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A Brief History of Land Use Regulation

2/14/2017 | Kaplin Stewart Blog

Land use regulation encompasses a wide variety of laws that impose restrictions on the rights of landowners.  These regulations may include rules relating to building size and zoning rules, among various other permutations.  Fundamentally, all land use regulation is intended to burden a landowner’s use of their real estate property in some way.

As late as the turn of the 20th century, most cities in the United States lacked zoning laws altogether — in fact, it was not until 1916 the first zoning code was developed and implemented in New York City.  As the country rapidly urbanized over the course of the 20th century, however, land use and zoning regulations became ubiquitous.

Pennsylvania Land Use

A significant portion of Pennsylvania land use regulation is split between four land use planning tools authorized by the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (effected into law in 1968), which empowers municipal governments across the state to implement their own land use regulations.

Penn State’s College of Agricultural Services notes that the four municipal land use planning tools in Pennsylvania are as follows:

Planning Commissions

Planning commissions consist of elected advisors who provide administrative policy guidance on land use regulation and implementation in their respective community.  Advisors wield considerable power in being able to develop and prepare design plans for land use organization and development.

Comprehensive Plan

The comprehensive plan document is perhaps best seen as a policy guide that represents the coordinated views of a variety of stakeholders — the planning commission, politicians, agencies, private entities, and interested individuals.  The document is continuously updated as policies, needs, and demographics change.

Subdivision and Land Development Regulations

Subdivision and land development regulations apply to real estate property and specific projects build on said property.  These regulations engage the obligations of the landowner and/or real estate developer by setting standards for what constitutes an “adequate” building site.

Zoning Regulations

Zoning rules protect public health, safety, and welfare by controlling the location and dimensions of various land uses in a given area, and is typically enacted at a municipal level (though county level zoning is authorized by Pennsylvania law), in large part because municipal zoning regulations pre-empt county level ones.  Zoning regulations may be used to restrict certain kinds of development (as well as the rate of development), but restrictions are generally implemented for the sake of promoting some larger public good, such as making a commercial area more pedestrian-friendly.

Municipalities across Pennsylvania are given a great deal of leeway with regard to how they choose to develop and implement their various land use regulations, though much criticism has been levied at the current system and the apparent inability of municipalities to effectively cooperate on land use regulation.

Philadelphia County

Though Philadelphia was meticulously designed by William Penn in the late 1600s, the city did not adopt its first zoning code until 1933.  In the same year, Philadelphia created a zoning map of the city based on a land use survey of existing conditions.  In 1942, the Philadelphia City Planning Department was created.

By the 1950s, the Mayor and others realized that the old zoning code was no longer relevant to modern lifestyles, housing preferences, and development needs, and a task force was established to make changes to the existing code.  A report was released, and in 1962, a new and reformed zoning code was adopted.

Changing demographics, trends, and lifestyles have led to a zoning code that has worn out its welcome.  The 1962 code is no longer “modern” and “sleek,” weighing in at over 600 pages and featuring over 50 zoning classifications and special district controls.  In the 2000s, policymakers began to circulate ideas about reforming the existing code to better match the needs of a revitalized, growing city.

In 2007, the need was deemed serious enough that a Zoning Code Commission was created to modernize Philadelphia’s zoning code, followed by years of engaging with Philadelphia stakeholders through the civic engagement process.  In 2012, the newly reformed zoning code was adopted.  The new zoning code reduced the number of zoning classifications, incorporated a more robust civil design review process, and affirmed the importance of citizen engagement in zoning approval.  Many believe that the new code, coming in at less than 400 pages, will be less cumbersome and will lead to a more streamlined approval process overall.

Nevertheless, we at Kaplin Stewart realize that today, planning agencies and zoning boards tend to create obstacles for developers during the development process. That said, a knowledgeable Philadelphia County land use and zoning attorney with our firm is prepared to assist with everything from the application process to grading permits to easement disputes, as well as land use litigation, should it become necessary.

Kaplin Stewart has years of experience in successfully helping developers secure approvals for their projects both in and outside of the Philadelphia region.  Call (610) 260-6000 to setup a free consultation with one of the attorneys here at Kaplin Stewart.  We look forward to speaking with you.