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Common Commercial Zoning Issues

Zoning is a control tool utilized by municipalities to govern the specific uses of individual tracts of land. By designating specific land areas as commercial, industrial, and residential properties, the Government Entities attempt to bring balance into their community, while also protecting property values for each specific area.  Zoning issues can arise when a party seeks to utilize a specific piece of land for a purpose beyond the specific zone in which it is located. Such issues can involve businesses, land developers, homeowners, and local city governments.

Zoning laws are complex, and unique to each municipality, so it is always best to contact a lawyer if an issue involving zoning laws is anticipated in any land purchase, building, or remodeling project.

What is Zoning?

The purpose of zoning is to create an effective distribution of land use within privately owned real estate areas. A zone is proposed by the state, which is then passed by a city or local municipality. To challenge a designated zone, an individual must show that the zoning ordinance is causing direct, adverse effects. Zones are implemented in the following land areas:

Residential Land Use: Single-family, mobile, suburban homes, and other residential estates are subject to zoning regulations. Residential zoning regulations can include whether or not a person can own a home-based business.

Industrial Land Use: Industrial ordinances are specific to a business, such as noise and environmental issues.

Commercial Land Use: This ordinance dictates what type of business can be on the land, such as warehouses, offices, hotels, and shopping malls.

Agricultural Land Use: An agricultural-based zoning regulation defines non-farm and farm areas on the land.

Rural Land Use: This is a land area that can be used by farmers and ranchers.

Historic Land Use: A historical land zoning ordinance protects historical properties and structures. Other types of construction cannot be used in this zone.

Esthetic Zoning: Color schemes, landscaping, and other aesthetically pleasing features are established by esthetic zoning regulations. This is most commonly seen in residential areas.

Permitted and Accessory Uses: These uses exist when there is an accessory or extension to a property. An accessory is meant to enhance a property within the zone, such as a bar attached to a hotel or a garage connected to a house.

It is important to note that there are also subdivisions within each category. For instance, specific regulations might be linked to single-family homes in the residential land use zoning ordinance. There are many elements to keep in mind when looking to build a business on land. Given the varying and complex nature of zoning laws and ordinances, it is often beneficial to contact an attorney prior to commencing a real estate purchase if your desired use for the property raises any questions with regard to the area in which the property is zoned.

What Happens with Zoning Disputes?

When commercial buildings are close to residential homes, a variety of issues may arise, especially with regard to zoning ordinances. Municipalities will often have in place zoning ordinances which deal with air and water pollution and loud noise that could affect neighbors. Parking in the commercial area may also present an issue with regard to its placement and maintaining appropriate distance from the residential homes. Other common zoning ordinances to consider are those regulating signage, trash, and obstruction of views. Before building a commercial property, it is wise to consult with a lawyer about the zoning areas and laws that may apply, as well as whether any variances or special exceptions can be obtained to move forward with the project.

A setback is another common commercial zoning problem. This term refers to a minimum distance that buildings are permitted to be located from property lines. Setbacks can be used to keep buildings certain distances from roadways for safety reasons and to prevent overcrowding. Two main goals of a setback are to allow proper ventilation and sunlight within a zone.

What can Zoning Ordinances Do?

According to Pennsylvania law, zoning ordinances are in place to do the following:

  • Promote the growth of industries and organizations.
  • Prevent overcrowding in an area (including controlling of traffic and overpopulation of businesses).
  • Protect homeowners and corporations alike.
  • Zoning preserves farmland.

A zoning violation can create significant issues for individuals and companies alike. If a commercial business or another entity does not adhere to the zoning ordinances, the financial penalties can be severe. Typically, a court will notify the offender about the violation and designate a reasonable amount of time to remedy the problem. If the commercial entity does not fix the violation, they are subject to fines and may have to halt or end production. The costs associated with reversing these issues can be substantial, so it is always best to contact a lawyer at the outset of a major renovation or construction to ensure that due consideration is afforded to the specific and unique zoning ordinances of the municipality in which you are building.

How are Commercial versus Residential Zoning Issues Handled?

