Like an old house, the City of Lebanon’s 30-year-old zoning law has been patched, repaired, and spruced up over the years, here and there, on an as-needed basis.
While repairs can help, Mayor Sherry Capello and a steering committee of residents, organizations, and city officials think it’s time for some major remodeling to address three decades of changes in the city.
In 2017, the City used grant funds to hire Urban Research & Development Corporation of Bethlehem to review the City’s zoning from the ground up.
Mayor Capello said that URDC and the steering committee started with field work: Walking through streets and neighborhoods, photographing them, comparing current uses to what existed 30 plus years ago, and figuring out what was working and what was not.
The three year effort has culminated in a draft of a new proposed zoning ordinance.
Why do we have zoning ordinances?
Zoning ordinances regulate how land and buildings can be used in different sections of a city, borough, or township. They can also regulate building and lot sizes, parking, signs, and how close buildings can be to streets, sidewalks, and other buildings.
One major purpose of zoning laws is the protection of existing residential areas from inconsistent commercial and industrial uses.
Typically, zoning ordinances for a specific area, or “zone,” allow certain uses, prohibit other uses completely, and allow certain uses in special circumstances. Pennsylvania law gives individual municipalities the power to pass zoning laws and to decide if uses are legal or not.
Proposed limits on apartment conversions
In an April, 2019 report to city officials, URDC outlined some major zoning objectives that are consistent with two broader documents, the City’s Comprehensive Plan and the Grow Lebanon 2020 Plan.
As with all zoning ordinances, the proposed draft aims to establish and preserve compatible land uses, including mixed uses where applicable, and to insulate residential areas from industrial and other incompatible uses.
But, in an apparent recognition of the increase in rental properties and the conversion of single family homes to apartments over the past few decades, the new ordinance contains provisions designed to limit apartment conversions in residential zones and to encourage owner-occupied properties.
URDC’s study specifically recommended limitations on apartment conversions “to maintain some owner-occupied units, reduce transiency, avoid maintenance problems from absentee landlords, and avoid parking shortages.”
Number of cats and dogs would be capped
The current zoning ordinance does not limit the number of dogs or cats that can be kept at a residential property. Mayor Capello said that the city has received “numerous complaints” of neglected animals and unsanitary conditions.
The proposed ordinance says that “[a] maximum combined total of 5 dogs and cats shall be permitted to be kept by residents of each dwelling unit on their residential premises.” The limit will “apply only to dogs or cats over 6 months in age, and shall not apply to bona fide working service dogs.” The proposed ordinance stipulates that, “Any greater number of dogs and/or cats shall need approval as a ‘kennel.'”
Mayor Capello emphasized that the pet provision does not signal an enforcement crackdown on pet owners.
“Concerning enforcement, it is not the City’s intent to drive around counting dogs and cats,” she said. “I do not anticipate a change in enforcement with the exception that the Health Officers will have specific criteria that they may use to assist with enforcement of these nuisance problems experienced by neighbors that are trying to deal with these public health issues.”
What happens next?
The proposed zoning ordinance has been submitted to the city’s Planning Commission for review and approval. At that point, Mayor Capello expects to sit down with City Council for a “Workshop Meeting,” after which the ordinance would be formally presented at a public meeting for a City Council vote.
A vote to enact an ordinance would have to be publicly advertised at least 45 days in advance, so no action is likely before February.
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