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This guide summarizes planning and land use tools available to municipal and county officials under Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Planning Code (MPC). This guide also provides links to more expansive and comprehensive resources for those interested in learning more.
In Pennsylvania, the power and responsibility to plan for land use and its regulation lies exclusively with local government including counties. Responsibility for land use planning and regulating development is exercised through the authority granted to municipal officials by the Municipalities Planning Code (MPC).
No municipality is mandated by the MPC to plan or zone, although counties are required to adopt a comprehensive plan.
The MPC is a true “enabling” act, that is, it gives considerable leeway to a municipality in shaping its own planning and land use programs. Most provisions in the MPC are devoted to procedural matters largely guaranteeing that public notice is given. This aids in increasing citizen awareness and participation in land use matters. Detailed and compulsory public requirements heighten public awareness and visibility, which is illustrative, of how revered property rights are in the Commonwealth. If a municipality misuses any delegated power, the MPC outlines the steps landowners or persons aggrieved can follow to have their day in court.
Although the MPC is quite lengthy, there are no ancillary rules or “regulations” nor has any state agency been assigned the responsibility to administer any of the land use powers in the event a unit of local government fails to exercise a delegated power. An exception is if a particular use would violate another state or federal law, then the appropriate agency responsible for that law would be called upon to intercede.
One important point to be made is that, even though the authority to adopt and administer planning control measures or regulations has been delegated to municipalities under the police powers, United States Supreme Court rulings have reinforced the importance of having a connection between the specific purpose of a regulation or ordinance provision and the police power objective. A municipality must be prepared to document that the regulation bears a reasonable relationship to the welfare of the public and that the measure or control in fact advances a legitimate public interest. That interest must not be arbitrary, but rather supported by comprehensive analysis of community development goals and objectives.
For more information: The Planning Commission in Pennsylvania.
The MPC enables municipalities to create or abolish, by ordinance, a planning commission or planning department, or both. The municipal officials will determine specific powers of the planning entities. An ordinance which creates both a planning commission and a planning department shall specify which of the powers and duties conferred on planning agencies by this act; each shall exercise and may confer upon each additional powers, duties and advisory functions not inconsistent with this act. In lieu of a planning commission or planning department, the governing body may elect to assign the powers and duties conferred by this act upon a planning committee comprised of members appointed from the governing body. The engineer for the municipality, or an engineer appointed by the governing body, shall serve the planning agency as engineering advisor. The solicitor for the municipality, or an attorney appointed by the governing body, shall serve the planning agency as legal advisor.
Local planning commissions are usually established for one basic reason: to guide land use and development at the municipal level. The planning commission has the responsibility of implementing the will of the community though the development and implementation of a comprehensive plan and, second, through the reviews of proposals for new developments and public projects in their municipality.
After the vision is developed, many technical skills are required to implement that vision, and make it a reality. Many technical skills are required to implement the plan. The planning commission provides technical advice to a governing body. This normally takes the form of recommendations for action by the governing body. The planning commission is the governing body's surrogate on issues of land use, a relationship that ensures the governing body has assistance with important planning issues they may not otherwise have the time or resources to tackle.
A planning commission acts as an advisor to the governing body on matters of community growth and development. A governing body may appoint individuals to serve as legal and engineering advisors to the planning agency. However, in addition to the duties and responsibilities authorized by Article II of the MPC, a governing body may by ordinance delegate approval authority to a planning agency for subdivision and land development applications. Generally, larger municipalities or counties delegate this approval authority to the planning agency and many such municipalities and counties are large enough to have full-time professional staff.
A planning commission consists of three to nine members who must be residents of the municipality. A planning commission member cannot serve on the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB), which must be created if a municipality has enacted a zoning ordinance. The MPC does not provide for alternate members to serve on a planning commission at any time. Commission members are appointed by the appointing authority, subject to the approval of the governing body (except where both are the same). An appointing authority is the mayor in cities, the board of commissioners in counties, the council in the incorporated town and boroughs, the board of commissioners in townships of the first class, the board of supervisors in townships of the second class or as may be designated in the law providing for the form of government.