In some cases, an individual will attempt to solve a zoning dispute on their own by contacting the alleged offending party. If the response is not satisfactory, a claim may be filed with the local government’s zoning board who may intervene. Alternatively, a zoning violation may also lead to the filing of a lawsuit, especially if there are claims of discrimination in matters where a large group of people are impacted. If discrimination is suspected in a case that impacts a large group of people within an area, a class action lawsuit may be filed, but such suits can easily be avoided at the outset of a project if the appropriate legal questions are considered, and where appropriate, an impact study is conducted.

When Do Commercial Properties Violate Zoning Laws?

Commercial zoning laws regulate, among other things, setbacks, distances from other structures, building sizes, and heights. However, business owners have options if the property they are interested in is not zoned for commercial use. Depending on the type of use, business owners can apply for a variance, special exception, or conditional use as the situation requires. After such an application, a presentation is made to the municipality’s zoning hearing board, or board of supervisors, and an opportunity for questions and comments is afforded. In these situations, it is beneficial to have a legal professional assisting with the application and hearings to ensure all appropriate evidence is compiled and presented to the presiding board members.

Even if the zoning board is unwilling to grant an exception to the municipality’s zoning ordinances, a court appeal of the determination may be an appropriate avenue worth pursuing. This process can be time consuming but depends on individual circumstances. For example, if the company has fulfilled all of the board’s requirements and an official will not approve it, a government agency may have to step in. In other cases, court injunctions will order one party to cease their unlawful or illegal activities.

How can a Lawyer Remedy the Violation?

Commercial business owners should thoroughly review zoning laws before trying to establish property in an area, especially if it is close to residential homesteads. Problems most often arise when businesses set up close to neighborhoods and residents have concern over environmental impact, increase in noise or traffic, and property values.

Business owners can avoid legal problems and costly fines related to zoning issues by speaking to a lawyer beforehand. A lawyer who is knowledgeable about a municipality generally, and its zoning laws, can assist in choosing the appropriate course of action, and avoiding potential disputes and fines on the back end. If property is already up and running and a commercial business is facing complaints or allegations of a zoning violation, a lawyer can assist with this as well. Plaintiffs have a steep burden to prove that the commercial business should not exist, and they must also go through a lengthy process to end production; however, they may still prove a case that requires some modifications or remedies on the part of the business. With the right legal team, business owners can protect themselves against such complaints and alleged zoning violations.

If you were involved in any type of zoning disagreement or have any questions about zoning ordinances in a specific municipality or generally, the experienced legal team at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser can help. We are familiar with zoning laws and can offer legal guidance to bring any issues to a swift resolution. For a confidential consultation, complete our online form or call 484-318-7106. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we serve clients throughout the greater Philadelphia area, including Delaware County, Montgomery County, Chester County, and New Jersey.

Law Enforcement Professionals Increase Use of Technology

Technological advances are improving law enforcement officers’ ability to combat crime. From robots and drones to biometrics, advances in technology are helping detectives and police officers apprehend, identify, and track criminals more accurately. Critics lament that these tools can be abused and increase police officers’ authority. Advocates of the technology argue that the technical tools are instrumental in solving and preventing crimes more thoroughly. Police officers and other law enforcement personnel increasingly rely on the following:

Robots

Remote-controlled robots equipped with cameras can be utilized to enter dangerous buildings and inaccessible areas for surveillance. These robots can detect bombs and provide real-time information regarding crimes in progress. Police can use the information to plan their responses and identify criminals without risk of injury or death.

Drones

Similar to robots, drones with cameras are increasingly utilized to monitor activity remotely. Police can send drones to areas where suspected crimes are occurring to watch for criminal activity. They can provide an aerial view to gain vital information on individuals conducting crimes and follow them to their hideouts without their knowledge. The crucial information can be gleaned from the safety of the police station where an appropriate plan and response can be created with minimal disruption to public safety.

Biometrics

Police have always relied on fingerprints taken from the scene of a crime in their investigations. However, the advances in biometrics now include retinal scans and DNA analysis to identify individuals more accurately. Due to technological advances, police officers can instantly identify criminals.

Big Data

Data collection has become a great source for law enforcement as data is constantly generated from various sources. Data from video surveillance, cellular communications, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), and other sources is compiled and used to track crime and identify suspects. GPS data can be used to pinpoint locations of calls. DNA, fingerprints, retinal scans, and facial recognition technology are stored in databases utilized by law enforcement officers to identify suspects quickly so that they can be apprehended before further harm occurs.

