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What is "spot zoning"?

Zoning ordinances often impose certain costs on landowners that cannot be recovered from the municipality. For example, a tract that is zoned for residential uses cannot be used for certain commercial uses or high-rise housing, which generally produce a higher financial return for the owner than low density uses such as single-family dwellings. In reviewing a legal challenge to a zoning ordinance or rezoning, Pennsylvania courts have balanced the public's interest in having a zoning code that guides land use for the entire municipality against the individual rights of land owners to choose the use for their properties. This balancing act has, among other consequences, caused the creation of a legal rule that makes "spot zoning" illegal.

As defined by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, "spot zoning" is the "singling out of one lot or a small area for different treatment" under the zoning code even though the lot receiving different treatment is indistinguishable from surrounding parcels with respect to physical characteristics and potential uses. Such zoning treatment can either bestow a unique economic benefit or extract an economic price on the parcel in question. As such, Pennsylvania courts have ruled that spot zoning is an arbitrary exercise of the municipality's "police powers" and is therefore unconstitutional. Spot zoning typically becomes an issue when the (a) the owner asks the municipality to change the zoning classification only for his property or (b) the owner opposes such a change after it has been proposed by the municipality.

While the size of the tract at issue is generally the first sign that a zoning change may constitute spot zoning, courts will look at other factors. If the zoning rezoning applies only to single tract or to one or two adjacent tracts, the classification is usually scrutinized to determine whether the tract is being singled out for different zoning treatment. In the end, the zoning treatment will be upheld if the end result can be justified based on differences from adjacent or near-by tracts.

A commercial property owner who wishes to change the zoning of his property or to contest a proposed rezoning will require the services of a lawyer who is experienced in dealing with municipal zoning codes, planning commissions, and the city council. A knowledgeable real estate lawyer can raise the probability of a beneficial outcome for the landowner.

Source: Findlaw, "In re: Appeal of REALEN VALLEY FORGE GREENES ASSOCIATES from the Decision of the Zoning Hearing Board of Upper Merion Township", accessed on March 21, 2015

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