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1617 Newville Road West Pennsboro Township map

In June 2016, township supervisors voted to rezone roughly 130 acres of land located from 1525 to 1617 Newville Road in the township zoned agriculture to industrial to make way for the development of two 725,000-square-foot warehouses at the request of Allen Distribution.

A Cumberland County judge has shot down Allen Distribution’s appeal of a 2017 zoning decision in West Pennsboro Township, which blocked the re-zoning of farmland to make way for warehousing.

Judge Thomas Placey issued the opinion in the Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas on April 1, finding that the West Pennsboro Township Zoning Hearing Board had not overstepped its boundaries, and had provided ample evidence of a correct decision, when it reversed the re-zoning of the farm parcels in October 2017.

“The ZHB correctly concluded that the ordinances in controversy constitute spot zoning to the detriment of the 18 other tracts that were not rezoned,” Placey wrote.

“The record adduces sufficient evidence showing that the parcels in question are being treated unjustifiably differently from similar surrounding land, thus creating an ‘island’ of zoning having no relevant differences from its neighbors,” Placey continued in his written opinion.

Although the case before Placey pitted the West Pennsboro Zoning Hearing Board against Allen Distribution, the allegation of spot zoning was originally brought before the township on an appeal by Nathan Wolf, an attorney representing several homeowners adjacent to the proposed warehouse site.

“You often hear that it’s a done deal with these development cases, but it’s reassuring that the zoning hearing board and the courts involved here are proof to the contrary,” Wolf said.

Started in 2016

The matter started in late 2016 when the West Pennsboro Township supervisors passed an ordinance to re-zone two farm estates along Newville Road (Route 641) from residential to industrial use.

The ordinance was requested by Allen Distribution, which planned to buy the parcels and erect a warehouse that would stand on the north of Newville Road and immediately west of Meadowbrook Road.

The east side of Meadowbrook has a significant warehousing and industrial campus, but the west side, as well as the north side of Newville Road, has small residential lots located alongside it that would be sandwiched by a warehouse complex being built up against their backyards.

Wolf, on behalf of the affected residents, filed a challenge that, under Pennsylvania municipal law, must be heard by the township’s zoning hearing board. Several public sessions were held over the summer of 2017, and ultimately resulted in the ordinance being overturned.

Allen Distribution then appealed that decision to the court, in an attempt to have the re-zoning reinstated.

However, Placey’s opinion indicates that he found no fault with the zoning hearing board’s findings, which concurred with Wolf’s allegation of spot zoning.

Spot zoning

The legal concept of spot zoning typically involves the creation of land use zones that are tailored specifically to the interest of a particular property or development proposal, inconsistent with the characteristics of the surrounding area and its broader land-use progression.

Doing so invalidates, as Wolf has argued, the justification of zoning, which is to protect the public welfare by mitigating conflicts between competing land uses.

As Placey noted in his decision, the township’s last comprehensive plan, from 2007, identifies a large area south of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and north of Newville Road that could be further developed from farm to industrial use.

But the township’s contested re-zoning ordinances don’t account for the area as a whole, but only for the two farm tracts identified as Allen Distribution’s potential warehouse site.

“This island of industrial zoning has a detrimental impact on the remaining lands because the economic benefit created by the contested ordinances is for Allen and the owners of the spot zoned area,” Placey wrote.

“The ordinances do not apply to adjacent properties, nor do they make commensurate zoning adjustments to those properties directly impacted by the rezoning, and therefore do not extend the benefits and burdens of the rezoning to the similar surrounding land that is similar in nature,” Placey wrote.

The appeal

Allen Distribution’s appeal had alleged that the West Pennsboro Zoning Hearing Board abused its discretion and did not provide sufficient basis for its determination to overturn the rezoning.

Placey wrote that the law gives wide discretion to local hearing bodies to make determinations as to the public welfare, and no indication was given that the zoning hearing board acted in bad faith.

“This review presumes the ZHB gave appropriate weight and deference to the legislative decisions of the Board of Supervisors; furthermore, and in point of fact on the central matter reviewed, the ZHB’s decision is sufficiently supported by the record,” Placey wrote.

Allen Distribution could appeal to Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court. Hubert Gilroy, who had represented the warehouse developer in the case, was not available to comment on an appeal decision.

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Email Zack at zhoopes@cumberlink.com.

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Cumberland County/Investigative Reporter

Reporter for The Sentinel.