Renewable Energy, Zoning and Land Use

Renewable energy, zoning and land use issues will shape the future of growth in the region. Houston Harbaugh’s Renewable Energy, Zoning and Land Use practice focuses on assisting clients maximize and protect the value of their properties, whether related to renewable energy, commercial or residential development opportunities.

What is a Special Exception?

Municipal zoning codes in Pennsylvania often identify particular land uses as special exceptions in certain zoning districts. Although sometimes incorrectly called a “special exemption”, “[a] special exception is neither special nor an exception, but a use expressly contemplated that evidences a legislative decision that the particular type of use is consistent with the zoning plan and presumptively consistent with the health, safety and welfare of the community.” Allegheny Tower Associates, LLC v. City of Scranton Zoning Hearing Board, 152 A.3d 1118, 1123 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2017); Evans v. Zoning Hearing Board of Easttown Township, 396 A.2d 889, 891 (Pa. Cmmw. Ct. 1979).

In other words, a special exception is an allowed land use. But, in order to be entitled to a special exception, the party seeking special exception approval must go before the municipal zoning board. Nowicki v. Zoning Hearing Board of Borough of Monaca, 91 A. 3d 287 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2014). At the municipal zoning hearing board, a special exception applicant must do two things. First, a special exception applicant has the duty to present evidence to the zoning board that the proposed special exception meets the zoning ordinance’s objective requirements for that land use. Greaton Properties v. Lower Merion Township, 796 A.2d 1038, 1045 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2002). Second, the special exception applicant has the burden to persuade the municipal zoning board that the proposed special exception meets the zoning ordinance’s objective requirements for that land use. Greaton Properties at 1045.

If the special exception applicant satisfies its duty of presentation and burden of persuasion before the municipal zoning hearing board for its proposed special exception, a presumption arises that the use is consistent with the health, safety and general welfare of the community. Greaton Properties at 1045-46; Bray v. Zoning Board of Adjustment, 410 A.2d 909(Pa. Commw. Ct. 1980). At that point, “the burden then normally shifts to the objectors of the application to present evidence and persuade the [zoning hearing b]oard that the proposed use will have a generally detrimental effect.” Greaton Properties at 1046. “The evidence presented by objectors must show a high probability that the use will generate adverse impacts not normally generated by this type of use and that these impacts will pose a substantial threat to the health and safety of the community.” Greaton Properties at 1046.

A municipal ordinance can specifically place a burden on the special exception applicant to show that its proposed use will not have a detrimental effect on the community. Greaton Properties at 1046. But, in that case, objectors to the proposed special exception have the “initial presentation burden with respect to the general matter of the detriment to health safety, and general welfare” and the burden to persuade the zoning hearing board that the proposed special exception will not have a detrimental effect on the community. Greaton Properties at 1046. The record must still establish, to a high degree of probability that the use will generate adverse impacts not normally generated by this type of use and that these impacts will pose a substantial threat to the health and safety of the community. Greaton Properties at 1046.

The procedure to obtain, or to oppose, special exception approval is very similar to the procedure for conditional uses, which we have discussed before. In fact, “[a] conditional use is nothing more than a special exception which falls within the jurisdiction of the municipal governing body (here, the Board) rather than the zoning hearing board.”  Collier Stone Co. v. Township of Collier Board of Commissioners, 735 A.2d 768, 770 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1999); Bailey v. Upper Southampton Township, 690 A.2d 1324 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 1997). As a result, special exception proceedings involve at least one public hearing and the presentation of testimony and evidence. 53 P.S. § 10908. But, unlike conditional uses which are considered by the governing body of the municipality, zoning boards have no legislative authority - zoning hearing boards only have quasi-judicial authority. Kennedy v. Upper Milford Township Zoning Hearing Board, 834 A.2d 1104, 1114–15 (Pa. 2003).

Special exceptions present unique considerations for property owners both seeking and opposing such approval. Property owners may be familiar with members of a municipal governing body through elections or participation at municipal meetings. Property owners often do not have the same experience with zoning boards because municipal zoning hearing board members are not elected, they are appointed by the governing body. 53 P.S. § 10903.

Although a zoning board is not a court, “it is nevertheless a governmental body charged with applying the law to zoning matters arising in its purview, and the principles of due process apply with the same force.” Pascal v. City of Pittsburgh Zoning Board of Adjustment, 259 A.3d 375, 385 (Pa. 2021). Zoning boards “perform formal fact-finding and deliberative functions in a manner similar to that of a court.” Kennedy at 1114. Indeed, Pennsylvania law contains provisions which “require zoning boards to function in the manner of a court, including the issuance of written final adjudications (with factual findings, legal conclusions, and express reasoning) based on public evidentiary hearings held on published and posted notice, in which all parties have the right to be represented by counsel and to present evidence and argument and to cross-examine adverse witnesses.” Kennedy at 1115.

