Real Estate, Zoning & Land Use

Very often, a real estate developer is only active in a project until the subdivision plan is approved.  At that point, the developer often sells some or all of the development rights to the builders who actually construct and sell the homes. The developer may not realize that it usually retains liability for the completion of the community, even though the developer and builder planned to pass that responsibility onto the builder.  Why?  Like most legal surprises, the reason is not taking care of the details of the transaction.

In Hillside Villas Condominium Association, Inc. v. Bottaro Development Company, a neighborhood was created using this typical model.  The developer created a community in nine separate phases. The builder constructed the homes, and paid the developer every time a home was sold. This looks like a typical residential condominium project. Whenever a phase of the community was added, the developer assigned special declarant rights to the builder. This allowed the builder to construct and to legally declare the units. The developer retained all of the declarant rights that were not specifically transferred or assigned to the builder.  So long as the builder sold at least four units per year, this relationship would continue until the community was sold out.

In all of these relationships, the problem comes when the builder fails to complete something.  Here, the storm water management basins were not completed, and the roads required repairs totaling $900,000.00.  The Association sued both the builder and the developer.  Continue Reading How to Avoid Declarant Liability in a Condominium

* House Bill 595 was signed by Governor Tom Wolf on Monday, May 7, 2018.  The Bill becomes effective on Wednesday, July 6.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly passed House Bill 595, which is expected to be signed by Governor Wolf.  This Bill gives a process for deciding disputes in Condominium and Homeowners’ Associations.  There are a few things that every Association should know about this new requirement.  They are:

  • Most Associations need to adopt bylaws or rules and regulations that establish Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) procedures. This includes procedures for disputes between two or more unit owners and/or between a unit owner and the Association.
  • A “unit owner in good standing” can file a Complaint with the Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection for a violation of the Act relating to meetings, quorums, voting, proxies, and Association records. Previously, this option was available only to disputes over Association financial records.
  • A “unit owner in good standing” is someone who has no past due assessments. So a unit owner that is behind on their assessments cannot file a Complaint with the Bureau of Consumer Protection.  Except that if the unpaid assessments are related to a Complaint filed with the Bureau of Consumer Protection, then the unit owner is in good standing regardless of unpaid assessments.
  • A unit owner cannot file a Complaint with the Bureau of Consumer Protection until he or she has exhausted the ADR procedure or at least 100 days after the unit owner started the Alternative Dispute Resolution procedure. If there is no ADR procedure, the unit owner can go straight to the Bureau.
  • Finally, if a unit owner has a dispute with the Association and wins, he or she may be entitled to an award of costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.

These additions to the Uniform Condominium Act and the Uniform Planned Communities Act are intended to help owners and Associations settle their differences without going to court.  In order to do this, Associations will need to take some steps to prepare themselves: Continue Reading Alternate Dispute Resolution Comes to Association Communities (Whether they want it or not)

Whenever a farmer needs zoning approval for an agricultural project, they cannot leave any detail to chance.  If anyone opposes the project – be it the Zoning Hearing Board, the Board of Supervisors or a group of neighbors – anytime the farmer misses even the smallest detail, it could be grounds for getting the project denied.

In Berner v. Montour Township Zoning Hearing Board, the Zoning Hearing Board (twice) and the County Court of Common Pleas (twice) approved the farmer’s zoning application for a swine nursery barn. The Zoning Hearing Board in particular put a lot of faith in the work of Todd Rush from my friends at TeamAg.  Unfortunately, there was an organized group of neighbors that opposed the application.  The Commonwealth Court eventually ruled that the Zoning Hearing Board was wrong, and that the farmer should not have received the approval for the swine barn.

Most of the Commonwealth Court’s denial dealt with very small differences between the language of the Zoning Ordinance and the Nutrient Management Act.  The Zoning Ordinance required the applicant to “submit facility designs and legally binding assurances with performance guaranties” to ensure that the operations will be “conducted without adverse impact upon adjacent properties.”  Since this sentence appears to deal with the design of manure storage facilities and manure and wastewater management, the Zoning Hearing Board decided that these requirements were preempted by the Nutrient Management Act. After all, the NMA does not allow a municipality to regulate practices related to storage or application of manure or the construction or operation of manure storage facilities. Continue Reading Zoning for Agricultural Projects: Every Detail Matters

Whenever a farmer needs zoning approval for an agricultural project, they cannot leave any detail to chance.  If anyone opposes the project – be it the Zoning Hearing Board, the Board of Supervisors or a group of neighbors – anytime the farmer misses even the smallest detail, it could be grounds for getting the project denied.

In Berner v. Montour Township Zoning Hearing Board, the Zoning Hearing Board (twice) and the County Court of Common Pleas (twice) approved the farmer’s zoning application for a swine nursery barn.  The Zoning Hearing Board in particular put a lot of faith in the work of Todd Rush from my friends at TeamAg. Unfortunately, there was an organized group of neighbors that opposed the application.  The Commonwealth Court eventually ruled that the Zoning Hearing Board was wrong, and that the farmer should not have received the approval for the swine barn.

Most of the Commonwealth Court’s denial dealt with very small differences between the language of the Zoning Ordinance and the Nutrient Management Act.  The Zoning Ordinance required the applicant to “submit facility designs and legally binding assurances with performance guaranties” to ensure that the operations will be “conducted without adverse impact upon adjacent properties.”  Since this sentence appears to deal with the design of manure storage facilities and manure and waste water management, the Zoning Hearing Board decided that these requirements were preempted by the Nutrient Management Act. After all, the NMA does not allow a municipality to regulate practices related to storage or application of manure or the construction or operation of manure storage facilities.