The term of a planning commission member is four years. It is recommended that terms should expire December 31 of each four-year term. To avoid major changes at any one time, the terms of its members are staggered.
A planning commission must maintain a prescribed number of citizens as part of its complement. Only a certain number of planning commissioners can be officers or employees of the municipality.
For more information: The Comprehensive Plan in Pennsylvania.
A comprehensive plan can establish community development objectives for a municipality. A plan is an expression of how a community sees itself in the future and sets forth a desired pattern of development. For a plan to be a valuable tool, it must effectively guide a community through change; otherwise it is not a blueprint. An improved quality of life for the entire community is the reward for fulfilling planning responsibilities delegated to local government officials.
An adopted comprehensive plan is not the legal equivalent of a land use ordinance. It is an overall plan embracing general goals and objectives upon which a governing body uses in making day-to-day decisions.
There are three situations requiring the adoption of a comprehensive plan:
The planning process is a means of dealing with change. If a community is growing, change will occur more quickly than in a stable community. Nonetheless, even a stable community will experience change over time. The makeup of the population will change; the economy will fluctuate, the housing stock will age, the environment will continue to be threatened and the needs of the citizens will not necessarily be the same today as in the past or in the future.
The comprehensive planning process involves taking an inventory of the development alternatives, analyzing the data collected, projecting the future growth and development alternatives, and establishing policies to be implemented in the future. It is a blueprint for future development of the community. A comprehensive plan provides a logical basis for zoning and other land use ordinances. However, a plan is not an ordinance nor is it self-enforcing. Plans depend on local laws (ordinances) and private actions and other activities to implement the concepts and recommendations set forth in them.
Comprehensive plan components should convey a clear strategy for residential, recreational, agricultural, open space, commercial, industrial, resource extraction and institutional uses as well as the necessary infrastructure to serve development as planned. In recognition of the truism that one size does not fit all, these following plan components represent a benchmark for comprehensive plans developed under the MPC. Some components or elements may not be appropriate in a given community, while other elements may require more detail and need considerable more attention in another community.
As noted previously, a MPC plan has three parts: community goals and objectives, technical background studies and various other plans commonly called functional plans. A comprehensive plan paves the way for preparation of these so called functional plans, which contain more detail.
MPC Section 301 (a) requires each municipal, multi-municipal and county comprehensive plan to have nine elements. Collectively these basic elements should present a composite vision of private and public development for the future based on a statement of community development goals and objectives. Each and every basic element is linked, interrelated or connected. A summary of the required plan elements derived from MPC sections 301 (a) follows:
A successful comprehensive planning process requires citizen participation from the very onset. Good plans are not made in a vacuum. Effective planning is an expression of community-wide values. The citizenry at large must be involved to understand and document community interests.
The MPC contains the procedural requirements for adopting the comprehensive plan. At a minimum, the planning agency must hold at least one public meeting scheduled pursuant to public notice prior to forwarding the proposed plan to the governing body. The governing body of the municipality must hold at least one public hearing after having given public notice of the hearing. The plan can then be adopted by resolution of the governing body, provided that a majority of members of the governing body vote in the affirmative. A governing body may choose to vote on the comprehensive plan document in its entirety, element by element or piecemeal as each section is completed.
While the proposed plan is under review by the governing body they must consider the review comments of the county, contiguous municipalities, as well as the public meeting comments and the recommendations of the municipal planning agency. If any action is taken that substantially revises the proposed comprehensive plan, the governing body must hold another public hearing following the public notice procedure set forth in the MPC.
