April 22, 2024 Leigh Martinez

Land Use Is an Environmental Issue: PennFuture Publishes A New Guide to Help Pennsylvania Residents Understand and Effectively Participate in Land Use Decision-Making

Learn how to protect the natural environment with Public Participation, Public Power: A Community Guide to Local Land Use Decision-Making in Pennsylvania

Monday, April 22, 2024, Poconos — Today, PennFuture’s Legal Team unveils its latest guidebook: Public Participation, Public Power: A Community Guide to Local Land Use Decision-Making in Pennsylvania.

This new resource is designed to educate and equip community members across Pennsylvania so that they can feel empowered to advocate for themselves and effectively engage in processes that they have often felt left out. 

"When a significant land development proposal comes to town — a massive distribution center, a sprawling resort, a shopping center — locals are left wondering how it will impact their neighborhoods and the environment, and if there is anything they can do,” said Brigitte Meyer, PennFuture’s Staff Attorney and lead author of the community guidebook. “This guidebook allows for everyone to better understand the different local entities that are responsible for making land use decisions, the types of decisions that they make, and the processes and legal requirements that govern those decisions."

After the publication of the successful Model Logistics Facility Municipal Ordinance & Guidebook (July 2023), dozens of community members reached out to PennFuture for assistance on understanding land use ordinances and participating in local land use processes. 

PennFuture’s Legal Team spent six months developing a comprehensive guide to give Pennsylvania residents the knowledge and tools they need to understand and effectively participate in local land use decision-making processes. The project included input from over 30 local municipal officials across the state.

In Pennsylvania, the power to govern land use and development resides almost entirely at the local level. Local governments have substantial power to control where land development can occur, the physical dimensions of structures, their relationship to neighboring properties and environmental features, and the level of public review required for each use. And local residents have substantial power to influence these decisions, if they know how. 

Public Participation, Public Power includes:

  • Explanation of the state and local laws that control land use decision-making and why that decision-making is based in those laws, not public opinion;
  • Advice on how to find and read local land use ordinances;
  • Descriptions of the various types of land use decisions that local governments make, the different local bodies that make them, and the processes and legal standards governing them;
  • Tips on effectively participating in local land use decision-making, and how to participate as a party in local hearings, including advice on presenting evidence, cross-examining witnesses, and arguing your position;
  • Advice on how to advocate for changes to existing land use ordinances; and more.

"Kudos and praise for this guidebook!” said Carolyn Lange, Secretary of the Aquashicola Pohopoco Watershed Association. “It is beautifully written, very concise and informative. Whether you are already involved with local government or just starting out, it is the perfect resource and "how-to" guide for helping citizens who want to make a positive impact in their communities."

“This guidebook is a goldmine of definitions, information, tips, and helpful hints to guide citizens, giving them a way to participate more effectively with local governmental entities,” stated the Monocacy Creek Watershed Association. “You will learn the vocabulary of planning jargon and acronyms and which boards have what authority, putting more power in the peoples’ hands. The flowcharts give a detailed picture of how each step in the planning process works and show where the public can more fully be a part of the final decision. A must-have for all community groups who want to be more proactive and efficient in making public policy decisions regarding development proposals.”

Appropriate management of land use and development is vital to protecting the natural environment and community health. Where and to what extent land development occurs dictates the amount of impervious surface on the land, which in turn impacts water quality in nearby ground and surface waters and the amount of habitat available to wild plant and animal species. From an air quality standpoint, sprawling land development patterns force longer, more frequent vehicle trips, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants. Importantly, public involvement can ensure the appropriate location of commercial and industrial development–for example, away from sensitive ecosystems or populations.

Public Participation, Public Power: A Community Guide to Local Land Use Decision-Making in Pennsylvania is available for pdf download on PennFuture’s website under Resources at pennfuture.org. We will also have a limited number of hard copies available upon request. Brigitte Meyer also includes an article detailing who can benefit from the guidebook.

About PennFuture: 
Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future (PennFuture) is a member-supported, statewide environmental advocacy nonprofit and watchdog fighting against potential threats to PA's clean air, pure water, and healthy climate. Since 1998, PennFuture has combined legislative advocacy and legal enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels, educational outreach, and civic engagement support for just and equitable environmental outcomes that improve the quality of life for all Pennsylvanians. 
PennFuture has stood at the forefront of major environmental milestones in Pennsylvania as a bold and vigilant defender of communities against pollution and environmentally harmful policies.
We have offices across Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Erie, and the Poconos.