In this zoning appeal out of Montgomery County, the Commonwealth Court addressed whether, under the Municipalities Planning Code (“MPC”) the filing of a mandatory sketch plan created a vested right such that any future zoning applications had to be reviewed under the zoning ordinance in effect when the sketch plan was filed. In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Commonwealth Court concluded the MPC created a vested right which applied to both the then existing subdivision and land development ordinance (“SALDO”) and zoning ordinance.
In 2008, the Township amended its Zoning Code to create an Age Restricted Overlay District (the “2008 Ordinance”). The 2008 Ordinance was subsequently repealed in 2010 and reinstated, in a more stringent form, in 2012. In December 2008 Hansen-Lloyd (“Developer”) filed a mandatory “tentative sketch plan” with the Township proposing an age-restricted housing development on its property. Developer’s property was located in both Cheltenham and Springfield Townships. The sketch plan was reviewed under the 2008 Ordinance, and Developer was advised by the Township that a special exception and certain other zoning relief were required. Specifically, the Township asserted that the municipal boundary line should be treated as a property line, and thus zoning relief was needed from setback requirements. The sketch plan remained pending from 2009 through 2015, while Developer pursued an alternative single-family residential development, which was ultimately unsuccessful. In May 2015 Developer submitted an application to the Zoning Hearing Board (“ZHB”) seeking a special exception and other zoning relief under the 2008 Ordinance. During hearings before the ZHB Developer argued the 2008 Ordinance was applicable, while the Township argued the 2012 Ordinance should apply. The ZHB decided to apply the 2008 Ordinance, reasoning Developer had initiated this process by filing its mandatory sketch plan under the 2008 Ordinance, which vested its right to consideration under that ordinance, and that the zoning application involved the same project and plan as the sketch plan. The ZHB granted Developer’s requests for special exceptions and determined the municipal boundary line did not represent a property line from which setbacks must be calculated, and therefore zoning relief was unnecessary. The Township appealed to the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, which affirmed. The Township appealed to the Commonwealth Court.
On appeal, the Commonwealth Court affirmed. It found the submission of the mandatory tentative sketch plan gave Developer a vested right to have its zoning application considered under the 2008 Ordinance. The Court next found that absent an ordinance provision or definition to the contrary, a municipal boundary line does not constitute a property line for purposes of setbacks. Lastly, the court held the ZHB had not made an impermissible advisory opinion. Developer had not requested an interpretation of the ordinance in the abstract, but rather had requested specific relief in the form of a special exception and variance. The court reasoned that Developer had asked for an interpretation directly in connection with its variance request and in response to the Township’s determination that variances were necessary.