In this land use appeal out of Allegheny County the Commonwealth Court was asked to weigh in on the amount of discretion a municipality has to grant land development applications based on certifications by professional engineers and conditioned upon subsequent state and federal review. The court was also asked to determine the level of detail post-construction maintenance plans for stormwater facilities must have, and whether municipal approval can be granted despite an ongoing dispute over the scope of a utility easement necessary to construct the project as proposed. In affirming the lower court’s decision, the Commonwealth Court held that municipalities have broad discretion in choosing to grant or deny a land development application, and that the court will seldom second guess such decisions.

The Ardolinos (Applicants) submitted a land development application to Upper St. Clair Township (the Township) that proposed constructing a restaurant with off-street parking on a 1.61 acre lot.  The application included a stormwater management study certified by Applicants’ Engineer to satisfy the requirements of the Township’s ordinances and regulations. The Township granted final approval of the application in July 2012 conditioned upon Applicants receiving necessary highway occupancy permits (HOPs).  Applicants subsequently encountered problems obtaining HOPs and decided to revise their plan and submitted an amended application. With the amended application, Applicants also resubmitted their prior stormwater management study, which the Township Engineer concluded remained adequate.

At an August 2014 hearing on the amended plan, owners of a neighboring property (Objectors) appeared in opposition. Objectors indicated their sole concern was with the stormwater management study.  Specifically, Objectors claimed calculations in the study were incorrect, recommended a flood plain analysis be done, and testified about several flooding events on their property due to runoff from Applicants’ property. The Board continued the hearing to allow Objectors to review minor changes Applicants had made to their stormwater management plan (the Stormwater Plan).  At the October 2014 hearing Objectors claimed that the Stormwater Plan included a pipe running across an adjacent street that was on Objector’s property, and that they did not consent to its installation. Objectors asserted the application should be denied because Applicants lacked permission to install the pipe. Applicants responded by claiming authority to install the pipe under a utility easement, and argued this was not the proper forum for such a dispute.  The Board concluded that such a dispute was not a reason to deny the amended plan, and voted to approve it conditioned upon further approval of the Stormwater Plan by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Objectors appealed the Board’s decision, but the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County affirmed the decision without taking additional evidence.  Objectors further appealed to Commonwealth Court, arguing that the stormwater plan failed to meet the requirements of the Township Code; that Applicants did not provide a post-construction maintenance plan; and that approval was incorrectly granted prior to federal and state floodplain management approval and without evidence of an easement or right of access to install the pipe on their property.

The Commonwealth Court affirmed the lower court’s decision. It concluded that Applicants’ Engineer’s certification, letters, and testimony were a sufficient basis for the Board to conclude that the plan met the requirements of the Township Code. As for the post-construction maintenance plan, the court concluded that a brief comment about annual cleaning and regular inspection, coupled with the condition for approval by DEP, satisfied this requirement. As for the floodplain management requirements, the court found that the condition for DEP approval satisfied this requirement as well. Finally, the court concluded that Applicants’ deed, which provided for a utility easement across Objectors’ property, was a sufficient basis for the Board to approve the amended plan and that the dispute over the easement was an issue for the courts, not the Board.

Click here to read: BR Associates v. Bd. of Commissioners of the Twp. of Upper St. Clair, 775 C.D. 2015 (Pa. Cmwlth. May 5, 2016).

Edited by:

Sivertsen_BLOG Zachary A. Sivertsen, Esq.