Land use ordinances are legislative actions exercised by the governing body of a municipality. The MPC defines land use ordinance as: any ordinance or map adopted pursuant to the authority granted in Article IV, V, VI and VII. Therefore, the following are land use ordinances:
To enact or adopt a land ordinance requires that a simple majority of the governing body, present and participating in the voting, vote in the affirmative to adopt an ordinance. With proper notice to the public, required reviews and adherence to the procedures prescribed in the MPC, a governing body can take legislative action to adopt, amend or repeal a land use ordinance anytime.
In Pennsylvania, the legislature gave municipalities the power of referendum for certain limited questions such as the adoption of voting machines, the sale of beer and liquor, the showing of Sunday movies, the adoption of home rule charters and the incurring of local government debt. These are the only circumstances for which a governing body is authorized to use binding legislative initiatives or referenda.
Land use ordinances should be the end product of a public planning process that results in establishing goals and objectives for the community. Citizen participation is an essential ingredient in formulating goals and objectives. Another reason for preparing a comprehensive plan is to defend against charges of arbitrariness or unreasonableness as land use regulations are implemented. A comprehensive plan can provide documentation why a municipality enacted certain restrictions. Land use ordinances and other local ordinances are utilized to help implement the comprehensive plan for the community.
For more information: Official Map
An official map is a map and ordinance that deals with future public projects. This map is a declaration by the governing body of the projected areas a community will eventually need for public purposes. It identifies specific parcels or portions of private property within a municipality where open spaces are desired or where public improvements (such as widening a road) are envisioned. It also demonstrates that it is the intent of the governing body to acquire land for these municipal purposes. The first step is to prepare a map.
To prepare an official map a municipality must make surveys and maps to identify the location of property sufficient for description and publication in map form. For this purpose a municipality may use property records, aerial photography, photogrammetric mapping or other suitable methods to prepare the official map. The map is the primary component of an official map ordinance.
An official map provides a focus for various agencies and boards to identify needed road improvements or widenings, wellhead protection areas, parks, playgrounds and sites for other public purposes. Thus, the official map complements zoning and serves as a valuable tool to help implement the comprehensive plan and a capital improvement program.
An official map ordinance allows a municipality to reserve private land for certain future public uses. This process has two steps or phases: regulatory and acquisition. Only that portion of the municipality for which the map is prepared needs to be mapped and need not be surveyed for identification purposes. Technologies such as aerial photography, photogrammetric mapping and other methods sufficient for identification can be used to show the area on a map. The regulatory phase notifies developers and property (land) owners that the area mapped is reserved by the municipality. This action clearly demonstrates municipal interest in acquiring the property for public purposes sometime in the future.
The definitions of "subdivision" and "land development" are set forth in the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), Act 247 of 1968, as reenacted and amended. These definitions and meanings, in addition to other common and necessary terms, should be used in a local subdivision and land development ordinance. A "subdivision," as defined by the MPC in Section 107, is:
[T]he division or redivision of a lot, tract or parcel of land by any means into two or more lots, tracts, parcels or other divisions of land including changes in existing lot lines for the purpose, whether immediate or future, of lease, partition by the court for distribution to heirs or devisees, transfer of ownership or building or lot development: Provided however, That the subdivision by lease of land for agricultural purposes into parcels of more than ten acres, not involving any new street or easement of access or any residential dwelling shall be exempted.
Section 503 of the MPC states that a subdivision and land development ordinance may include at least the following:
As the wording of the MPC suggests, each community adopting an ordinance has control of its content and of its structuring. The MPC provides basic guidelines for ordinance content and the municipality may use fewer or more requirements based upon local need. Now, the MPC provides for even more flexibility for municipalities and counties to shape planning areas based on inherent regional logic or importance. Such areas might be natural resource based (e.g. watersheds), cultural resource based (e.g. historic structures), or of regional significance (e.g. prime agricultural land in a developing municipality). Municipalities should use subdivision and land development ordinances to try to ensure that growth in the community is effectively managed.
