Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Visit To Your Local Zoning Hearing Board

Whether you own your own home or have a small business, you may have had the occasion to appear in front of your local Zoning Hearing Board.  Perhaps you wanted to construct an addition to your home or you needed additional signage for your business.  Whatever your project might have been, in these and other instances, you may have been told by the Zoning Officer of your municipality that before a building permit could be issued your project needed to be approved by the Zoning Hearing Board.

What does the Zoning Hearing Board do and why is their permission needed?  The formal legal answer is rather complicated, but a simple answer is that municipalities have the right to regulate the use of your property through their Zoning Ordinances.  Each Borough or Township has its own Zoning Ordinance and, therefore, each has its own set of zoning rules and regulations.

The items that are typically regulated include the size and width of your lot and the size, number, height and location of your house and other accessory buildings.  For non-residential properties, zoning regulations can include the size, location and number of signs, parking space requirements, driveway locations, and the amount of required open space or minimum green area.

Arranging for a hearing in front of the Zoning Hearing Board requires you to prepare and submit the municipality’s zoning appeal form along with information about your project and the payment of an application fee.  Once a complete application is received, a hearing is required to be scheduled within 60 days.  Most hearings are scheduled in the evening.  You should be aware that your neighbors will be receiving a notice by first class mail, which will contain a brief description about your project, along with the date, time and place of the hearing.

The Zoning Hearing Board itself consists of either three or five members.  The Zoning Hearing Board, essentially, serves in the role of a Judge; to listen to the testimony and review the evidence that you submit to justify the reasons for your proposed project.  The Zoning Hearing Board is generally assisted by its solicitor, who will advise the Zoning Hearing Board of legal issues, both during and after the hearing.

While the hearings are relatively informal, there is a court reporter or stenographer present to record the hearing, and any witnesses testify under oath.  Both Board members and neighbors have the right to participate in the hearing by asking questions.  Neighbors can also testify about their concerns with your project.

While you are not required to be represented by an attorney and many times property owners appear at hearings themselves, any party to a zoning hearing can be represented by counsel.  The formal rules of evidence do not apply, but certain information presented can be ignored by the Zoning Hearing Board if it is not deemed to be reliable.

Depending on the nature of the case, the hearing could be as short as 15 minutes or, in more complex cases, last several hours.  On other occasions for large or controversial projects, hearings can take multiple evenings and can, in some cases, take months or years for the hearings to finish.

Once the hearing is concluded, the Zoning Hearing Board, as the Judge, has 45 days to make its Decision and produce a written Order.  The written Decision and Order will set forth the reasons that the Zoning Hearing Board either granted approval of your project or denied your request.  In all cases, if you or your neighbors are not satisfied with the decision of the Zoning Hearing Board, you may have rights to appeal the Decision to the County Court of Common Pleas.