Introduction to Zoning Land Use Permits

If a gas company wants to develop fracking infrastructure in an area covered by a zoning ordinance, the company must comply with the existing zoning rules like any other property owner or developer would be required to do.

If anyone (individuals, corporate developers, etc.) would like to build anything that does not conform to the zoning code, then they must seek special permission.  These special permissions are sometimes referred to as permits. In order to help distinguish between the state agency permits issued by the Department of Environmental Protection, we will refer to these as “land use permits” or “zoning permits”.

What is a land use permit?

A land use permit is formal permission to develop a property.  They are issued when the appropriate local officials have reviewed a zoning application and determined that the proposal meets all the town’s existing guidelines for which activities or “uses” can occur.

Additionally, the proposal must show that the constructed facility meets certain physical requirements, such as height, setbacks from property lines, parking requirements, or in some cases other requirements such as compliance with limits set out in stormwater management plans.  This is typically the first approval needed in process of constructing anything. This is different than a building permit, which gives permission to begin construction on a project.

As we mentioned earlier, a fracking infrastructure project may be required to obtain approval from several entities as well, such as state or federal agencies. These other permitting processes may or may not have been started when a company applies for a zoning permit.   For more discussion on that see “Type of Protective Zoning: Full Capacity Build-Outs & DEP Permits”

What if the land use is not permitted?

Even if you just wanted to build a shed in your backyard and it would be 10 feet closer to the street than the ordinance requires, you may have to request such special permission.

There are several types of land use permits that a gas company may seek in order to gain local approval of their proposed infrastructure.

Some common examples are:

  • Zoning Variances
  • Conditional Use Approvals
  • Special Exceptions
  • Rezoning
  • Substantive Challenges to the Validity of the Zoning Ordinance
  • Curative Amendment Process
  • Zoning Map Change or “spot zoning”

Requirements For Applying

Each type of land use permit may have different requirements. These individual requirements vary from permit to permit. For example:

  • Type of content considered necessary (e.g. site plan information, traffic studies, environmental assessments, etc.)
  • Criteria the content is reviewed by – in other words what design standard or code that content must meet
  • Manner in which an application must be submitted (e.g. hard copy plans and applications or via an online process)
  • Process and timeline for review - when you might receive a response, etc.
  • Who reviews it
  • Who ultimately makes the decision to approve or deny

People Involved

Generally, the people who are involved in the application review process are:

  • A Board of Commissioners or other "governing body" that is made up of the elected officials that govern your town, municipality, or county;
  • Zoning Hearing Board:  A "semi-legislative" body that is created whenever a "governing body" implements a zoning plan.  The ZHB exists in large part so that a group of people with specialized knowledge can make decisions and evaluate arguments about zoning requests.  Members of the ZHB are appointed by your local representatives. (See the Local Government Official's Planning Series #6 for more information.)
  • Planning Commission:  Usually a group of appointees and usually found in areas with higher populations. The Planning Commission reviews certain types of applications and sometimes makes recommendations to the ZHB or the Board of Commissioners. A Planning Commission can serve to alleviate or support some of the work done by a ZHB in an area with a high population that receives a lot of applications.
  • Sometimes other people are identified in the zoning code, such as a zoning officer who generally enforces the zoning code and may also make recommendations on applications.  

See here for more information on each type of zoning permit.

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