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Ways to Encourage Controlled and Collaborative Development: Streamline the Process for Zoning, Subdivision, and Land Development Applications (Part III of V)

March 5, 2024

We would not blame you if you said that dealing with attorneys is not your favorite part of being a municipal official. However, in our defense, people use attorneys because they need help with complicated legal processes and disputes that are often difficult for laypeople to fully understand. Moreover, applications involving convoluted and unnecessary steps are not only a source of confusion for applicants, but they also create a heavy burden on municipalities. So here is our take on how to simplify your zoning and subdivision/land development processes, and maybe see less of us attorneys.

Streamlining processes is a great start. The first and most simple way to streamline your process is by making better use of electronic communications. Even in 2024, some municipalities still require that all submissions be made on paper, no matter how minor the application. Using electronic communication is less burdensome, less expensive, and creates less delay. Another way to create a streamlined process is to reduce procedural steps. For example, consider allowing your planning commission or planning department to approve smaller subdivision and land development projects. Or, if applicable, remove the procedural step of sending zoning applications to the planning commission before going to the zoning hearing board. Eliminating this unnecessary step removes redundant municipal meetings and their associated costs. (Frankly, between Section 209.1 and Section 603(c) of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, our take is that it is questionable whether municipalities are even permitted to require this added step for zoning hearing applications.)

An additional strategy is making more uses permitted by right, while adding standards and criteria to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. These applications must still be reviewed, and the criteria must still be met, but it removes the requirement for a public hearing. Furthermore, be cognizant of the types of relief that applicants are regularly seeking and that your municipality is regularly granting. If you find that applicants regularly seek the same type of relief (e.g., the same variance or waiver) and your municipality is regularly granting such relief, it might be time to amend your ordinance to eliminate the need for the relief.

There are a variety of benefits, besides avoiding attorneys, to creating a streamlined application process. As mentioned, the application process is often easier to navigate and creates less room for confusion. Streamlining also provides a clear roadmap for applicants, which provides a better pattern of consistent and predictable results. This, in turn, encourages desired development in your municipality. Indeed, residents, business owners, and developers will be more likely to put forth your desired concept of development because they will know what is expected. That higher level of certainty also helps reduce their required investment of time and money. Equally important, streamlining frees up municipal staff and officials from answering and clarifying inquiries on a more complicated process. In sum, a streamlined process increases the overall efficiency and timeliness of development for all parties, while also minimizing the risk of unnecessary delays.

Don’t get us wrong, we love our jobs and working with municipal staff and officials. But as you can see, streamlining your land use and zoning processes can simplify things and keep us out of smaller projects where resources are already stretched thin. As always (and somewhat ironically) please reach out to the McNees Wallace & Nurick Land Use Group to learn more about these and other collaboration methods, or for any other land use questions.


Adam DeBernardis

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