In this case out of Chester County, the Commonwealth Court was presented with a request for site specific relief following a successful validity challenge of the East Pike Township Zoning Ordinance (the “Ordinance”).  In concluding that the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County had erred by denying site-specific relief, the Court found the 1 year limitation in § 916.1(g) was inapplicable, it was improper for the trial court to merely rely upon the conclusions of the East Pike Township Zoning Hearing Board (“ZHB”), and the burden of proving compliance with the Ordinance’s unchallenged, pre-existing, and generally applicable provisions rested upon the Township rather than the successful challenger.

Old gray rugged concrete wall covered with green and brown stains of moos creating patterns

Chester County Outdoor, LLC (“CCO”) filed a substantive validity challenge with the ZHB on December 20, 2011, that asserted certain sections of the Ordinance unlawfully excluded billboards. CCO did not request site-specific relief or submit plans with its validity challenge.  The Board of Supervisors of the Township (the “Township”) thereafter declared the challenged sections invalid, and on March 28, 2012 the ZHB sustained CCO’s challenge.  No appeal was taken from the ZHB’s decision. CCO then filed a declaratory judgment action with the trial court, seeking site-specific relief for property it owned in the Township (the “Property”).  Ultimately, the Commonwealth Court concluded the trial court lacked jurisdiction to grant site-specific relief because no plan or application had been submitted to the local municipality. Thereafter, CCO submitted a building permit to the Township, which was denied by the Zoning Officer. CCO appealed to the ZHB, which was denied. CCO then appealed to the trial court, which affirmed the ZHB’s decision without performing a de novo review. The trial court concluded CCO had to comply with the Zoning Ordinance in effect when it submitted its building permit application, including the Township’s subsequently adopted curative amendment prohibiting billboards on the Property. The trial court reasoned CCO had failed to submit a building permit within a year of the ZHB’s decision sustaining CCO’s validity challenge, as required by § 916.1(g) of the MPC. Therefore, CCO’s application was untimely. CCO appealed.

On appeal, the Commonwealth Court vacated in part, and remanded the matter for further proceedings.  The Court concluded that the 1 year time limitation in MPC § 916.1(g) did not apply to CCO’s application because CCO had not appended a billboard proposal to its validity challenge.  It also found that the trial court had failed to adhere to the previously established framework for reviewing requests for site specific relief by successful validity challengers.  Specifically, the trial court (1) failed to conduct a de novo review of the evidence presented to the ZHB; (2) improperly concluded CCO’s proposal had to comply with the Ordinance in effect at the time CCO filed its building permit application; (3) improperly shifted the burden of proof to CCO to establish its application complied with the Ordinance’s unchallenged, pre-existing, and generally applicable provisions; and (4) failed to fashion some form of site-specific relief for CCO.

Click here to read: Appeal of Chester Cnty. Outdoor, LLC, 1761 CD 2016 (Pa. Commw. Ct. Jul. 28, 2017).

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