Management, Economics and Policy

Pennsylvania Standards for Residential Site Development

Publication Date: April 2007
Cooperating Institution: Pennsylvania Housing Research Center (PSU)
Sub-Grantee: Scott Brown
Project Budget: $608,433
Project Identifier: 04-DEC-12SG


Over the past decade, the trend in land planning has been towards design techniques that encourage a more sustainable, low-impact form of de­velopment. These innovative planning and design techniques are intend­ed to reduce the impact that development has on the land by minimizing impervious area, and conserving natural resources and open space. In recent years, Commonwealth agencies (PaDEP and DCED, for example) have been promoting these planning and design techniques, suggesting that their implementation will reduce infrastructure costs associated with land development. However, there is a wide gap between the desire to effect these changes and the ability of local municipal officials to efficiently implement them through revisions to local codes and ordinances.

Many, if not most, residential development ordinances which exist at the time of this writing include obstacles to the implementation of sound design practices. In a 1999 study, the Pennsylvania Housing Resource/Research Center (PHRC) reviewed residential land development practices in the Commonwealth to assess local regulatory practices. The PHRC found two issues that frequently emerged in commentary on local subdivision and land development regulatory policy.

The first, noted most often by conservationists and design profession­als, was the general lack of creativity in the design and development of residential land. This shortcoming was widely considered to be a result of the lack of flexibility within individual zoning and subdivision ordinances. While this inflexibility results in consistency within a municipality, it does not permit the design creativity necessary to effect sustainable develop­ment

The second issue, raised by builders and developers, was the lack of consistency among site improvement design standards from one munici­pality to another. This results in awkward inconsistencies in lot size and building coverage characteristics, road widths, sidewalk locations, and other infrastructure configurations at municipal boundaries. In turn, these inconsistencies frequently result in confusion and unnecessary costs due to plan and construction changes.

It has also been observed that state regulatory policy and existing local land-use ordinances are sometimes at odds. This was evidenced in 2003 when the Commonwealth introduced a new stormwater management pol­icy. Many of the design elements required to implement creative storm­water solutions under that policy—such as the use of permeable surface materials, reductions in road widths use of roadside swales, elimination of curbs where possible, etc.—are currently not permitted under many local subdivision ordinances.

Based on these findings, there is a clear need to provide new tools and standards to assist local governments in updating their ordinances to facili­tate and promote sustainable and economically responsible residential development. This project creates a set of model standards that can be used to efficiently update local ordinances to affect sustainable development and decentralized stormwater management.

Associated Documents:

Final Report