Mt. Lebanon is a mostly developed and built-up municipality but there are pockets of developable land, and occasionally existing areas are redeveloped. When someone wants to develop or redevelop a property there is a process that must be followed to ensure the development follows our zoning code and the subdivision and land development ordinances (SALDO).
The process is outlined in detail on the Planning Board page of the municipal website.
What Does “Development” Mean?
The word “development” can mean many things, including building or redeveloping a single-family home, multi-unit building, apartments, condos, townhouses, or larger commercial developments like parking lots, office buildings, hotels, or churches. There are many allowable uses listed in our ordinances and zoning code.
The development process can take many months or even years to complete for large projects. It can be much quicker for smaller, simpler projects. A simplification of the process is as follows:
- A person or entity has an interest in developing a property in Mt. Lebanon. They make an application to the municipality in order to get in front of the planning board.
- The municipality reviews the application to make sure it fits the relevant rules (zoning, SALDO, etc) for the property type defined in the application. Remember, different property types have different requirements.
- The municipal engineer also reviews the application for adherence to regulations and can provide a written report with their findings.
- The applicant is scheduled for the next available planning board meeting.
- The planning board reviews the application before and during its meeting to make sure the application meets our requirements.
- The planning board can approve the project preliminarily, approve it with conditions, or ask for modifications so that the project meets our regulations, or deny the application for not meeting regulataions.
- Typically the developer has recommendations from our planning board and takes some time to make those modifications. Occassionally, and usually with smaller developments like single family homes or simple lot line modifications, there are no changes required and the development can proceed in the process.
- If the developer cannot meet all requirements and seeks relief from those requirements they can seek a variance from the zoning code or SALDO. Relief from the zoning code requires an appeal to the Zoning Hearing Board. Relief from the SALDO requires approval from the Commission.
- When the planning board, municipal planner, and engineer are satisfied that all requirements are met the planning board can issue a preliminary approval and recommend final approval for the commission.
- The commission reviews the project and places it on the docket for a public hearing.
- The Commission can approve, approve with conditions or disapprove the final application at a public meeting.
Generally speaking, the quickest a project can move through development is approximately 90 days. It’s important to note that if an application is made and the municipality does not take official action in that time, the application is approved as submitted. This is rarely the case with larger developments that require submission of multiple site plans, many of which take more than 90 days to create, review, assemble, submit and review.
Do you remember the story of the three little piggies? One had a house of straw, the other of sticks, and the third of brick. The first two got knocked over by the big bad wolf because they weren’t of sound construction. The third stayed strong and protected the piggies.
That’s kind of why we have codes. At some point in time, someone built something that was eventually used by another person and something bad happened. That building fell down and hurt or killed someone. When an investigation happened, it was determined that the thing wasn’t built the right way. Then that same happened a hundred or so more times until finally some people got together and said “hey, maybe let’s put some rules in place to make sure people don’t get hurt like this anymore.”
The two codes that are often used to regulate development are the SALDO and the Zoning code. These documents are the living expression of hundreds of years of combined experience of the people who helped craft them. They are amended often with best practices and with the experience of dealing with new projects, issues, and solutions to problems.
Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance (SALDO)
The subdivision and land development ordinance was created to promote:
- protect and facilitate one the public health, safety and general welfare;
- coordinated and practical community development;
- proper density of population;
- civil defense;
- disaster evacuation;
- the provision of recreation, open space and harmonious design;
- the provision of adequate light and air, police protection, vehicle parking and loading space, transportation, water, sewerage, schools, public grounds and other public requirements.
And to prevent:
- overcrowding of land;
- danger and congestion in travel and transportation;
- the loss of health, life or property from fire, panic or other dangers.
The SALDO takes a longer view in conjunction with Mt. Lebanon’s comprehensive plan, which is a living document that outlines the vision for the future of our municipality. If you want to know where a municipality is heading – check the comp plan. Note, that at the time of this writing, the municipality has stated it is working on updating its comp plan, which happens approximately every 10 years.
In general, it sets out the rules for subdivision and land development, as its name would suggest. It sets the definitions and requirements for all those processes, including the zoning code, which more specifically defines what can and can’t be done on any particular piece of property.
