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Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Substance Abuse Treatment Center Is 'Hospital' Under Broad Definition in Zoning Law


HLD, v. 29, n. 9 (September 2001)

Pennsylvania Appeals Court Holds Substance Abuse Treatment Center Is "Hospital" Under Broad Definition in Zoning Law

The Norristown Borough Zoning Ordinance ("Ordinance") defines a hospital as "'[a] place for the diagnosis, treatment or other care of humans � including such establishments as a sanitarium or preventorium.'" Diversified Health Associates, Inc. ("Diversified"), filed an application for zoning permit with the Borough of Norristown to use certain property located in the Health Care ("HC") Zoning District for a thirty to fifty bed adult substance abuse inpatient treatment center. The Zoning Officer advised Diversified that a variance would be required because it considered the facility to be an "'Institutional Home'" and not a "'hospital.'" Diversified appealed to the Zoning Hearing Board of the Borough of Norristown ("ZHB"). After conducting two hearings on the matter, the ZHB determined that the proposed facility did not qualify as a "'hospital'" and therefore was prohibited by the Ordinance, which permitted only certain specified uses for property located in the HC Zoning District. Diversified appealed to the trial court. Reasoning that the language of the Ordinance should be construed broadly to allow the least restrictive use of the land, the trial court held that the ZHB had abused its discretion and committed an error of law by refusing to recognize the treatment center as a "'hospital'" under the Ordinance definition. The ZHB appealed.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the trial court's decision. The court concluded that the Ordinance "defines the term  'hospital' very broadly by including  'sanitarium' in its definition." Applying the term's ordinary meaning, the court determined that the proposed facility could be considered a "'sanitarium'" because it would provide treatment and rehabilitation for substance abuse problems. Thus, the treatment center would qualify as a "'hospital'" under the Ordinance.

The appeals court acknowledged an apparent conflict in the Ordinance definition of a "'hospital'" and the more restrictive language governing the permissible use of property zoned in the HC Zoning District, but held that defining the treatment center as a "'hospital'" was "consistent with the Ordinance's broad definition of that term." The appeals court agreed with the trial court that any doubt should be resolved to give the landowner "the least restrictive use of its land."

Diversified Health Assocs., Inc. v. Zoning Hearing Bd., No. 669 C.D. 2001, 2001 WL 760256 (Pa. Commw. Ct. June 4, 2001).

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