In this appeal from Allegheny County, the Commonwealth Court found no error in a decision made by the City of Pittsburgh’s Historic Review Commission, which issued a certificate of appropriateness for a proposal to construct a new home in a historic district called “Lemmon Row.”
Appellants (the “Objectors”) own a stretch of row homes in Pittsburgh called “Lemmon Row.” In 2016, Objectors nominated Lemon Row for historical designation by the City of Pittsburgh Historic Review Commission (the “Commission”), which the Commission accepted, and Lemon Row was designated a historic district in May of 2017. Appellee Heather Johnson owns the site of a house on Lemmon Row that was demolished in 2013. In 2016, while Objectors’ nomination for historic designation was pending, Johnson applied to the Commission for a certificate of appropriateness for a proposed three story family home. At a public hearing, the Commission explained that because guidelines had not yet been adopted for Lemmon Row, the Commission would consider the guidelines from a similar historic district located nearby. The Commission made certain recommendations to Johnson’s proposal based on these guidelines, and Johnson amended her proposal to conform to these recommendations. The Objectors were present at the public meeting and objected to the proposal. Nevertheless, the Commission voted to issue Johnson a certificate of appropriateness subject to conditions. The Commission explained that since Lemmon Row had not yet been granted historical status, and was not subject to formal guidelines, the Commission would use guidelines promulgated by the US Department of Interior for guidance. Objectors appealed the Commission’s decision to the trial court, which affirmed without taking additional evidence.
Objectors then appealed to the Commonwealth Court, claiming that (1) the Commission erred in issuing Johnson the certificate of appropriateness based on the US Department of Interior guidelines, (2) they were denied due process because the Commission did not give Objectors time to draft guidelines specific to the Lemmon Row district, and (3) the Commission failed to provide an adequate rationale for its decision in a written report. Regarding the first issue, the Commonwealth Court determined that the Commission’s use of the Department of Interior’s standards to evaluate Johnson’s application complied with the zoning code because the Commission had not yet developed guidelines for Lemmon Row. The Court further determined that the Commission correctly decided that Johnson’s proposal was “compatible” with the historic district, in compliance with Department of Interior standards. Second, the Court rejected Objectors’ due process arguments, finding Objectors failed to show how their due process rights were violated since they had adequate notice and opportunity to be heard during the public meeting where Johnson’s proposal was approved. Finally, the Court concluded that the Commission did not err by failing to provide a written report with its findings of fact and rationale. The Court reasoned that the Commission was not required to issue a written decision for issuing a certificate of appropriateness, and there was otherwise a “full and complete record” on which Objectors could base their appeal.