This case deals with the question of whether the common law merger of lots doctrine is applicable when a local governing body has not adopted a merger of lots provision in its zoning ordinance. The Commonwealth Court found that this doctrine has no application absent a merger of lots provision in the local zoning ordinance because it is a creature of local ordinance, not common law.
The case arises out of an application for zoning relief filed by Valley View Developers, the equitable owners of the subject property, with the Nether Providence Township Zoning Hearing Board (“ZHB”). The application sought certain dimensional variances to construct a residential dwelling on the nonconforming lot. At the hearing on the application before the ZHB a neighbor, Loughran, appeared in opposition to the application. Despite Loughran’s objections, the ZHB granted the requested relief and Loughran appealed.
Before the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County Loughran asserted that the subject property was not nonconforming because, through the operation of the merger of lots doctrine, the subject property had merged with an adjoining nonconforming property when both properties were owned by a common owner in 2003. Loughran asserted that a subsequent sale of the property in 2006 to the present owner, Parker, constituted an illegal subdivision, which meant that the ZHB had acted outside of its authority in granting variance relief for an improperly subdivided lot. The Estate of Parker intervened and argued that the merger of lots doctrine was inapplicable because the Nether Providence Township Zoning Ordinance did not include a merger of lots provision. Upon remand, the ZHB concluded that the properties had merged, and denied the requested zoning relief. The Estate of Parker appealed this decision to the Trial Court, which affirmed, and then to the Commonwealth Court.
On appeal the Commonwealth Court reversed, finding that the common law merger of lots doctrine did not apply unless the applicable zoning ordinance included a merger of lots provision. The court reasoned that the decision to adopt or forgo a merger provision required the balancing of several competing interests, and it was the local governing body’s duty, rather than the courts, to establish the policy that was most beneficial for the needs of the particular community. Therefore the court concluded that the merger of lots doctrine is only triggered when a municipality has adopted a merger of lots provision in its zoning ordinance.
Click here to read: Loughran v. Valley View Developers, Inc., 1378 C.D. 2015 (Pa. Commw. Aug. 17, 2016).