Neighborhood commercial to commercial zoning

by Tina
(Lehigh Township Pa)

Visitor Question: Without any notice, the township rezoned us from neighborhood commercial to straight commercial. We found out because of our tax increase. What can we do?

Editors Reply: Before we tackle the main thrust of your question, we would like to discuss the problem of not receiving any notice, for your benefit and that of our readers.

Sometimes the township makes a genuine mistake. Notices about rezoning typically are sent by registered mail. Addresses are obtained from tax records. Many places now use geographic information systems (GIS), which is computerized mapping. These systems then are connected with the digital form of the tax records. But human beings create and manage data within all of these systems, so mistakes can be made.

Similarly, rarely the postal service can misplace a piece of mail. Again, humans make mistakes.

If the tax record does not accurately reflect your current address, or if you have your tax bill sent to a mortgage holder or attorney, the notice may have gone astray.

Another possibility is that sometimes when a rezoning is rather widespread and is receiving press coverage, a city attorney will rule that every single property owner does not have to be notified individually.

For your own comfort, you might want to see if your township has a record of the mailing, and if so, whether they paid extra to have a record of delivery being made. Sometimes it's good to figure out how the error was made, so that it doesn't happen again in the future.

Now we will proceed to your real question, what to do now. If you want to change it, you must apply for a rezoning. But think carefully about whether you really want to do that. As you already have discovered, moving from neighborhood commercial to a less restrictive and more general commercial zoning is widely interpreted as raising property values.

If you plan to sell this property in the foreseeable future, or you think heirs will be in that position, it may well be worth it to you to become content with your increased property value.

On the other hand, if you value your lower tax bill and lesser intensity of a neighborhood commercial atmosphere, you will want to file for a rezoning.

This entails completing an application and paying an application fee often in the hundreds of dollars. Then you must be prepared to have a notice posted on your property and to attend one or more public hearings on the topic. We do not have recent Pennsylvania township experience, but we think the norm there is to have a body equivalent to a city plan commission that holds a hearing and makes a recommendation. Then your township's governing body also will hold a hearing and vote either after the hearing in the same meeting, or at a subsequent meeting. So don't take the rezoning process lightly.

If you want to pursue rezoning, check around with neighboring property owners. In doing so, you may find that others have been rezoned also and might want to join with you in seeking a rezoning back to neighborhood commercial. There is potential to split the cost of the application, if the township will allow you all to proceed on one application. Certainly the moral support of all of you attending meetings together can be comforting.

But in this process of talking with neighboring property owners, you might discover that some would like to stay with commercial zoning and would oppose your application. Take note of who these people are. If you find an influential person in town among them, you might especially want to organize yourselves to present a united front. (In this case, check out a page we wrote on how to oppose a rezoning. Obviously it is written from the opposite point of view, but the principles of organizing are the same.)

Before you go forward even with an application, talk with any planning staff or consultants that the township employs. Find out the rationale behind the rezoning. Often this type of thing occurs because there is a new comprehensive plan or small area plan of some type. Recent adoption of a new plan can make the township much more resistant to going back to the old zoning. Regardless of what you learn, a phone or face-to-face conversation with a planner or even an elected official who was involved can be very helpful to you in deciding whether you want to spend the money, time, and effort involved in filing for a rezoning.

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