Different zones are created throughout the municipality and the zoning code helps control what can be built and what cannot be built in those zones. What is allowed in any zone is spelled out in the zoning code. Some things are not allowed in certain zones, and other things are deemed “conditional” which is to say they are allowed pending certain additional conditions are met.
The zoning code can be found on the municipal website here. That link is maintained as the zoning code changes.
Zoning codes determine whether a certain zone, or area, should be comprised of single-family homes, commercial space, or a combination of those and other types. It defines how close a building can be built to the street, how big the building can be, how tall it can be, and how much parking or green space must be present, among MANY other things.
Typically, developers will consult the zoning code before progressing with their plans so they can determine what is allowable and what they need to deliver to the municipality to eventually achieve an approved plan. When they have a plan they believe fits the requirements, they signal their intent to develop by making an application to the planning board.
The planning board is made up of residents who volunteer their time. They are interviewed by the commission and selected to serve for a period of time.
The planning board meets monthly. Their schedule is listed on the municipal website here.
As discussed in the process list above, the planning board will review documents from developers who are seeking approval to build their projects. The planning board is the first line of defense to make sure that projects fit our regulations.
If it does, they approve the project preliminarily and make a recommendation to the commission for final approval.
If it does not meet our requirements, the planning board, along with the municipal planner and engineer, may make recommendations or suggestions to the developer and ask that they return for consideration at a future date. This is often the case with larger developments. It is often the case that the municipal engineer will draft a memo outlining the project deficiencies and requiring they be corrected before the project can proceed to the next step in the process.
The planning board shares its findings with the planner and the commission so that everyone is in the loop on the progress of the potential development and can be responsive to questions posed by residents.
Variances and the Zoning Hearing Board
The developer may not be able to meet the requirements of our zoning code and may appeal to the zoning hearing board for a variance. This process is an objective one and there are 5 conditions that must be met for any variance to be granted.
- That there are unique physical circumstances or conditions, including irregularity, narrowness, or shallowness of lot size or shape, or exceptional topographical or other physical conditions peculiar to the particular property and that the unnecessary hardship is due to such conditions and not the circumstances or conditions generally created by the provisions of the zoning ordinance in the neighborhood or district in which the property is located.
- That because of such physical circumstances or conditions, there is no possibility that the property can be developed in strict conformity with the provisions of the zoning ordinance and that the authorization of a variance is therefore necessary to enable the reasonable use of the property.
- That such unnecessary hardship has not been created by the appellant.
- That the variance, if authorized, will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood or district in which the property is located, nor substantially or permanently impair the appropriate use or development of adjacent property, nor be detrimental to the public welfare.
- That the variance, if authorized, will represent the minimum variance that will afford relief and will represent the least modification possible of the regulation in issue.
If any of the above conditions are not meant the variance will not be approved.
When the planning board has made preliminary approval and when Zoning hearing board appeals, if any, are complete, the commission will consider the application for Final Approval. This is done at a public meeting and a vote is taken. For the project to receive final approval during a vote a majority of the commissioners must approve the project.
The commission typically calls for the manager to execute a developer’s agreement with the developer of larger projects at which time a bond can be posted and the commission receives funds from the developer as a hold-back to ensure the timely completion of the project. When the project is successfully completed, those funds are then released back to the developer.
Once a project is approved, it can move forward into the construction phase. This might include demolition of existing buildings, clearing and grading, and moving equipment to and from the site. During this time, it is expected that there may be some disturbances to nearby residents and businesses. As such, the municipality puts restrictions on the times of day when construction can occur.
Complaints about any development in Mt. Lebanon should be made to the manager or the Commissioner representing the ward in which the project exists.
The list of commissioners and their respective wards are listed on the municipal website. Also located at that page are a ward locator and a street lookup tool to determine which ward you are in and which commissioner represents that ward.
Depending on the nature of the complaint, you may be referred to a controlling agency outside of the municipality. For example, someone lodging a complaint about dust flying through the air on a development site under construction would likely be referred to the Allegheny County Health Department because they control soil erosion and sedimentation issues. If you are referred to an outside authority, that does not mean the municipality is relieved of their duty to ensure a safe environment. For continued issues with the development, you should continue reaching out to the municipality and make a point to notify your commissioner as well.