April 04, 2024

Remember the Lesley Gore tune, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to”?  Well, if a person doesn’t obtain party status, they could end up crying because obtaining party status allows a person to appeal an adverse decision to the trial court.

The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code [“MPC”], the governing law for zoning, sets forth who can be a party to a zoning hearing:

“The parties to the hearing shall be the municipality, any person affected by the application who has made timely appearance of record before the board, and any other person including civic or community organizations permitted to appear by the board. The board shall have power to require that all persons who wish to be considered parties enter appearances in writing on forms provided by the board for that purpose.”

Sounds simple enough, but the practice of obtaining party status varies widely among zoning hearing boards. Some boards require a person to enter a written appearance on a form provided by the zoning hearing board. Some boards ask at the beginning of the hearing if anyone in the audience wants party status. Some boards do not do anything at all and leave it up to a protestant to ask for party status.

A person “affected” by the application should be given party status. This is not a “bright line” test. Someone who lives next to the property or close by would be affected by the application. However, just showing up for a hearing and asking questions, or just submitting a letter objecting to the application without more, may not be enough to give someone party status. Coppola v. Smith Township Board of Supervisors, 208 A.3d 532 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2019).  The best course of action if someone wants to obtain party status is to take some form of affirmative action either by entering a written appearance if that is required, or by specifically requesting party status at the hearing.

Finally, keep in mind that just because you received party status before the zoning hearing board does not automatically mean that you have standing to file an appeal. The standard to allow someone party status is more liberal than the standard to file an appeal.  To file an appeal, someone needs to be a “person aggrieved”, i.e. a person who has a substantial, direct and immediate interest in the matter. This was the case in South Bethlehem Associates, LP v. Zoning Hearing Board of Bethlehem Township, 294 A.3d 441 (Pa. 2023), where a competitor hotel was given party status by the zoning hearing board to challenge the application of another hotel, but was denied standing to appeal the zoning decision granting variances because the competing hotel’s only interest was to suppress competition.