Land Development Approval Process In Pennsylvania

Almost any improvement or development of a vacant or building occupied property requires some type of review/permit/approval from the local municipality in which the land is located. Unfortunately, nearly 2,600 municipalities (Townships, Cities, and Boroughs) exist in the State of Pennsylvania and all have slightly different requirements regarding obtaining the required approvals. Development of property can therefore be a very challenging and perplexing process for the landowner or equitable owner of a property.

The Pennsylvania State Municipalities Code of 1968 was adopted to provide an enabling planning statute for Municipalities for planning and developing in areas under their control. To that end, most municipalities have now prepared Comprehensive Plans, Subdivision and Land Development Ordinances, and Zoning Ordinances to serve as a guide in developing land within their borders. These documents serve as the “rules“ in which a person proposing a land development must abide by or seek appropriate relief.

A typical land development project in Southcentral Pennsylvania (York, Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, and Lancaster Counties) can typically take six months to several years to gain all necessary approvals required to begin construction. The land development process normally involves retaining the services of a registered professional engineer or surveyor in the State of Pennsylvania to evaluate the feasibility of a project with the landowner to determine potential development obstacles. This upfront investigation is critical for an owner. Believe it or not, some properties out there are not feasible to develop due to limiting site conditions and/or other political factors at work in the area.

As an example, say a landowner or equitable owner of a property wants to build an office building with associated parking on his/her vacant property. This type of development is classified as a Land Development. Another owner of a property may want to create new residential property lots by constructing a new road. This type of development is typically considered a subdivision. Both are governed by the previously referenced Municipal Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance as well as the Zoning Ordinance. Either type of project requires consideration of several upfront factors:

  1. Does the Zoning Ordinance of the Local Municipality allow that type of land use in that area? If the proposed land use is permitted, then no land use change requests (petition for zoning map amendments, variances or special exceptions) are required. However, if it is not currently permitted, applications to the Supervisors and/or Zoning Hearing Board are required. Typically, the engagement of an attorney or engineer specializing in land planning issues is required. The estimated time to prepare an application, attend hearings, and receive a final decision from the Municipalities ranges from 2 to 6 months at an estimated minimum cost of several thousand dollars.
  2. How will the sewer and water needs of the project be served? If public, immediate inquiries with the providers must be made and appropriate agreements and/or payments made to secure capacity. If on lot sewer and water facilities are proposed ( i.e. drilled well and sewage septic system), appropriate sewage testing and hydrogeologic investigation is required with the Municipality’s Sewage Enforcement Officer. Typical public sewage and water connection fees can typically range from $1,500 to $4,000 each for say 400 gallons of use per day (i.e. typical sewer/water consumption planning figure for one house). Many projects are delayed indefinitely due to the availability and/or adequacy of sewer and water.
  3. Does the project have road access onto a State Highway? If the project does, safe sight distance must be available at any proposed entrance location and a lengthy permit process with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is required to gain access for these entrance(s) onto the State Highway. The typical time duration to prepare the necessary plans and supporting documents and obtain final permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is at least six (6) months with an estimated minimum engineering cost of $5,000. If the project accesses onto a Municipal owned roadway, a local permit is typically required and much easier to obtain.
  4. Do wetlands and/or other environmentally constraining features exist on the site that would prohibit development? Existing inventory mapping and cursory walk down techniques are typically used to determine the presence of wetlands and/or steep slope areas that can severely limit or stop the potential for any development of a site. Proper site development can only occur after these areas are known.

Upon ensuring that any zoning, sewer and water, highway access, or environmental features do not prohibit development of a site, the owner will need to fund the services of a surveyor to obtain the necessary survey information ( topography, environmental features, existing buildings and utilities) for the project. Due to the requirements of the Subdivision and Land Development Ordinances, the plans must be prepared to a high  standard and degree of accuracy. Therefore, a landowner sketch is not sufficient. Depending on the size and complexity of the site, survey costs can typically range from several thousand dollars for a small ( 2 acres of less) site to twenty thousand dollars for a large site ( larger than 25 acres).

