Legal Matters: Preparing For Home Improvement

home improvement
Image via Shutterstock.

By Eric Wert

Are you thinking about installing a pool, adding a shed, deck or a privacy fence — or perhaps something bigger? As a property owner, you know there is never a shortage of projects to improve your home and make it your own.

However, prior to making a significant deposit with your contractor or hiring an architect, it is important to make sure that you have the right to make the improvements under your municipality’s Zoning Ordinance.

Almost every municipality in our area has adopted their own version of a Zoning Ordinance. These are regulations adopted by your borough, township, or city government which govern the use of land and what can be built on it.

For example, your local Zoning Ordinance will create different classes of Zoning Districts which determine where the residential homes can be built and where industrial uses should be located.  Your municipality will have a Zoning Map to provide a visual representation of all of the different Zoning Districts in your hometown and written regulations specific to each District.

These tools help your municipal officials to ensure that a high impact industrial use doesn’t ruin the tranquility of a neighborhood.  They also help the municipality designate your town’s downtown shopping area as compared to the district with professional offices.

If you have a project in mind, are looking to purchase a new property, or are just curious what regulations apply, it is always a good idea to become familiar with your Township’s Zoning Ordinance – especially as they relate to your specific property to have a good sense of what you can do and what you can’t do.

Most municipalities make their entire code accessible on their website – including the Zoning Code and Zoning Map.  If you’re just starting out, it is usually best to take a look at the Zoning Map first so that you know which district your property is in and therefore can better determine which regulations apply.

It is important to note that these regulations go beyond simply regulating the use of the property. The Zoning Ordinance will also provide dimensional requirements for improvements to your property.  For example, how tall can your proposed privacy fence be?  What is the maximum percentage of your lot that can be covered with impervious surfaces (that is, surfaces that don’t allow water to seep into the ground, like pavement, house roofs, concrete, etc.)?  How far must your shed be set back from your neighbor’s property line?

Now if your project doesn’t fall neatly within the regulations that apply to your District and Use, it doesn’t mean that there is no hope.

Pennsylvania Law and your Municipal Ordinance also provide methods by which property owners can seek permission to deviate from the strict requirements of the local regulations. This process may require an application for zoning relief – either a “variance” or a “special exception” from your local Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB), or an application for a “conditional use” from the municipal board itself.  These applications require a hearing before the appropriate board to allow for the presentation of evidence as to why your project is appropriate for your property and the rest of the neighborhood.

These hearings are governed by Pennsylvania law, and should be taken seriously.  With that said, we do everything we can to make the process as friendly as possible with the municipality and ZHB. We also do our best to resolve any possible problems long before the day of the hearing itself.

If you have an idea for a project, I would love to be able to speak with you about it and help you navigate what regulations apply.

Sometimes, after hearing about your ideas, I am able to present them to the local zoning officer in a way that avoids the need for an application to the ZHB or municipality at all.  If not, I will be sure to gather the information and evidence necessary to make a presentation at the hearing that will put you in the best chance for success.

At Dischell Bartle Dooley, we represent land owners and developers, both big and small, as they seek to use and develop their properties in the way that they want. We work hard to establish good relationships with all local municipalities and municipal officials so that we can make the process as smooth as possible.

Please feel free to email or call me at (215) 362-2474 to discuss how I can help you make your property its best.  I look forward to talking with you.

eric wert


About Eric Wert:
Eric is an attorney with local roots. He was raised in Montgomery County, married his high school sweetheart and now lives, works, and is raising his family right here too. 

Eric primarily practices in the areas of Real Estate/Land Use/Zoning, Business Law, Municipal Law, Wills, Trusts, and Estate Planning.

Eric chose to pursue a career in the legal profession out of a desire to help individuals navigate the law as they pursue their business or real estate passions. His clients value his professionalism and extensive knowledge of the local laws.