Real Estate, Zoning & Land Use

One of the most important pieces of advice I give builders and developers is to “get it in writing.”  It turns out that when you get it in writing is also critical.  A big national builder found itself in Court with a home buyer because the builder did not put its arbitration clause in the Agreement of Sale. The builder used a form purchase agreement which referenced the builder’s limited warranty. Months later, at the settlement table, the builder finally gave the buyers the limited warranty. The limited warranty contained a requirement to arbitrate all disputes.  When the buyers later had problems with their home, they went directly to Court instead of to arbitration. The Pennsylvania Superior Court said the arbitration clause was not enforceable because it was not provided at the time of the Agreement of Sale.  The only mention of arbitration was provided months later, after the Agreement of Sale was signed. Continue Reading Real Estate Developers: Make sure all of your important contract provisions are included in the Agreement of Sale.

Lots of Association board members worry whether the Association is required to enact rules to control dangerous dogs.  In McMahon v. Pleasant Valley West Association, the Commonwealth Court ruled that an Association does not have a duty to force a unit owner to maintain, control or confine their dogs on the dog owner’s property.  The Association also does not have a duty to prevent dogs from harming other unit owners.  Because they have no duty to control the dog, or to protect unit owners from harm caused by the dog, the Association was not responsible for injuries to the unit owner.  The Court noted that there was no “special relationship” between the Association and the dog owner or the victim of the dog attack.  The Court noted that the Association did not act to “provide any additional protections against an attack by the … dogs over and above the protections provided in the dog law….” Continue Reading Homeowners’ Association is not required to protect residents from dogs

In the summer of 2017, property tax assessments and assessment appeals were a big topic of discussion.  That is because 2017 marked the countywide reassessment for all properties.  The County Tax Assessment Appeal Board heard tens of thousands of assessment appeals.  Some of the appeals resulted in substantial savings for the property owners.

This blog article is a reminder that even if you did not appeal your property tax assessment in 2017, you can still appeal that assessment in 2018.  Appeals must be filed on or before August 1, 2018.

            Here are a few of the topics that this blog covered in 2017:

If you did not appeal your assessment in 2017, but you think that your assessment is wrong, you have another chance to reduce your property taxes.  If you wonder whether you should appeal, we would be happy to help.

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.

Kathleen Krafft Miller is an attorney at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University and regularly advises homeowners and individuals on legal matters ranging from tax assessment appeals to domestic relations matters and estate planning.

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.