Social Media

Another great source of information is the scouring of social media sites for further information on an individual’s activity. Most individuals have a social media presence in which they voluntarily post information about their whereabouts, activities, photos, and videos that offer several clues to investigators.

License Plate Readers

Police cars are equipped with scanners that read license plates and tags.  These scanners can alert officers of stolen vehicles and provide instant analysis on the vehicle and its owners.

Body Cameras and Accountability

Body cameras and cameras mounted to police vehicles increase police accountability. Video from these cameras can be used to monitor and safeguard police brutality. Due to the recording of police behavior, police officers can be held more accountable and build credibility in their communities.

The attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser have considerable experience defending local, county, and state law enforcement agencies.  For an initial consultation on police officer-related matters, contact us online or call us at 484-318-7106. We represent clients throughout Chester County and Philadelphia, as well as in New Jersey from our office located in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Changes to Standards for Investigations of Police in New Jersey

Due to recent investigations by news organizations into gaps in oversight of police use of force and conduct, new standards will be put in place to monitor police behavior. New Jersey’s attorney general announced that there will be a public database that will track police use of force rates, increase public access to videos of police encounters, and require prosecutors to provide evidence, including incriminating evidence surrounding the credibility of the cops involved, to the accused.

Portal Tracking Police Use of Force

According to the attorney general, the new initiatives will target six New Jersey police departments in a pilot program to report all police use of force incidents to an online portal. The attorney general’s goal is to increase accountability, public trust, and transparency of the police departments. Under this program, Bridgeton, Dover, Linden, Millville, Paterson, and South Brunswick police departments were selected based on the demographics that represented a cross-section of New Jersey’s various police departments, according to the attorney general.

Improve Training and Consider Licensing of Police Officers

The attorney general directed a Police Training Commission (PTC) to devise a proposal for whether the state should be licensing police officers. New Jersey is one of few states in the nation that does not require licensure of police, even though they are authorized to carry weapons and use deadly force. The attorney general also required the PTC to study and draft a proposal to improve police training and revisions to recruiting standards.

Standardize Prosecutor Practices

The attorney general also issued a directive to all county prosecutors to standardize practices on evidence gathering, as well as a policy guidance to provide impeachable evidence and inconsistent statements by witnesses to defendants that may be helpful to the defendant’s case, even if it may undermine a state’s witness credibility and exculpate the defendant.

Prevent Bad Cops from Seeking New Jobs

The new standards require a police officer’s secret internal affairs files to be transferred to any new department that the officer applies to. Additionally, the policy discourages non-disclosure agreements to keep documents hidden. These initiatives are aimed to prevent cops with a record of disciplinary issues from job-hopping.

Release of Videos

The attorney general has also authorized the release of videos from police body cameras, dash cameras, surveillance videos, and smartphone videos when a citizen has been killed or seriously injured in response to public requests. These new initiatives will track use of force incidents in the state and prevent police officers from continuing to abuse their power.

For legal advice and representation on police and law enforcement agency claims, contact the civil rights defense attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser. For an initial consultation, contact us online or call us at 484-318-7106. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we provide counsel to residents of Chester County and Philadelphia.

Police Test an Alternative to Tasers

West Chester attorneys counsel police departments testing an alternative to tasers.In the wake of 49 deaths in 2018 related to police use of tasers, law enforcement institutions have shown interest in an alternative device similar to the ensnaring web used by crime-fighting, comic-book superhero Spiderman. The device, like Spiderman’s web, catches suspects by entangling their legs to prevent a get-away.

The Bolawrap is a cell phone-sized device that shoots an eight-foot synthetic fiber cord at a speed of 640 feet per second from 10-25 feet away. The flying tether moves too quickly to be detected and wraps around the suspect’s legs (or arms and torso) to entangle them and prevent their escape.

The most appealing feature is its simplicity. The ease of use and the relative safety of the device are attracting the attention of police departments throughout the U.S. and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Unlike tasers, pepper spray, and use of physical force to restrain suspects, the Bolawrap avoids the risk of harm to suspects while efficiently immobilizing them. It allows officers to keep a safe distance, while acting to de-escalate tensions in a way that more hands-on types of restraint cannot offer.

