates the various zoning districts within the Township, and the zoning text – which provides details of the regulations that apply in each of those districts.
Preparation and adoption of a zoning ordinance is prefaced by preparation and adoption of a Comprehensive Plan – a document which sets forth a blueprint for future development within a community. The Comprehensive Plan establishes policies that anticipate future growth and are intended to inform sound growth decisions. The Zoning Ordinance is a means of implementing the policies of the Comprehensive Plan.
For administrative purposes, the Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) requires that every community adopting a Zoning Ordinance also appoint a Zoning Officer and establish a Zoning Hearing Board – both of which are responsible for the administration of the zoning regulations as found in the adopted Zoning Ordinance.
While the Zoning Officer is responsible for the day-to-day application and enforcement of the adopted regulations, the Zoning Hearing Board is a quasi-judicial body that hears challenges to the validity of the Ordinance as well as challenges to the determinations of the Zoning Officer, and makes decisions regarding requests for variances and Special Exceptions as set forth in the Ordinance. A variance is the means by which relief is granted due to the presence of special circumstances such that the strict application of one or more provisions of the ordinance would deprive the applicant of the reasonable use of their property. Such relief must be justified by the existence of an unnecessary hardship that is not self-imposed.
The Zoning Ordinance may provide for uses that are permitted by-right as well as uses which may require Special Exception or Conditional Use approvals. Like variances, Special Exceptions and Conditional Use approvals require a public hearing to obtain a grant of approval. Unlike variances and Special Exceptions, Conditional Uses are heard and decided by the Township Board of Supervisors, not the Zoning Hearing Board.
The zoning Hearing Board meets on the first Monday of each month at the Township Building. Meetings begin at 7:00 P.M. Applications for an appeal must be filed at least eighteen (18) days in advance of a meeting to be considered for placement on that meeting agenda. All appeals to the Zoning Hearing Board must be heard within sixty (60) days of the date of receipt of a complete application.
The time of the meeting and the nature of each appeal on the agenda is for the monthly hearing is posted in the Allentown Morning Call, as well as the Township website. Each property involved is posted with a notice of the hearing and owners of neighboring properties within three hundred (300) feet of the subject property receive notification of the hearing date by regular mail.
When presenting testimony to the Zoning Hearing Board, an applicant must be prepared to explain their appeal in detail, including the submission of pertinent exhibits, and should be prepared to present a legal argument as to why the requested action is warranted. In particular, applicants should be prepared to prove to the Board that their proposal conforms to the requirements of Section 2107 of the Ordinance (for variances) or Section 2108 of the Ordinance (for Special Exceptions).
Section 2107 mandates that NO variance shall be granted unless the Board finds that all the below standards and requirements are satisfied:
- The granting of a variance shall be in harmony with the general purpose and intent of this ordinance and shall not be injurious to the neighborhood or otherwise detrimental to the public welfare.
- The granting of a variance will not permit the establishment within a district of any use which is not permitted in that district.
- Proof of unique circumstances: Identification of special circumstances or conditions, fully described in the findings, that apply to the land or building(s) and do not apply generally to land or buildings in the neighborhood, and that said circumstances or conditions are such that the strict application of the provision of the ordinance would deprive the applicant of the reasonable use of such land or building(s)
- Proof of an unnecessary hardship: If the hardship is general, that is, shared by neighboring property, relief can be properly obtained only be legislative action or by court review of an attack on the validity of the ordinance.
- The granting of a variance is necessary for the reasonable use of the land or building(s) and that a variance, as granted by the Board is the minimum variance that will accomplish this purpose. It is not sufficient proof of hardship to show that greater profit would result if a variance were awarded. Furthermore, it cannot be claimed by one who purchased without knowledge of restrictions, it must result from the application of the ordinance; it must be suffered directly by the property in question; and evidence of a variance granted under similar circumstances shall not be considered.
It is not necessary to be represented by counsel at the hearing however, because of the quasi-judicial nature of the proceeding before the Zoning Hearing Board and, because valuable property rights are involved, consideration should be given as to whether or not legal counsel is warranted.
In its decision, the Board may prescribe any conditions that it deems necessary to substantially secure the objectives of the regulations or provisions to which the requested variance applies. A copy of this decision is mailed to all applicants within 45 days after the hearing (or any continuance thereof). Any objectors aggrieved by any decision of the Zoning Hearing Board may, within thirty (30) days after the issuance of the written decision of the Board, appeal the decision to the Court of Common Pleas of Lehigh County. In order to qualify as an objector, one must appear at the hearing and participate by, at a minimum, stating one’s name, address, and the nature of the objection(s).