Cranberry’s transition from a sleepy agricultural community into a thriving regional center over the last 40 years prompted a major series of changes in its infrastructure, character, and land use. Enacting zoning laws to reconcile conflicting land uses in the best interests of community is the sole responsibility of the Township’s Board of Supervisors, and they are obliged to follow the provisions of Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Planning Code in doing so. But nowhere have the strains of Cranberry’s rapid growth been more contentious than along Freedom Road, a state-owned two-lane road where single family homes were built long before current zoning and long before the road emerged as a heavily travelled access route for Beaver County traffic onto Interstates 76 and 79 and US Route 19.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, to accommodate its changing environment, the Board opposed turning Freedom Road into the Crows Run Expressway, favoring instead a modest upgrade to a network of regional roadways, including Freedom Road. Other steps taken by the Township included working closely with PennDOT, seeking and securing federal grants to widen the roadway in addition to providing the required state matching funds for those grants, installing traffic signals at key intersections, adding sidewalks and turning lanes, requiring developers to install traffic improvements, and coordinating the corridor’s transportation plans with its permitted land uses in anticipation of continued growth and future improvements to Freedom Road.
The Township also insisted that those improvements be sensitive to the residential areas it passes through, incorporating what planners call Context Sensitive Design, meaning a boulevard-style design which includes pedestrian amenities rather than a heavily commercial Rt. 228-type design. Some of those improvements are already underway. For details, click here
The Board’s overall vision for the Township culminated in the 25-year Cranberry Plan adopted in 2009. It involves concentrating Cranberry’s most intensive commercial activity into a comparatively small downtown-like area. The plan does not embrace the expansion of intense, regional-scale retail operations into currently residential portions of the Township. But that has been a highly contentious issue for some homeowners in the Freedom Road corridor who see their property’s highest and best use as intensive commercial sites.
At least in Cranberry, conflicting views over land use in the Freedom Road corridor have been an issue for a very long time. About nine years ago, well before the current overlay zone was adopted, there had been another attempt to revisit its zoning. But that one collapsed in chaos with hundreds of competing voices and irreconcilable demands. As a result, the corridor’s zoning had seen little or no movement for at least 20 years.
A similar situation occurred in Cranberry’s recent long-range planning effort when the Freedom Road issue threatened to derail that process as well. However, the Board of Supervisors understood both the importance of completing the long range plan and addressing the Freedom Road land use issue. So they created a separate and very thorough 18-month planning process, including all the stakeholders, which specifically addressed the Freedom Road corridor, while allowing the Cranberry Plan to move forward on its own track. That process led to a series of three zoning overlay districts for the affected segments of Freedom Road, which the Board ultimately adopted. They allow for low-intensity commercial development while remaining mindful of their neighbors – residents whose properties adjoin those that front on Freedom Road. But, yet again, not everyone liked that outcome.
So some residents along the affected stretch of Freedom Road are now challenging the zoning ordinances which affect their properties. They have submitted their challenges to the Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB), a quasi-judicial body. That is the required first step in any legal challenge to the validity of a zoning regulation. And, if either party is dissatisfied with the outcome of the ZHB’s deliberations, they can appeal to the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County.
However the ZHB is not empowered to either zone or re-zone anyone’s property. Its sole responsibility is to determine whether the process that led to a particular zoning decision followed the required steps. If they conclude that the zoning process was flawed, they can void a zoning ordinance. In the case of the TND Overlay Zoning Ordinance, that could result in nullifying the overlay zones on the affected properties which grant them limited non-residential uses. Properties with the overlay in place can be developed into townhouses, apartment buildings, senior housing, nursing homes, professional offices, and small retail businesses in addition to private homes.
So what does it all mean? As I see it, those residents who feel their needs were not met by the Supervisors’ zoning decisions now have two choices: challenge the ordinance’s legality and perhaps have it thrown out along with its limited commercial options, or elect officials who share their views about commercializing Freedom Road more intensively. That’s democracy in action.
If you would like to discuss this issue further, please do not hesitate to contact either John Trant, Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org, or me, Jerry Andree, at email@example.com.