When the survey work is complete, the site can then be designed to meet the needs of the owner in accordance with the Zoning Ordinance and Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance requirements of the Municipality. Typically, it is recommended that a concept or sketch plan be prepared upfront and presented to the Municipality to obtain their initial feedback. The concept plan process helps ensure that wasted dollars are not spent on a layout or design that the Municipality does not want to consider.

Municipalities are governed by an elected board of Supervisors, Commissioners, or Council. These elected officials typically appoint members to a Planning Commission which serve to render advisory decisions that the elected officials consider when making approval decisions on projects. Planning Commissions typically meet one day each month. Supervisors, Commissioners, and/or Council typically meet one or two days each month depending on the amount of municipal business. Additionally, a County Planning Commission exists and also is required by the Municipalities Planning Code to review land development plans and offer advisory only opinions that can be considered by the Municipality.

After concept plans are verbally approved by the Municipal Planning Commission, detailed design can then be completed. Detailed plans are  prepared which include such components as grading plans, erosion control, stormwater management plans, utility plans, improvements, lighting, and landscaping. Supporting documents, such as a stormwater management report, traffic impact study, erosion control report, wetland delineation report, sewer and water planning, and sewer and water feasibility, are also required by the Municipality. This process normally takes several weeks or months depending on project complexity. Estimated costs to prepare such plans and reports can easily exceed $ 10,000 for even a fairly simple land development.

Plans and reports are then submitted to the Municipality as a Preliminary Plan with an accompanying application fee that funds the anticipated costs of the Municipality’s engineering and legal review services that will be required to consider the proposed project. An owner should note that they will be responsible for any engineering and legal costs associated with their project throughout the approval process for any amounts that exceed the initial application fee. Total application fees payable to the Municipality, County Conservation District, and County Planning Commission are based upon proposed building square footage, number of residential lots, and/or disturbed acreage as applicable but can easily total $ 3,000 for even a fairly simple land development plan or subdivision plan.

Through the monthly meeting process with the Municipality, all outstanding Preliminary Plan issues are slowly remedied through compliance or negotiation with the Planning Commission and Supervisors, Commissioners, or Council. The Supervisors, Commissioners, or Council then take formal action at a public meeting to approve the Preliminary Plan. The approval of the Preliminary Plan many times includes conditions attached to the approval ( i.e. payment of certain fees, voluntary additional improvements, receipt of outside reviewing agency approvals).

Upon approval of the Preliminary Plan, the owner’s rights to complete the project in accordance with those plans are protected by the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code from future Ordinance changes for a period of five (5) years. At the time the owner is  ready to go forward with their project, a Final Plan is prepared and incorporates all of the design details portrayed and any additional conditions agreed upon with the Preliminary Plan approval. A Final Plan application is then filed with the Municipality and County Planning Commission. Meetings are held in a manner similar to those associated with the Preliminary Plan. The timeline associated with the approval of the Final Plan is typically much shorter than that of the Preliminary Plan, taking only several months, due to the level of detail and review associated with its prior.

Upon receipt of Final Plan approval from the Municipality, and obtainment of any outside reviewing agency permits (i.e. Highway Occupancy Permit from Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Stormwater Discharge and Erosion Control permits and approvals from the County Conservation District, any applicable environmental permits from the Department of Environmental Protection and/or US Army Corps of Engineers, and final signed agreements from utility providers, the applicant must post sufficient financial surety with the Municipality for any site improvements that are intended for dedication to the Municipality or public provider (i.e. streets, utilities) and/or any other site improvement deemed necessary to ensure the health and safety of the adjoining property owners (i.e. stormwater management or erosion control measures). When the above items are met, the Final Plans are recorded at the local County seat, for public record and, after receipt of appropriate building permits from the Municipality, construction can finally begin.

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