Modeled and named after a bola, a weapon historically used by South American gauchos and Indians to ensnare the legs of animals such as cattle, the Bolawrap design uses small metal barbs on the ends of a Kevlar cord to secure the device around the suspect. The cord wraps around the suspect up to three times in a split second.

The Bolawrap fits easily on a police officer’s belt, requires little training to operate, and can be reloaded to deploy again in three to eight seconds.

Originally billed as “non-lethal” restraint devices, tasers have been implicated in 1081 deaths since they became widely used in the early 2000s, giving law enforcement agencies a compelling motive to seek out alternate ways to subdue suspects.

The Bolawrap, by contrast, is not dependent on inducing pain in order to achieve compliance, making it particularly useful when confronted with suspects suffering from mental health issues—a population that accounts for a significant portion of those involved in police confrontations.

Within the U.S., more than 1100 police departments have requested demonstrations. More than 60 police departments are testing the Bolawrap internally, while another 30 are using the device in the field.

Attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser Represent and Counsel Police Departments

Attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser defend police officers accused of misconduct or use of force. We also advise government and law enforcement clients in ways to protect themselves from legal liability. To learn more, contact us online or call our West Chester, Pennsylvania office at 484-318-7106. We serve clients in the Philadelphia area, and throughout Chester County.

Camden Police Adopts New Use-Of-Force Policy

Governmental entity representation represent police regarding use of force policies.Recently, the Camden New Jersey Police department released a new revised use-of-force policy. The revised policy states that officers must avoid unnecessary use of force, minimize usage of force, and do everything possible to respect and preserve the sanctity of human life. This policy exceeds the threshold set by the Supreme Court’s standard that allows use of force that a reasonable officer would use when facing similar circumstances.

The Camden County Police Department (“CCPD”) articulated six core principles emphasizing the sanctity of human life:

Principle One. Officers may use force only to accomplish specific law enforcement objectives. The use of force is limited to a narrow list of situations.

Principle Two. Officers should de-escalate confrontations, minimize use of force, use reasonable force, as necessary and as a last resort.

Principle Three. Officers may only use proportionate amount of force suited for the particular circumstance.

Principle Four. Deadly force is only authorized as a last resort.

Principle Five. Officers must provide prompt medical aid and request medical assistance immediately.

Principle Six. Employees of CCPD have a duty to report and stop uses of force that violate the department’s policies and laws. Members may be disciplined for violations or failing to report a fellow officer’s violation.

Since 2015, Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson has directed the CCPD to adopt the use-of-force training and de-escalation tactics to prevent deadly encounters. De-escalation tactics require that officers slow things down first so that the encounter does not turn deadly. The policy directive recently codified the practices in place since 2015.

This policy directive emphasizes that even if the use-of-force fits one of the narrow list of situations where it may be sanctioned, it should still be a last resort. Chief Thomson compared the police officers’ oath to that of a doctor’s Hippocratic oath and reiterated the Police officer’s duty of “first, do no harm.” Both the New Jersey ACLU and the police union have applauded this new revised policy.

Attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser Represent Law Enforcement Agencies

The Governmental entity representation practice group of MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser has extensive experience in representing police and law enforcement in government liability and civil rights claims. We offer pre-litigation counseling, review of polices and practices, assessment of internal training and seminars to assist police departments and agencies in avoiding litigation. For a consultation with one of our seasoned attorneys, please contact our office at 484-318-7106 or submit an online inquiry. We provide legal services in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and Chester County.

Effectiveness of Police Body Cams

Civil Rights defense lawyers advise & represent law enforcement agencies concerning police body cams.Police body cameras are popular with the public because they supposedly provide an account of what occurred in a disputed confrontation with the police. Advocates for their use argue that the cameras foster trust with the community the police officers serve. Body cameras provide a means by which one can independently verify what occurred. However, the utility of the cameras in reducing allegations of police misconduct is undetermined.