There are two aspects to the administration of the subdivision and land development ordinance: procedures and standards. The MPC prescribes procedures that municipalities must follow in processing subdivision and land development proposals. Municipal officials are responsible for preparation and enactment of reasonable design standards or specifications necessary to achieve local development objectives. Time periods required by the MPC must be observed. Development must also comply with state and federal wetlands regulations as well as any zoning, housing, building and other such codes and ordinances in effect in the community.
Conservation subdivision is a way to design a subdivision around the central principal of resource conservation. Why is conservation subdivision important? Conventional or traditional development patterns require more infrastructure that need long-term maintenance. As this traditional development continues, a number of resources, agricultural land for example, can be lost forever. To address this, agricultural protection programs, among other resource protection programs, have been initiated saving thousands of acres of agricultural land. However, building better community's cannot be accomplished through these and other similar tax-based programs alone. More innovative land use practices are a means that municipalities can use to make smart growth a part of their community's future.
For more information: Public Dedication of Land and Fees-in-Lieu for Parks and Recreation
Pennsylvania municipalities have the power under Section 503(11) of the state's Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) to require developers to dedicate land to the municipality for public parks and recreation purposes. Called public dedication in the MPC, this tool is often referred to as mandatory dedication by those in the land use planning field.
Public dedication is based on the concept of impact fees: Development creates increased demand for municipal services or facilities. Requiring developers to provide amenities or funding for expanded or enhanced public amenities is an efficient and equitable way to offset some of the impacts of new development.
Under Section 503(11), municipalities may also provide the option for developers to choose from several alternatives to public dedication. However, municipalities may not mandate these alternatives. Developers may voluntarily agree to do one or more of the following instead of or in addition to public dedication:
The MPC requires that a municipality’s SALDO contain “definite standards” for determining the amount and location of land required to be dedicated (section 503(11)(ii)). Moreover, the MPC (as well as the before-mentioned Takings Clause cases and their progeny) requires that these standards “bear a reasonable relationship to the use of the park and recreation facilities by future inhabitants of the development or subdivision” (section 503(11)(v)). Because these phrases and concepts (together with the phrase discussed in the section below, “accessible to the development”) are not defined in the MPC, municipalities have taken a variety of approaches to determine appropriate standards. These approaches are reviewed in "Public Dedication of Land and Fees-in-Lieu for Parks and Recreation."
For more information: Zoning
In basic terms, a zoning ordinance divides all land within a municipality into districts, and creates regulations that apply generally to the municipality as a whole as well as specifically to individual districts. To properly delineate the boundaries of any district created within the zoning ordinance, and to determine the need for any specific district or districts, studies must be conducted in various areas. Based upon these studies, rational decisions can be made concerning the zoning districts.
The comprehensive plan is a document that contains the studies and the recommendations referred to above. It is upon these studies and recommendations that the zoning ordinance is based. Hence, zoning is ultimately based upon planning. Zoning ordinance amendments must be generally consistent with the comprehensive plan. If this is not the case, the comprehensive plan should be amended to reflect these updates. Note: State agencies, in their review of infrastructure improvements and permitting applications, are to consider zoning ordinances and their consistency with the comprehensive plan.
The terms planning and zoning are often used interchangeably, but there is a definite distinction made between the two. Planning involves taking an inventory of the development alternatives, analyzing the collected data, projecting the future growth and development alternatives, and establishing policies to be implemented in the future. It is a blueprint for future development of the community.
Zoning is one method of implementing the plan. It is based upon the plan, and helps to put the plan into effect. State law requires that zoning ordinances be generally consistent with the municipal comprehensive plan, as well as the county comprehensive plan. If a zoning ordinance is amended in terms inconsistent with the existing municipal comprehensive plan, the plan must also be amended concurrently. Zoning is oriented to the present, whereas, a comprehensive plan has a horizon of 15 to 20 years and should, at a minimum, be reviewed once every 10 years.
