Zoning; Statutory Construction

Slice of Life, LLC v. Hamilton Township, 164 A.3d 633 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2017), allocatur granted Feb. 21, 2018, appeal docket 7 MAP 2018

This appeal involves a Pennsylvania property owned by Slice of Life, LLC in Hamilton Township that was being used as a short-term vacation rental (e.g., Airbnb).  On May 22, 2014, the Hamilton Township Zoning Officer issued an Enforcement Notice to Slice of Life charging it with violations of the Township Zoning Ordinance based on Slice of Life allegedly using the residential property for transient tenancies, and requiring Slice of Life to cease these activities.

Slice of Life appealed the Enforcement Notice to the Township Zoning Hearing Board, which denied the appeal. Slice of Life then appealed to the trial court, which upheld the Board’s denial, finding that the Board did not abuse its discretion when it upheld the violation under the Enforcement Notice because of the “’extensive evidence’ that ‘the profit motive is the entire basis for the relationship’ of the property as a commercial enterprise.” Therefore, based on the totality of the circumstances, the trial court determined Slice of Life was “not operating a single family dwelling, but rather conducting a short-term, transient lodging business, using the Property as part of that business enterprise, with a clear profit motive at the Property.” Slip Op., at 3.

Slice of Life appealed the trial court’s decision to the Commonwealth Court to consider whether the trial court erred in holding that “…while this Ordinance has a definition for ‘family,’ the principle behind Albert v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of N. Abington Twp., 578 Pa. 439, 854 A.2d 401 (2004)” still applies. Slip Op., at 3.

Hamilton Township argued the matter was governed and controlled by Albert, particularly regarding Slice of Life’s argument that their use of the Property is consistent with a single family residential use. In Albert, the issue was whether a single-family dwelling could be used as a halfway house for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts in an R–1 low density residential zoning district. The Albert court was forced to examine the meaning of the term “family” as the term was not defined in the ordinance in question. This ambiguity led the Albert court to examine and incorporate the generally understood meaning of the term “family” into the zoning ordinance in that case.

Slice of Life countered that the Township cannot read unspecified requirements into the meaning and definition of “family,” which is set forth in the Ordinance. The Commonwealth Court agreed, explaining:

the Board here was required to apply the terms of the Ordinance as written, rather than deviating from those terms based on unexpressed policies of the Township regarding permitted uses. The Board’s function is only to enforce the zoning ordinance in accordance with the law. Appellants have proven that ambiguity exists in the language of the Ordinance. Because of that ambiguity, we are required to interpret the language of the Ordinance in favor of the landowner and against any implied extension of restrictions on the use of one’s property.

Slip Op., at 15 (internal citations omitted).

Senior Judge Collins dissented, opining:

I feel that all of the evidence of record supports the trial court’s affirmance of the Board’s decision that appellants are using the property, not as a single-family dwelling, but rather are conducting a short-term transient lodging business. No doubt can exist that the intended meaning of the ordinance was not to allow the property to be used as a short-term rental unit for multiple families and/or individuals. Transient short-term rentals for multiple families or groups were not included within the drafters’ intentions when restricting the zoning use to that of single-family properties.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania granted allocatur, limited to the issue of:

Whether the Commonwealth Court disregarded the binding precedent of this Court, set forth in the case Albert v. Zoning Hearing Board of North Abington Township, 578 Pa. 439, 854 A,2d 491 (2004), by finding that the purely transient use of a property as part of a commercial short-term vacation rental business was a permitted use in a residential zoning district?

For more information, contact Kevin McKeon or Dennis Whitaker.