The Land Development Process In Pennsylvania (Part 2)

Several months ago we began an explanation of the land development process and how to logistically begin the process. The second and final article will explain the formal process and the practical issues and limitations associated with developing land in Pennsylvania and obtaining approval to construct residential or commercial projects.

The formal process begins with the submission of a full set of Preliminary Land Development or Subdivision Plans. This is probably the most time consuming and expensive portion of the process since municipal subdivision and land development ordinances, zoning ordinances, and stormwater management ordinances are becoming more and more complex.

Preliminary Plans will likely consist of between 20 and 30 sheets. Each sheet will depict certain aspects of the development, including the proposed site plan, an existing features plan, a landscaping plan, a stormwater management plan, a lighting plan, a grading plan, a utilities plan, and many others. The purpose of the Preliminary Plan is to establish the layout of the site, including the number of units or size of buildings, the location of parking areas and other facilities. Preliminary Plans are important because they vest the Applicant with certain rights.

Upon submission of the Preliminary Land Development Plan, the municipality will distribute the Plan to its Planning Commission members, its governing body, and its engineering and legal consultants for purposes of review. As provided in the Municipalities Planning Code, a municipality has 90 days to review the Plan to determine whether or not the Plan satisfies the requirements of the ordinance. However, practically, in many cases 90 days is not sufficient for municipalities to complete a meaningful review and communicate a response to the Applicant.

The State Law permits the Applicant to extend the period of time for the municipality to review the Plan. Typically, once the municipality's consultants have prepared review letters with comments concerning the Plan, an Applicant will review those comments and submit a revised plan for the municipality to consider. The purpose of the revised plan is to address the comments of the municipal consultants. For large scale projects, it is very common that there be multiple revised plans submitted until the Plan is in position to be considered for approval.

The initial review process is undertaken by the municipality's Planning Commission. Planning Commissions meet on a monthly basis and are generally advised by their planners, engineers, and attorneys. The purpose of the Planning Commission is to undertake detailed review of the Plan and make recommendations to the governing body of the municipality as to whether or not the Plan satisfies the requirements of the municipality's ordinances. Presuming the Preliminary Plan has been revised to satisfy the ordinance requirements, the Planning Commission will formally vote to recommend to the governing body approval of the Preliminary Plan.

The action of Borough Council, the Board of Commissioners or Board of Supervisors would then determine whether or not the Plan is actually approved or denied. Assuming the Plan is approved, the Plan is vested with certain rights under State Law. If the Plan is denied, the owner or applicant has a right to appeal the denial to the Court of Common Pleas.

Once Preliminary Plan approval is obtained, the Applicant would prepare and submit a Final Plan which would go through the identical process, first through the municipal Planning Commission and then through the governing body. Depending upon the nature of the project, it is not unusual for the Plan review process, from the initial submission to final approval, to last anywhere from nine months to two years. During the process, the Applicant is generally working concurrently with outside agencies, such as PennDOT, Pennsylvania DEP and other third parties to submit applications in order to obtain needed permits and approvals.

Once the Plan has been approved by the governing body, it will be released for recording only after the applicant has provided financial security to guarantee that the public improvements depicted on the Plan are posted and developer's agreements in place. While this may seem like a lengthy process, the purpose is to insure that there is proper oversight in the development of real estate and that the site will properly function, as designed, and not negatively impact adjacent properties. Experienced legal help can make the process go much more smoothly.