New Castle News

Closer Look

December 4, 2012

Our Opinion: Neshannock’s proposed revisions meet resistance

NEW CASTLE — Zoning is one of those issues that can hit close to home.

Literally. Zoning rules say what property owners can — and cannot — do with their lands. Municipalities in Pennsylvania have substantial powers to regulate land use and decide what types of activities are appropriate in given areas.

But that power is not unlimited. Not only must zoning rules and procedures comply with state law, they also must be able to withstand legal scrutiny and challenge.

For instance, it’s illegal for municipalities to engage in what’s known as “spot” zoning — the creation of a special zone for a specific piece of property that’s contrary to other land surrounding it.

And while the establishment of zoning rules and maps is an innately political process, where competing interests may clash, it’s ideally the result of compromise and common sense. As much as possible, the development of zoning in a community ought to be a collaborative process, where various interests and concerns are included in the discussion in order to achieve a reasonable result.

For some time now, there has been discussion in Neshannock Township about pursuing amendments to the municipality’s zoning ordinance and related maps. On occasion, such revisions are warranted. Things have a way of changing over time.

And what may have made sense 20 years ago can be substantially outdated today. That’s especially true in a municipality such as Neshannock Township, where ongoing development creates pressures on land use and alters the expectations of municipal officials and property owners alike.

Yet making changes to zoning maps often meets with opposition. People make investments in homes and other property based on zoning rules. Just as a zoning change can add to the value of a property, it also can detract from it.

Last week, Neshannock Township Supervisor Ralph Sheen announced he had crafted a new zoning map of the township on his own. When fellow supervisor Joseph Gierlach questioned the proposed changes, Sheen invited Gierlach to “draw lines and make any changes you want.”

Meanwhile, several township residents showed up at the meeting to object to proposed changes in the map and how these would affect their properties.

Obviously, the supervisors are required to make the final decision on any zoning changes. But these changes ought not be their personal creations. There should be an ongoing dialogue that includes residents and assorted interests. If not, the township can look forward to lots of complaints and an endless series of revisions to whatever is approved.

Zoning and its impacts can be very personal. On their own, Neshannock’s supervisors cannot anticipate all of those impacts. Judging from last week’s reaction, the zoning revision project in the township needs more review.

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