Reverse Spot Zoning • Density Restrictions • R-Rural Zoning • “Fixed Scale System”

Penn St. v. East Lampeter Twp. Zoning Hearing Bd., PICS Case No. 14-0210 (Pa. Commw. Jan. 29, 2014) Simpson, J. (62 pages).

Ordinance was not invalid “reverse spot zoning” where majority of lands in vicinity of applicant’s property were zoned R-Rural and used for agricultural purposes; restrictions on development was consistent with intent to preserve prime agricultural and farmland through fixed scale system. Affirmed.

Applicant filed substantive validity challenges to a revised ordinance that designated its property R-Rural zoning, arguing that it constituted unlawful spot zoning because the property was unjustifiably treated differently than other similar properties zoned to the more permissive C-2 commercial zoning designation, and that it unreasonably limited development of properties containing more than ten acres, but less than 25 acres (density challenge). Zoning board denied the challenges, finding that the majority of lands in the vicinity of the property were both zoned R-Rural and used for agricultural purposes, and that, by the nature and soil composition, the property was substantially similar to the lands south and west, all of which were zoned R-Rural and predominantly used for agriculture. As to the density challenge, board determined that the requirements were intended to preserve farming and agriculture by means of a “fixed scale system” by which a certain number of lots or uses would be permitted based on the size of the tract. Additionally, the history of subdivision of the parent tract revealed that all development rights were allocated to portions of the original, parent tract, other than applicant’s property. The Commonwealth Court affirmed.

Reverse spot zoning occurs where an “island” develops as a result of a municipality’s failure to rezone a portion of land to bring it into conformance with similar surrounding parcels that are indistinguishable. In reviewing a spot zoning challenge, the critical inquiry is whether the rezoned land was treated unjustifiably different from similar surrounding land. Applicant’s property is not completely surrounded by properties with less restrictive zoning classifications. Although properties to the north and east are zoned C-2, properties to the south and west of the property are zoned R-Rural. In addition, of the properties within 1000 feet of applicant’s property, 52 percent are used for agricultural purposes, commercial uses account for 32 percent, and residential uses, 11 percent. Unlike applicant’s property, the adjacent, C-2 properties to the north and east have frontage along the area’s primary commercial corridor, and applicant’s property fronts on a smaller roadway that it shares with adjoining R-Rural zoned properties. Furthermore, the fact that the property lies in the Urban Growth Boundary is not an indicator that commercial or residential use is contemplated for the property. A zoning ordinance’s inconsistence with a comprehensive plan does not provide a basis upon which to sustain an applicant’s reverse spot zoning challenge.

By restricting development or subdivision of lots greater than ten acres to a higher degree than lots less than ten acres (density challenge), township is acting consistently with its intent to preserve prime agricultural and farmland through its “fixed scale system,” while allowing for development of smaller tracts (those under minimum farm size acreage), thereby balancing the required competing interests of preserving agriculture while facilitating reasonable development.