The zoning hearing board is a quasi-judicial body that renders decisions on specific types of land use appeals and applications. Members of the zoning hearing board are appointed by the governing body. Although the zoning hearing board functions like a court, formal court procedures are not strictly required.
The primary purpose of the zoning hearing board is to help assure fair and equitable application and administration of the zoning ordinance. The zoning hearing board hears appeals from the zoning officer’s determinations and grants relief from the literal enforcement of the zoning ordinance in certain hardship situations by means of a variance. The right to appeal for relief is an important step in ensuring that due process is followed when restricting use of private property for a predetermined public good. The zoning hearing board also hears applications for special use and challenges to the substantive validity of ordinances. The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC) provides a specific set of rules that must be followed for applications submitted to the zoning hearing board.
The zoning hearing board has no legislative power; it can neither make nor modify zoning policy. Neither does the zoning hearing board have enforcement powers. The zoning hearing board schedules hearings on applications and appeals that come before it, takes evidence, and issues written decisions with findings of fact and conclusions of law. A zoning hearing board must limit its scope of activities to those permitted by the MPC and by the local zoning ordinance. As such, the zoning hearing board does not have statutory powers in matters relating to the Uniform Construction Code.
It is important that the zoning hearing board members have a thorough knowledge not only of its specific functions, but also of its place within the arena of local planning decisions. While the zoning hearing board is not responsible for the contents of the zoning ordinance, it nevertheless plays a vital role in the overall effectiveness of the zoning ordinance. In addition, the zoning hearing board may detect weaknesses in the zoning ordinance, perhaps as a result of frequent and similar variance requests. When a flaw, weakness, or lack of clarity is noticed, it should be communicated to the zoning officer and planning commission for their consideration to amend the zoning ordinance accordingly.
The zoning hearing board has the power to assure the fair and equitable application of the zoning ordinance. Abuses of this power can, in effect, undermine the zoning ordinance. An abuse or error of law can lead to a decision of the zoning hearing board being overturned on appeal.
Local officials should not take an appointment to the zoning hearing board lightly, nor should an appointee. It is an extremely responsible and demanding position, one that will play an important role in the growth and development of the community.
Morrisville Borough Zoning Hearing Board
Raffaele Persico – Chairperson
David Nay – Alternate Member