It was not so long ago that the Pennsylvania courts changed the law to require school districts to submit to the subdivision/land development and zoning regulations of municipalities. Prior to that time, school districts were not required to seek approval for construction projects. Unfortunately, that time is long gone, and school districts are faced with complying with continually tightening restrictions associated with development at the municipal level.
School buildings, athletic fields, necessary parking lots, sidewalks, access drives for buses and parent drop-off areas, playgrounds, etc. take up a lot of space, and that requires school districts to seek zoning and land development approval. Due to the amount of impervious (whether building or paved areas) surfaces, storm water management must be addressed. Most zoning ordinances require screening and buffering with vegetation from adjacent properties. Still, police and security consultants are advising us to keep schools free of places for active shooters to hide so schools can be cleared more quickly. The increasing number of parents driving their children to school creates much more traffic and creates the need for separate entrance points. Outside approvals from PennDot and the county conservation district are becoming more difficult and time consuming to obtain as well. In general, municipalities view school projects no differently than they would a significant commercial or industrial development even though we are there to provide a free education as mandated by law.
In the past, your architect and their civil engineer would walk the plan through the land development process with little to no trouble or delay. Nowadays, schools are often required to seek a special exception or conditional use approval so that they can locate a school in a particular location. Then, there is a need to get multiple variances from the zoning ordinance and/or modifications or waivers from the subdivision and land development ordinance or storm water management ordinance. In some cases, you may need to request a text amendment to the municipality’s ordinances in order to proceed with your plans. Even once you are granted approval, there are a number of agreements regarding storm water and bonding for public improvements that must be negotiated and drafted. While your engineer can typically identify the issues, this realization often comes later on in the process which creates delays in receiving approval, thereby impacting your schedule. The earlier these issues are addressed in the design and approval process, the less chance of delay.
Stock and Leader’s Municipal Group has expertise in development at the municipal level and can help guide you through this process and help save precious time in your design and construction schedule. Time saved translates into dollars saved. If you have a project in the near future or simply have questions about what we can do to help walk through municipal approval of a project, please contact Dave Jones in our School and Municipal Groups.