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Plaxton v. Zoning Board of Adjustment and 1903 Spring Garden Associates, LP

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

July 9, 2019

Elke Plaxton
v.
Zoning Board of Adjustment and 1903 Spring Garden Associates, LP Appeal of: Arthur and Elke Plaxton

          Submitted: January 25, 2019

          BEFORE: HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge HONORABLE CHRISTINE FIZZANO CANNON, Judge

          OPINION

          ANNE E. COVEY, JUDGE

         Arthur Plaxton (Mr. Plaxton) and Elke Plaxton (Mrs. Plaxton) (collectively, Objectors) appeal, pro se, from the Philadelphia County Common Pleas Court's (trial court) February 22, 2018 order denying Objectors' appeal and affirming the City of Philadelphia (City) Zoning Board of Adjustment's (ZBA) April 25, 2017 decision granting 1903 Spring Garden Associates, LP (Applicant) a use variance to park four vehicles in the rear yard of its property located at 1903 Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia (Property) and a dimensional variance from the Philadelphia Zoning Code's (Code) landscaping requirements. Objectors present three issues for this Court's review: (1) whether the trial court erred by determining that Objectors lacked standing; (2) whether the trial court abused its discretion by applying the unclean hands doctrine; and (3) whether the trial court erred or abused its discretion by upholding the ZBA's decision.

         In Plaxton v. Zoning Board of Adjustment (Pa. Cmwlth. No. 727 C.D. 2015, filed June 13, 2016) (Plaxton I), this Court reversed the ZBA's ruling that rear parking on Applicant's property was permitted as of right, and granted Applicant a variance from the Code's landscaping requirement due to Applicant's inability to use the Property. This Court remanded the matter for the ZBA to determine whether Applicant is entitled to a variance for the proposed parking and, if so, whether a variance should be granted from the Code's landscaping requirements.

         On February 15 and March 22, 2017, the ZBA held remand hearings during which various witnesses testified in support of the variances. The witnesses described their concerns about the lack of parking in the neighborhood and explained that it was usual and customary for property owners to use rear yards for parking. See ZBA Decision at 3. Further,

Objectors testified that they had previously obtained zoning approval to alter the rear of their property to create a rear yard and that Objectors have been using this rear yard as space in which to park their vehicle for many years. Mrs. Plaxton testified that to pull their vehicle into their rear yard, they do not have to drive over anyone else's property. However, Mrs. Plaxton claimed that, to pull out of the parking spaces Applicant seeks to use, cars have to 'trespass' over her public sidewalk ([] which Objectors are legally obligated to maintain) and into her yard before they can drive away down Monterey Street. Moreover, Mrs. Plaxton testified that the cars leave tire marks in her yard. Mr. Plaxton also testified that the traffic in and out of Applicant's proposed parking spaces has not caused the poor, cracking, and deteriorating condition of his sidewalks.

Trial Ct. Op. at 4.

         On April 25, 2017, the ZBA unanimously approved Applicant's variances, allowing the Property's rear yard area to be used for four parking spaces. On May 5, 2017, Objectors appealed to the trial court. On February 22, 2018, the trial court dismissed Objectors' appeal because they lacked standing and were ineligible for equitable relief based on the doctrine of unclean hands.[1] In dismissing the appeal, the trial court determined:

Objectors did not have standing to appeal from the [ZBA]'s decision to the [trial court] because Objectors failed to demonstrate that they were 'aggrieved' persons. More specifically, Objectors failed to prove that the granting of the variances would have some discernible effect on some interest of the Objectors in a way that is greater than that of any other citizens. The credible evidence at the hearing indicated that vehicles entering or leaving Applicant's proposed parking spaces would not trespass over Objectors' property or affect it in any way.
The [ZBA] found [Applicant's agent's] testimony as credible and persuasive and accepted that cars entering or leaving Applicant's proposed parking spaces would not trespass over Objectors' property or effect it in any way. Moreover, the [ZBA] found [Applicant's agent's] testimony consistent with the [City's] Streets Department's approval of the parking spaces. Indeed, Objectors even stated that to move vehicles into and out of their rear yard (which they, like the Applicant, use for parking), they do not have to drive over anyone else's property. Mr. Plaxton[] even stated that the cars entering or leaving Applicant's proposed parking spaces had not and would not have any effect on the condition of Objectors' sidewalk.
Thus, the variances did not harm any interest of Objectors in any way that was greater than any other citizen. As such, Objectors failed to demonstrate that they are 'aggrieved' persons with standing to appeal from the [ZBA]'s decision to the [trial court].

Trial Ct. Op. at 7-8 (emphasis added; citations omitted). The trial court further reasoned:

Objectors were ineligible for equitable relief - in other words, barred from objecting to the variances - based upon the doctrine of unclean hands.[2] Both Objectors testified that, in 1986, they had previously obtained zoning approval to demolish a garage in the rear of their property and replace it with a rear yard. Objectors indicated in their [z]oning [a]pplication that the rear yard would not be used as 'off-street parking' as their drawing did not include such a label. However, both Objectors testified that, for many years, they have used this rear yard as a parking lot in which to park their vehicle. Objectors' use of the rear yard as a parking lot is clearly contrary to and not permitted by the zoning approval they received in 1986.
Objectors cannot use the [Code] as both a sword and a shield. Objectors' use of their rear yard as space for parking their vehicle in violation of the terms of their zoning approval while at the same time objecting to and appealing from the [ZBA]'s granting of a variance allowing accessory parking in the rear of Applicant's Property is (1) bad faith conduct offending the moral sensibilities of the Judge, (2) related to the controversy at ...

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