This case required the Commonwealth Court to examine a prior nonconforming use at a recreational park open to the community.  Hunterstown Ruritan Club (the “Club”) sought to expand its go-carting operations to include racing on Sundays.  While the Straban Township Zoning Hearing Board (the “Board”) prevented the Club from doing after deeming it impermissible because it was not a use reflected in the Club’s certificate of nonconformance, the Commonwealth Court reversed and remanded, holding that the Club’s previous racing events on Sundays entitled it to protection.

In 1955, the Club bought a fourteen-acre property in Straban Township for the purpose of providing a recreational park for the public.  Beginning in the 1960s, a portion of the property was informally used for go-cart racing.  The Club formalized this use in 1982 when it leased that portion of the property to the Hunterstown Kart Club (“HKC”).  The property was zoned, for the first time, as MU-2 (mixed use) in 1992, and go-cart racing was prohibited in this district.  However, the parties stipulated that go-cart racing was a legal pre-existing nonconforming use when the zoning ordinance was adopted.  Racing primarily took place on Saturdays in 1992 but had occasional taken place on Sundays since as early as 1972.  The intensity of the go-cart racing began increasing in 2002, which eventually led to a written notice of violation of the zoning ordinance in 2011.

The Club applied for a certificate of nonconformance, requesting recognition of go-cart racing on Saturdays and Sundays.  In February 2012, a zoning officer issued a certificate of nonconformance that only recognized go-cart racing on Saturdays and stated that any expansion of that use must be approved.  Thereafter, the Club sought a hearing with the Board, proposing “expansion to allow current use after 11:00 PM on Saturday and Sunday.”  At the hearing, the Club amended its application by removing the request for post-11:00 PM racing on Saturdays.  The Board denied the Club’s proposal.  While the Board agreed that contents of the certificate granted to the Club did not “freeze” the permissible uses on the property, it still denied the Club’s proposal, determining that go-cart racing on Sundays was not a lawful, pre-existing nonconforming use.  The Club appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, which affirmed the decision of the Board.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court held that the Board and trial court erred by concluding that the Club was not entitled to continue its nonconforming use just because it was not contained in the contents of the certificate of nonconformity.  The court invoked the “natural expansion” doctrine, which states that the right to use or expand a nonconforming use as required to maintain economic viability or take advantage of increases in trade is constitutionally protected.  Accordingly, a nonconforming use cannot be limited by a zoning ordinance to the precise magnitude that existed at the date of the ordinance.  While this doctrine allows for reasonable limitations on expansions, limits cannot be set by a certificate of nonconforming use, which has no bearing on property rights.

While the Board apparently acknowledge the legal insignificance of the certificate, it also failed to recognize that the Club had a constitutionally protected right to allow go-cart racing to occur on Sundays.  At the hearing, the Club presented evidence that (1) Sunday racing preceded the adoption of the zoning ordinance, (2) this use expanded over time, and (3) Sunday racing was essential to the continued viability of the Club.  Therefore, under the natural expansion doctrine, it was incorrect for the Board and trial court to determine that the Club was not permitted to have any go-cart racing on Sundays.

Click here to read: Hunterstown Ruritan Club v. Straban Twp. Zoning Hearing Bd., No. 1204 C.D. 2015 (Pa. Commw. Ct. July 14, 2016).

Edited by:

Bob Turchick, Law Clerk