Given the nature of special exception proceedings before municipal zoning hearing boards, it is important that property owners seeking special exception approval - or opposing such approval - are prepared to participate in the process in order to most effectively advance their positions. If you are seeking special exception approval, or opposing a special exception, Houston Harbaugh’s zoning and land use attorneys can assist. Contact Brendan A. O’Donnell by email at odonnellba@hh-law.com or by phone at 412-288-2226.

About Us

These are cutting edge legal issues. The law of the future. Renewable energy, zoning and land use issues will shape the future of growth in the region. Houston Harbaugh’s Renewable Energy, Zoning and Land Use practice focuses on assisting clients maximize and protect the value of their properties, whether related to renewable energy, commercial or residential development opportunities.

As renewable energy becomes more reliable, efficient, inexpensive and technologies associated with carbon capture and storage advance, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio are in position to benefit from these two parallel energy development opportunities. The region’s geographic location and existing infrastructure presents unique opportunities for property owners to participate in solar, wind, geothermal, other renewable energy developments, as well as for carbon capture, carbon sequestration and carbon storage projects. Additionally, legacy oil, gas and coal infrastructure may be repurposed and reused in connection with new energy developments.

With any development, whether renewable energy, commercial or residential, there are a host of zoning and land use issues that directly impact the most basic parts of daily life of both individuals and communities. Determining where and how land can be developed impacts property ownership, property value, quality of life and the economic development and wellbeing of communities. Zoning and land use issues are, on one hand, matters of local concern but, on the other hand, potentially subject to county or state regulations.

The Renewable Energy, Zoning and Land Use practice draws on Houston Harbaugh attorneys’ experience in energyoil and gas and real property matters to advance clients’ interests in both transactional and litigation matters. Houston Harbaugh’s Renewable Energy, Zoning and Land Use attorneys assist clients with matters including:

  • Solar energy leases;
  • Wind energy leases;
  • Pore space ownership for carbon capture / carbon sequestration / carbon storage, geothermal and waste disposal;
  • Ownership of legacy oil, gas and coal infrastructure for repurposing/renewable energy usage;
  • Compliance with existing solar, wind and renewable energy leases;
  • Surface and subsurface accommodation between competing land uses;
  • Variance, Special Exception and Conditional Uses applications/hearings;
  • Land use appeals;
  • Eminent domain
Head shot photo of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Lawyer Brendan O'Donnell at Houston Harbaugh

Brendan A. O'Donnell

An attorney in Houston Harbaugh’s Oil and Gas Practice, Brendan O’Donnell has represented oil and gas owners across Pennsylvania in a wide array of oil and gas matters for over a decade. This experience has involved not only the Marcellus shale and the Utica shale, but more traditional oil and gas development as well.

Brendan maintains a diverse practice, representing clients in all matters involving oil and gas spanning the transactional and litigation realms. On the transactional front, Brendan routinely assists landowners with negotiating oil and gas leases, pipeline rights of way and surface use agreements and subsurface easements related to horizontal drilling as part of Marcellus and Utica shale development.  Brendan also frequently reviews royalty statements and oil and gas ownership issues as well as preparing deeds and title curative documents. Brendan also maintains an active litigation practice, representing clients in state and federal courts, as well as private arbitration matters. This litigation often involves title disputes, pooling and unitization challenges, lease termination questions and royalty/ post-production cost claims.

Assisting clients across the spectrum from contract negotiations through litigation and appeals gives Brendan valuable first-hand knowledge about how oil and gas agreements are prepared, how disputes arise and how courts resolve these issues. Brendan stays up-to-date on developments in oil and gas law and writes frequently on the these topics. Additionally, as alternative energy generation like wind and solar are increasingly being developed in oil and gas producing regions, Brendan assists clients with navigating the interplay between these complex energy developments and evaluating solar agreements.

Brendan complements his oil and gas practice by representing property owners, including oil and gas owners, in zoning and land use matters. Brendan has represented clients before municipal bodies and in appeals to court. Brendan is also active in the firm’s Energy and Environmental Law Practice.

Regardless of the type of representation, Brendan prides himself in providing clients with realistic, pragmatic advice. Hiring an attorney is an investment and Brendan focuses on how he can provide value to clients.

Outside of the office, Brendan serves on the Town of McCandless Planning Commission and lives with his family in McCandless. Brendan has visited every one of Allegheny County’s 130 municipalities.