PA Needs Legally-Binding Comprehensive Plans

Many municipalities have wisely recognized that when each local government draws up a zoning plan only for its own territory, that’s a recipe for total chaos at the regional level. Many counties have dozens of municipalities, so when each one draws up its own zoning code without considering what its neighbors are doing (or worse, actively competing with its neighbors for housing and retail) the effect is to supercharge land-hungry sprawl.

Some of the more forward-thinking municipalities have tried to remedy this by banding together with their neighbors to draft comprehensive regional plans, in an attempt to bring some order to development. The plans lay out where new residential and commercial development is allowed, and what areas should stay open space, across the whole group of municipalities.

The trouble is, there’s no easy way to legally enforce these regional planning agreements, since the state Municipal Planning Code specifically makes these documents advisory only, rather than legally binding on municipalities and developers.

This is a problem, since it’s difficult to make these agreements stick. One reason is that each municipality is still competing for tax base with all the others, so there’s pressure to violate the agreement when non-complying opportunities arise:

Officials from six southwestern Lehigh County municipalities grappled with a time-honored problem of how to give teeth to any updates to the Southwestern Lehigh County Comprehensive Plan they would draft, during a meeting Wednesday night at the Upper Milford Township Municipal Building. The plan, which was adopted in 2005, addressed ways to control development and preserve open space. Officials said the plan was intended to serve as the basis for future zoning and implement smart growth. In reality, it hasn’t been that way.

The boroughs of Alburtis, Emmaus and Macungie and the townships of Upper Milford, Lower Milford and Lower Macungie were represented during the two-hour meeting and after much discussion agreed to do some homework [...]

Withdrawing will not solve anything, but the plan is useless if the members do not comply,” was the consensus of the responses, according to Upper Milford Township officials.

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