A possible amendment to Mt. Lebanon’s zoning ordinance regarding first-floor uses in the township’s central business district is back to square one.
The intent is to create a more vibrant atmosphere by encouraging restaurants and retail as tenants along Washington Road, rather than professional offices and medical facilities.
While four out of five Mt. Lebanon commissioners agreed updating the ordinance could help meet such a goal, they were divided as to how to proceed.
As addressed at the commission’s July 23 discussion session, at issue is whether the presence of offices be subject to conditional use, an approval process that goes through the municipal planning board and ultimately the commission, or is deemed a nonconforming use.
During a previous discussion session, a majority of commissioners agreed to have municipal solicitor Philip Weis draft an amendment incorporating the latter. Under nonconforming use, the zoning hearing board fields requests for variances.
Weis sent the draft, as required, to the Allegheny County Department of Economic Development for review and comment before its presentation to commissioners at the latest discussion session.
At that point, John Bendel and Kelly Fraasch agreed to move forward with the draft toward eventual commission approval, but Craig Grella and Steve Silverman said they favor looking into the option for conditional use.
Steve McLean, commission president, opposes changing the existing ordinance.
“How do we protect ourselves from creating something where we have a lot of vacant first-floor space because viable tenants want to be an office or a medical facility?” he said.
Property owners in the business district have asked similar questions in expressing opposition to limiting certain types of tenants.
“If your goal is to revitalize and have more activity in the community, forcing a vacancy by not allowing an office to go in there does not guarantee you, nor does it facilitate, a restaurant use going in,” said Lori Moran, whose business interests include a company that owns property and rents space along Washington Road, at the commission’s April 23 discussion session. “It means you have a vacancy that’s sitting there.”
In 2018, Mt. Lebanon Planning Board voted to recommend an amendment to the zoning ordinance that would “make offices and medical clinic/medical facilities a conditional use in street-facing storefronts on the first floor within the central business district,” according to minutes from the meeting.
The Mt. Lebanon Partnership, a nonprofit entity promoting economic growth, and the municipal Economic Development Council have expressed support for designating the uses as nonconforming.
Weis plans to work on drafts incorporating both options to present to commissioners for comparison. Officials also plan to consult with interested parties, including landlords, regarding the details.
Under Pennsylvania law, nonconforming uses are allowed to continue in the same capacities following ordinance revisions.
“Essentially, they’ll continue until they’re abandoned. There are court cases with argument over when the actual moment of abandonment occurs,” Weis told commissioners. “It depends on all the facts and circumstances of the individual case. It requires more than just passage of time.”