Big victory in property rights case sends message to Pennsylvania Municipalities

 A recent Commonwealth Court decision reaffirmed the principle that municipalities must act in good faith when processing land development applications. Property rights are protected by the Pennsylvania Constitution. Our state courts have long held that property rights are natural, inherent rights than cannot be infringed upon. But for many developers going through the municipal review process in Pennsylvania, it can seem like those rights are subject to the whims and desires of the municipality. Certainly, this was the case in Honey Brook Township. After deciding to down-zone properties to prevent development in a certain area, the Township engaged in a systemic course of conduct specifically designed to prevent property owners from vesting their development rights while the zoning amendment was pending.

The Township intentionally kept its pending zoning amendment secret to prevent submissions of land development applications before the zoning could be officially changed. Further, the Township Manager unilaterally instituted a new stringent review policy, without the approval of the Board of Supervisors, designed to prevent land development applications from being accepted into the review cycle. The Township used this new policy to reject applications out of hand as “incomplete” and then refused to meet with the applicants to discuss the plan or make revisions.

On appeal to the Commonwealth Court, Attorney Marc Kaplin took on the Township of Honey Brook, arguing that the Township’s bad faith actions and improper course of conduct violated its legal obligation to proceed in good faith in reviewing and processing land development plans. The Commonwealth Court agreed, and remanded the application back to the Township, instructing the Township to process and review the land development plans under the zoning in effect on the date the land development plans were originally submitted.

This victory is the third decision from the Commonwealth Court reversing the denial of a land development plan based on a municipality’s refusal to process the application in good faith. The Commonwealth Court decision reinforced the duty to review development plans in good faith, including the municipality’s obligation to discuss technical requirements and ordinance interpretations with an applicant and to afford an applicant a reasonable opportunity to respond to objections by the municipality and/or to modify its plans to address concerns. The message the Commonwealth Court sent is clear: municipalities cannot act in bad faith to deprive property owners of their constitutionally-protected property rights.

June P. Singh is an associate in both the Land Use and Construction Litigation practice groups at Kaplin Stewart.

In the Land Use & Zoning department, June works on securing governmental and agency approvals for zoning, subdivision, and land development applications for residential and commercial developments at the municipal, state, and federal levels, as well as appellate advocacy to the Courts of Common Pleas, the Commonwealth Court, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Ms. Singh can be reached at 610.941.2532 or by email at jsingh@kaplaw.com

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