The online marketplace for short term lodging is proliferating well beyond Jersey Shore and Poconos rentals. AirBnB’s are becoming a popular trend in suburban Philadelphia and in some townships, an unwanted land use. Since this trend started, the municipal and zoning lawyer in me has wondered how this seemingly unregulated ability to rent out your house for a few days complies with local zoning and other township codes. Well the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case that might provide some new insight.
In late February 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to review the Commonwealth Court’s June 2017 decision in Slice of Life, LLC v. Hamilton Twp. Zoning Hearing Bd. In the case, Hamilton Township in Monroe County issued a violation notice to a property owner stating that the owner’s use of the property in question for short-term rentals violated the township’s zoning code. The property was in a residential zoning district in which only single-family residential use was permitted. The Township’s zoning hearing board, and then the Court of Common Pleas, agreed that the use violated the zoning ordinance, finding that the owner was not operating a single-family dwelling, but rather a commercial short-term transient lodging business motivated by profit.
On appeal, the Commonwealth Court reversed those decisions, finding that the Township’s violation notice was an attempt to expand the language of the Township zoning ordinance to impose an unwritten policy against short-term rentals. The Commonwealth Court analyzed the defined terms in the applicable ordinance sections and concluded that the Township was reading undefined terms into the ordinance language, when the law requires that any ambiguity in the written language be interpreted in favor of the property owner. The Commonwealth Court also rejected the Township’s argument that short-term transient rentals threaten the health, safety and welfare of single-family residential neighborhoods, essentially explaining that neighborhoods sometimes have bad neighbors regardless of whether they are renters or owners. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will now review the Commonwealth Court’s decision, which could provide some insight on how local zoning codes may be interpreted with respect to these evermore common short-term rentals of single-family homes.
So what can municipalities learn from the analysis provided by the Courts so far? The devil is in the details. The Court’s focus on the defined and undefined terms in the applicable zoning ordinance is ultimately what controlled the outcome of the Slice of Life case and others that preceded it. Recognizing that online services such as AirBnB have expanded the possible uses of single-family dwellings, the Courts have pointed out that townships wanting to control these new uses must do so by amending their zoning ordinances, rather than attempting to restrict the uses through broad interpretations of existing language. If municipalities feel that short-term rentals pose a threat to their neighborhoods, they should review their ordinances and make the necessary changes to restrict such uses to certain zoning districts. In the coming months, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should provide some guidance to municipalities on what types of changes are necessary in order to properly address these emerging uses within their communities.
If you have any questions about zoning ordinances, please contact Mark R. Fischer, Jr. at 610-275-0700 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Our Bucks County and Montgomery County Municipal & Government Law attorneys have knowledge and experience in all facets of zoning issues.
 164 A.3d 633 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2017).
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