Stay in business long enough and chances are you will need to expand. How that expansion happens, however, is up to your community’s PA zoning laws.
Whether you live in a big city, a small borough or a sprawling rural township, your municipality has a set of regulations that determines how different areas can be used.
Some areas are for residential, some for commercial, for industrial, etc. The community gets divided into zones, hence the term “zoning.” Communities create zoning hearing boards to regulate what gets built or expanded inside the different zones.
How zoning works
If your business wants to expand and is located in a district where what you do is covered by the zoning ordinance – for example, a heavy manufacturer in an industrial zone – then your appearance before the board will deal with issues such as height restrictions and property setback limitations.
The issue becomes more complicated when you factor in the concept of non-conforming use. This refers to a land use or building that was legal until the community zoning ordinance made it illegal.
For example, a machine shop began operating in your town in 1960. In 1970, the town decided it wanted to set up a zoning ordinance. Under the ordinance, the machine shop fell within a residential zone. But because the business predates the zoning ordinance, it is considered “grandfathered” as a pre-exiting non-conforming use.
Thanks to this distinction, the machine shop is able to continue its operations.
Expansions and pre-existing non-conforming uses
What if the machine shop needs more space? Under state law, businesses have the right to continue a pre-existing, non-conforming use. Pennsylvania’s natural expansion doctrine protects the right of property owners to expand a non-conforming use.
The doctrine says that a business can extend its scope on ground used for the purpose of the business at the time the zoning ordinance was created. But the right to expand has limits, and communities have the power to impose restrictions on non-conforming uses.
In addition, the state’s Supreme Court has ruled that an expansion of a non-conforming use can be halted if the proposed expansion would have a negative effect on public health or safety.
How to expand a non-conforming use
Pennsylvania zoning ordinances typically require a property owner who wishes to expand a nonconforming use to appear before the zoning hearing board. The purpose of the hearing is for the board to approve or deny either a special exception or a variance (an exception to land use regulations).
The property owner has the burden of proving the existence of a pre-existing, non-conforming use, either through documentation or witness testimony.
But proving that the use pre-dated the zoning regulations may not always be enough. Property owners don’t have the right to extend a non-conforming use into connecting properties. And most state zoning ordinances limit expansion to no more than 25 to 50 percent of the size of the original non-conforming use property.
When a zoning board approves the expansion of a non-conforming use, it will also instruct the petitioner to pay to have the hearing testimony transcribed, in order to have a permanent record of the pre-existing use’s size, and the scope of post-ordinance expansion.
Going before a zoning hearing board can be a daunting task. If you feel like it is more than your business is ready to take on, the law firm of Benner and Wild can help you navigate zoning and land use legal matters.
Our attorneys have decades of experience in handling amendments to zoning requests and challenging local zoning ordinances. Contact us today and we can help your company on its path to expansion.