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PA Supreme Court Case Strengthens Zoning Ordinances Prohibiting Short-Term Rentals

FLB Law      May. 24, 2019

Young adults exchanging keys for a short-term rental
Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Slice of Life v. Hamilton Township. As the prevalence and impact of short-term rentals continues to increase, this case will have important implications from both land use and litigation perspectives. The Court decided that the Township’s Zoning Ordinance was clear enough to prohibit the exclusive use of a single-family property as a short-term rentals (e.g., Airbnb, VBRO, and HomeToGo).

This case presented a “perfect” storm of facts. The home at issue was located in the single-family residential district that generally only allowed single-family detached dwellings. The homeowner never lived in the property and did not consider it to be his personal residence. Rather, the property was used exclusively for short-term rentals. The Zoning Ordinance in question explicitly excluded hotels, motels, rooming houses, and tourist homes from the definition of “dwelling.” The term “family” was also defined as more than one person living together as a “single housekeeping unit.” The phrase “single housekeeping unit” was not defined in the Zoning Ordinance. The question before the Court was whether the short-term renters constituted a single housekeeping unit under the Zoning Ordinance.

By way of background, this matter began as all zoning issues in Pennsylvania do, via an enforcement notice. The Zoning Hearing Board and the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas both agreed that the use of the property for transient lodging was a violation of the Zoning Ordinance. The Commonwealth Court reversed, holding that each individual who signed a short-term lease was a “family” for purposes of the Zoning Ordinance, and the remaining people at the property were “guests” of the “family.”

The Supreme Court disagreed with the Commonwealth Court. The Supreme Court recognized that the phrase “single housekeeping unit” is a term of art widely used in zoning ordinances. For this reason, the Zoning Ordinance was not ambiguous. The Court held that the definition of a “single housekeeping unit” excluded purely transient uses. In reaching its conclusion, the Court stated, “requiring that zoning ordinances state every conceivable impermissible use would negate the deference to which a zoning hearing board is entitled in the interpretation of its municipal zoning ordinances.”

From a land use perspective, absent a clear policy governing short-term rentals in a municipality, this case is likely to be used by both municipalities and neighboring land owners to curtail short-term rentals of residences located in low-density residential zoning districts (particularly when those rentals are disruptive to neighbors). It is also likely that, in light of this decision, municipalities may enact or amend ordinances to govern short-term rentals. Landowners should watch for public advertisement of the enactment or amendment of ordinances so that they can be involved in the process. Of course, if you need assistance determining the impact of this case or a proposed ordinance on the use of your property, you should consult a real estate attorney.

From a litigation perspective, this case is a good reminder of the limitations of zoning ordinances to protect against the proliferation of short-term rentals in single-family residential districts. While some municipalities will enact ordinances to prohibit short-term rentals in specified areas, many will not. Residents may need to look to noise, nuisance, or occupancy ordinances to address problems that can stem from the proliferation short-term rentals. Even when the appropriate guidelines are in place, that does not mean a municipality will have the resources or wherewithal to enforce them. When all intermediate steps fail and there is an intentional and unreasonable interference in a homeowner’s private use and enjoyment of land, a homeowner may consider pursuing a private nuisance action.

For assistance with real estate, land use, and development issue, please contact Stephanie Koenig. For assistance with litigation matters, please contact Maraleen Shields or any other member of either our Real Estate or Litigation groups.

by Stephanie A. Koenig and Maraleen D. Shields

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