On a closer look, however, the Court decided that the preemption only applies to operations where a Nutrient Management Plan is required.  A NMP is only required for a concentrated animal operation or a concentrated animal feeding operation – a CAO or a CAFO. In this case, the use was neither a CAO nor a CAFO, so the farm only needed a Manure Management Plan, and not a NMP.  Because a NMP was not required, the preemption in the Nutrient Management Act did  not apply, and the Zoning Ordinance could require anything that it wanted. Continue Reading Zoning for Agricultural Projects: Every Detail Matters

Yes, this is a tongue twister and I’ll be impressed if you can say it five times fast, but parking is one of the biggest problems that community associations face.  No matter how the developer sets up the community, sooner or later there are either too few parking spaces, people parking where they don’t belong or parking vehicles that nobody wants to see out their front windows.  Too often developers don’t think about these issues or, if they do think about them, do not have a way to come up with a perfect solution.  The same is true of association boards.  Either they do not want to consider a plan to get a handle on parking problems or, if they do, their parking regulations don’t help the problem.

The lead article in the CAI Common Ground for September/October 2017 is titled “Park That Thought.”  It discusses some of the problems that associations have with parking.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t give many answers on how to solve the problems.  While there might not be a perfect solution to parking, some advance planning by both the developer and the association can help reduce parking problems. Continue Reading Proper Planning Prevents Parking Problems

The Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County recently honored its 2017 recipients of the C. Emlen Urban Awards.  I am proud to say that The Press Building in Lancaster City won an award for adaptive reuse.  Congratulations to The Drogaris Companies, the developer of the building, and to Tippetts/Weaver, the project architects, as well as to all of the other professionals and builders involved with the project. We have been involved in the project for nearly all of its history, and I have had a courtside seat for most of it.

The Press Building is one of my favorite kinds of projects. I love when a historic or rundown property is rescued. The building was built in the early 1900s as a cigar factory and warehouse.  From 1922 until 1992, the Lancaster Press Company used the building for printing.  The building sat vacant from 1992 until it was adapted for its current use.  Today, the building has been refurbished to house 48 residential condominium units.  In addition, the ground floor of the building is set to house a fine dining restaurant and bar.  Continue Reading The Press Building and Drogaris Companies Honored by Lancaster Historic Preservation Trust

We have written a lot of articles about the countywide property tax reassessment covering the basics of residential and commercial assessment appeals and what the new assessed values will mean to property owners.  Now that most of the appeals have been processed, the county and each school district and municipality knows the total assessed value of property.  They will all set their tax millage rates before the end of the year.  All of this coming together will allow you to calculate your total property tax for 2018.

I had the opportunity to work with a few commercial property owners who decided to appeal their assessments.  In these cases, we were able to get the total assessed value of the properties cut almost in half.  This is going to save these particular landowners around $20,000 per year in property taxes.  Every case is different, and I cannot guarantee that anyone would be successful in a property tax appeal.  There were, however, major similarities in the properties that received big adjustments in their assessed value.  These were:

  1. There was something unusual about the property that the county did not take into consideration; and
  1. The property owners had a good appraisal report to support their appeal.

With both of these things present, a commercial property owner has a good chance at getting their assessment reduced.

So what happens if you decided not to pursue a property tax appeal this summer?  You are able to appeal your assessment every year.  There is a short window of time between when taxes are sent out and the tax appeal deadline of August 1.  This does not mean you have to wait until next summer to think about a tax assessment appeal.  If you believe that the assessment of your property is incorrect, we can help to evaluate and pursue an appeal.

Aaron Marines is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from Widener University and practices in a variety of areas including Commercial and Residential Real Estate, Land Use, Land Planning and Zoning matters.

I recently wrote about a trend in Pennsylvania case law that has permitted short-term vacation rentals, such as Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and others, in otherwise residential neighborhoods. In each of these cases, a homeowner rented out their single-family residential dwelling to vacationers, the municipality claimed the short-term rental was a violation of the Zoning ordinance, and the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court said that the short-term rentals were still residential uses, not hotels or tourist homes.  All of these cases said that if the municipality wanted to prohibit short-term vacation rentals, they needed to specifically and unquestionably prohibit that use.  Continue Reading How Can Associations Deal With Renters – Either Short Or Long Term?

I had the pleasure of attending the 2017 general membership meeting for the BIA of Lancaster County at the Inn at Leola Village.  The featured speaker for the event was Dr. Robert Dietz, the chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders.  Dr. Dietz gave a detailed status report about the state of the building industry today, and some projections for the near future.  Most of Dr. Dietz’s discussion centered on one main theme:  there are not enough single family homes to meet today’s demand.  He spent time discussing why this is happening and the effects it could have over the next few years.  Continue Reading Notes from the 2017 Annual Building Industry Association County Meeting

Short-term vacation home rentals – such as Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and others – are becoming more and more common today.  They are present not only in traditional vacation spots such as the Poconos, but more and more in every kind of neighborhood.  Many of these short-term rentals are happening in relatively “normal” suburban or urban communities.  Very often, these neighborhoods are not equipped to deal with vacationing out-of-towners using, and all too frequently abusing, one of their neighbor’s homes every week.  So the question remains “are these short-term rentals violations?”  Continue Reading Are Short-Term Rentals Permitted In Your Neighborhood?