Once a zoning ordinance is enacted, neither the planning commission nor the governing body are directly involved in its day-to-day administration. The MPC requires that two separate entities – a zoning officer and a zoning hearing board – be created for this purpose.
The text of the zoning ordinance contains numerous regulations. Some of these apply equally to every area within the municipality. Others vary from zone to zone. The following is a basic explanation of these regulations. Control over the use of land is the most commonly referred to concept of the traditional zoning ordinance and the most important type of regulation contained within the ordinance. All land within the municipality is divided into various districts, with different types of land uses permitted within each district. For example, specific zones or districts are usually created for residential, agricultural, commercial and industrial uses. This attempts to keep land uses basically compatible, as well as to guide future growth and development.
In recent years, a variety of approaches have been developed to attempt to alleviate these problems by providing alternative methods to traditional zoning. To accomplish a reasonable mix of housing types, the MPC authorizes use of alternative zoning techniques. The code specifically contains provisions to encourage innovation and to promote flexibility, economy and ingenuity in development as well as provisions authorizing increases in the permissible density of population or intensity of a particular use based upon expressed standards and criteria.1 These provisions can be utilized to encourage developers to build affordable housing. Some examples of alternative techniques include clustering, lot averaging and flexible building setback lines. Clustering involves the arrangement of residential building lots in groups through a reduction in lot area and
building setback requirements. Lot averaging is similar to clustering in that both methods allow some variation in minimum lot size regulations. Flexible building setbacks allows greater freedom in placement of the structure on a lot.
Traditional zoning establishes an array of zoning districts under which specific permitted uses are listed. Likewise, conventional zoning generally requires a rigid minimum lot size for each specific zoning district. Lot averaging or clustering adds a degree of flexibility to the design of a development by providing for variations in lot sizes.
Density bonuses or incentives are a useful tool for municipalities to provide community amenities or other benefits through the subdivision and land development process. In return for additional landscaping, affordable housing opportunities, recreation facilities or transportation improvements, developers may be eligible for reduced parking or setback requirements or higher densities. The concept of density bonuses or incentives is also commonly used as a supplement to many of the other zoning approaches that follow.
The MPC specifically authorizes that zoning ordinances may contain provisions to encourage innovation and to promote flexibility, economy and ingenuity in development. It also contains provisions authorizing increases in the permissible density of population or intensity of a particular use based upon expressed standards and criteria, possibly to encourage affordable housing. Some examples include:
Lot averaging is a means of gaining design flexibility for the purpose of avoiding encroachment into environmentally sensitive areas or preserving historic structures on larger lots. It permits certain lot sizes to be reduced below the standard minimum, provided certain other lots are increased by the same size, as long as the resulting average lot size is not less than the stated minimum for that specific zoning district. The number of permitted dwelling units is usually not decreased, and common open space is not created.
Growing Greener: Conservation by Design incorporates conservation considerations into the development process and municipal ordinances, patterning development around networks of open space. Conservation by Design arranges new development on sites to be developed so that half or more of the buildable land in subdivisions is permanently set aside as open space. The same number of housing units can be built—just on smaller lots—so landowners and developers are not financially penalized. Conservation by Design differs from traditional cluster developments in that it places conservation planning at the beginning of the development process rather than at the end and establishes higher standards for both the quantity and quality of open space.
Conservation by Design differs from traditional cluster developments in that it establishes higher standards for both the quantity and quality of open space. Most importantly, through a four-step design process written into the Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance, it places conservation planning at the beginning of the development process rather than at the end.
Conservation by Design works within the parameters of existing state enabling legislation.