Departments Control the Cameras and Footage

Effectiveness of the police body cameras is dependent on the police department in which they are used. Critics of their use argue that since police officers have control over the cameras they are wearing, they determine when to turn “on” or “off” their cameras. Therefore, they may not always record their confrontations. Furthermore, they argue that police departments have control over the footage after it has been recorded. Consequently, the perception that police departments may be secretive or protecting their police officers can lead to distrust if administrators do not make transparency a priority.

Body Cameras Do Not Prevent Violent Altercations

Body cameras alone do not reduce incidents of violence and therefore some argue that they are not effective in protecting police officers or civilians from being injured in a heated situation. Rather, training and retraining officers on transactional model communication and active listening is a better approach. Research has found that proper training and experience in simulated settings hones police officers’ ability to react in tense situations to diffuse the tensions and not resort to violence.

Body Cameras May Not Be Cost Effective

The biggest criticism for police body cameras is their cost. Cost of the camera is not limited to the camera itself, there are costs associated with storing the footage and maintenance of the cameras that can be prohibitive. Many large police departments need to allocate a substantial amount of their budget toward body cameras.

Civil Rights Defense Lawyers at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser Advise and Represent Law Enforcement Agencies

Civil rights defense attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser have successfully defended numerous police officers and law enforcement agencies throughout Pennsylvania from our office in West Chester, including those in the areas of Philadelphia and Chester County. To schedule a consultation or find out more, contact us online or call our office at 484-318-7106.

Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Immunity Act

West Chester attorneys have successfully defended government entities from liability.The U.S. government inherited the doctrine of sovereign immunity from England where the king or sovereign was immune from liability. Under the sovereign immunity doctrine, the U.S. government and its employees are immune from suit by virtue of their status as a government entity. The policy behind this immunity is to allow legislators and other government entities to govern without interference from lawsuits.

Even though Federal and state governments may not be sued under this doctrine, there are some exceptions to the rule. Generally, if the government action involves some type of negligence, then the government immunity no longer applies, such as when a person slips and falls on the sidewalk maintained by the state where the dangerous condition of the sidewalk was known and the state did nothing to correct it. Another example would be when a state employee is involved in a motor vehicle accident while on duty. However, a plaintiff who wishes to pursue a negligence claim against the government has to provide strict notice and undergo other procedural hurdles.

Pennsylvania’s Sovereign Immunity Act (Act) waives Pennsylvania’s sovereign immunity in certain limited cases. The Act provides a list of specific instances where the state has waived its immunity. Government entities risk exposure to lawsuits in the following instances.

  • Automobile accidents. When an automobile accident involves a government employee’s fault while on duty, sovereign immunity no longer applies.
  • Medical Malpractice. Negligent acts by public health care employees such as doctors, nurses and medical facilities of the state will trigger the exception to sovereign immunity.
  • Toxoids and vaccines. Government entities may be liable for negligent administration of vaccines or manufacture of toxoids and vaccines.
  • Care, custody or control of personal property or animal. If a person is injured because a government agency negligently cared for an animal or personal property in its’ custody, the injured party may pursue a lawsuit against that agency.
  • Premises liability. If a person is injured due to a dangerous condition on government property, that person can pursue a claim against the government entity in control of that property.
  • Dangerous conditions on roadways. State government is under a duty to maintain its roadways. If it is found that the state government agency knew of a dangerous condition on a roadway and did not take steps to repair it, it may be liable to the injured due to the condition of the roadway.
  • Liquor liability. If a person is injured due to the intoxication of another, they may seek damages against the person or place that sold the liquor. This law can extend to the government when it involves the negligence of state liquor control board.

Recovery is Limited

Plaintiffs who have a claim against a government entity must provide notice to the agency within six months of the occurrence of the incident. Failure to send the appropriate notice with all the necessary information may result in dismissal of the lawsuit. Furthermore, recovery for damages is limited to $250,000 in favor of a Plaintiff and $1,000,000 total recovery is permitted.

Attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser have Successfully Defended Government Entities from Liability

Attorneys at MacMain, Connell & Leinhauser have obtained numerous dismissals and defense verdicts on behalf of government agencies. Contact our office at 484-318-7106 or online to schedule a consultation. Located in West Chester, Pennsylvania, we represent clients throughout Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and Chester County.