In the case of Polaris v. Fayette County Zoning Hearing Board, the Commonwealth Court reversed a decision of the Court of Common Pleas and the underlying zoning hearing board to deny an application to use a property as a methadone clinic. In this case, Polaris argued that the ZHB erroneously denied its special exception application on the grounds that Polaris had not met its burden of proof and that the proposed clinic would adversely affect the health, safety and welfare of the surrounding area, specifically due to traffic.

As to the burden of proof argument, the Commonwealth Court started its opinion by noting that both the ZHB and the trial court “confusingly conflate the issues of burden of proof, burden-shifting, and sufficiency of evidence in their arguments and analysis” and then went on to cite the following black letter law as to applications for special exceptions:

1. A special exception is not an exception to a zoning ordinance, but rather a use that is expressly permitted absent a showing of detrimental effect on the community.

2. An applicant for a special exception has the burden of proving that the proposed use satisfies the objective requirements of the ordinance for the grant of a special exception.

3. Once the applicant satisfies this burden, a presumption arises that the use is consistent with the health, safety, and general welfare of the community.

4. The burden then shifts to the objectors to establish the proposed use will have a detrimental effect on the community.

The Commonwealth Court noted that the uncontradicted evidence in the record established that Polaris met the objective requirements of the ordinance and thereby create a presumption that the proposed use was consistent with the health, safety, and general welfare of the community and, as such, both the ZHB and the trial court erred in its determination that Polaris did not meet its initial burden of proof to obtain the special exception.

As to the adverse traffic conditions argument, the Commonwealth Court found that the record showed that Polaris established that the proposed use met the requirements of the ordinance and further noted the following:

1. An increase in traffic alone is insufficient to justify the refusal of an otherwise valid land use.

2. The fact that a proposed use would contribute to projected traffic congestion primarily generated by other sources is not a sufficient basis for denying a special exception.

3. To warrant a denial, there must be not only a likelihood but a high degree of probability that the traffic increases will pose a substantial threat to the health and safety of the community.

Here, the Commonwealth Court confirmed that the record contained no credible evidence whatsoever that the proposed use would generate traffic that would rise anywhere close to pose a substantial threat to the health, safety, and general welfare of the community.

This case again confirms that zoning hearing boards cannot simply dismiss applications for special exceptions for uses that they and the protestors might find objectionable, including methadone clinics.

If you should have any questions as to the law to obtain special exception or conditional use approvals, please contact Rob Gundlach at 215-918-3636, or rgundlach@foxrothschild.com.