Conservation by Design begins with the municipality deciding to examine its current land use practices and conservation goals. Implementing the Conservation by Design approach involves four key elements:
Many municipalities have searched high and low for a way to reintroduce small town character and a sense of community to their respective areas. For some, the concept of traditional neighborhood development (TND) has provided a solution through zoning. The TND attempts to recapture the village and town square flavor of a pedestrian oriented setting. By utilizing traffic calming design measures such as narrow streets, frequent intersections and on-street parking in combination with a mixed array and proximity to types other of housing, businesses and services, the TND also integrates different segments of the population otherwise separated by age or income.
Sidewalks, parks and ample open space along with the opportunity for viable public transportation are essential elements to the success of the TND. This form of development can occur either as an extension of existing areas, as a form of urban infill, or as an independent entity. As with many of these alternative approaches to zoning, modifications to otherwise strict density and dimensional requirements may be necessary. Large sites are usually required along with some level of coordination with adjacent developments. Overall, the positive impacts of a TND can be felt through an increase in safety and a resulting enhancement in community camaraderie.
Transfer of development rights is a tool that can be used by a municipality to help make regulation of its development more financially equitable to landowners. The process attempts to deal with the financial burden that zoning changes may place on property owners whose rights are in conflict with the public interest. This is done by giving landowners something of value that they can sell in exchange for not developing their land: development rights. These rights may be sold to a builder who wishes to increase development densities in another area of the community considered suitable for development.
The underlying principle is that real property is a bundle of rights rather than a single entity. Just as mineral rights can be separated from the land, so can the right to develop. The development right can be transferred from one site to another, from an area to be preserved or protected to an area where growth can be accommodated and is desirable. The property owner whose land is being restricted would therefore be fairly compensated and the taking issue would be avoided. The TDR option promises to be an effective planning tool to protect a variety of threatened land uses such as prime farmland and historic resources.
Clustering provides more design flexibility than lot averaging and conserves common open space as well. Clustering involves the arrangement of residential building lots in groups through a reduction in lot area and building setback requirements while still adhering to overall permitted density regulations or perhaps utilizing a modest density incentive. This allows the remaining area of the development to be incorporated as open space, often based upon the preservation of environmentally sensitive areas (i.e., woodlands, wetlands, prime farmland, floodplains, or severely steep slopes). The option of clustering is intended to produce several desired results including the creation of recreational opportunities and open space, attractive housing layouts, the preservation of natural or historic features and resources, and a reduction of infrastructure and maintenance expenses.
Planned residential development (PRD) is a land use control device that combines elements of both the zoning and the subdivision and land development ordinances. It brings together mixed residential and non-residential development and open space and recreational facilities within the same development.
The basic concept behind PRD regulations is the establishment by the municipality of certain general overall density, water supply, sewage disposal, and percentage of open space standards, and the permission for the developer to develop with considerable flexibility within these established criteria. PRD should, however, only be an option available to the developer meeting certain criteria. It should not be a form of development specifically mandated by a local ordinance.
A properly designed PRD can benefit both the developer and the municipality. Generally, although not necessarily, the PRD permits the developer to increase his overall density in return for devoting a percentage of total land for common open space. The common open space is usually owned and maintained by a homeowners association or by the developer. The developer may benefit by having to install fewer roads and utility lines, while the municipality benefits by centralization of service areas and less maintenance. Also, the developer is permitted added design flexibility. Since density can be increased in some areas, other areas that should not be developed can be left untouched, e.g., wooded areas, a floodplain, etc. It is conceivable that the community may gain title to some or all of the common open space, adding further to the municipal gain from utilizing the PRD.
This topic's content was adapted from the Land Use Series, published by the Governor’s Center for Local Government Services/Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development, and supplemented with materials from ConservationTools.org.
Nothing contained in this or any other document available at ConservationTools.org is intended to be relied upon as legal advice or to create an attorney-client relationship. The material presented is generally provided in the context of Pennsylvania law and, depending on the subject, may have more or less applicability elsewhere. There is no guarantee that it is up to date or error free.
Copyright © is held by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association
Text may be excerpted and reproduced with acknowledgement of ConservationTools.org and the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.