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Zoning restrictions debated in committee hearing

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(The Center Square) – When questions on land use arise in the General Assembly, Pennsylvania politicians play a game of role reversal. Republicans, generally quicker to defend the free market, stand up for local government control, while Democrats tell of the virtues of the market at work and the dangers of government heavy-handedness.

So it was in the House Local Government Committee hearing on Wednesday as Democratic Rep. Josh Siegel, D-Allentown, proposed the removal of zoning restrictions and Republican Reps. Jack Rader, R-Effort, and R. Lee James, R-Seneca, defended the power of zoning officials.

“This is a free market argument – we are artificially constraining the market,” Siegel said. “This is making sure that we can allow our communities and our state to absorb and organically build housing where it’s needed.”

Siegel defended two bills, House Bill 1976 and House Bill 2045, which would allow mixed-use housing in areas zoned exclusively for office space and duplex, triplex, and quadplex housing in single-family areas, respectively.

“The time has come for some bold and transformative action,” Siegel said. “I think one of the reasons why we have such a wildly unaffordable housing stock is the fact that, for too long, municipalities across the commonwealth have been deeply exclusionary and unwilling to open their zoning laws to accommodate the demand … Let’s help communities grow and thrive, and create housing where it’s needed most.”

Both HB1976 and HB2045 passed a committee vote (by 14-11 and 13-12, respectively), but the debate highlighted the tension between pro-housing advocates and legislators who don’t want to override local decision making.

“We want the local control, we want the local people to make those decisions, we don’t want the state stepping in saying ‘you have to do it,’” Rader said.

He called local control “the basis of our commonwealth” and suggested what’s holding back new home construction are permitting, regulations, and restrictions from the Department of Environmental Protection.

“I know a lot of developers that don’t want to get involved in it because it just costs too much,” Rader said. “If we can drive down those costs, perhaps they would be more willing to do it.”

He offered an amendment that would make it optional for local governments to loosen zoning rules, rather than required, but it failed.

“I’m concerned about the rights of the township, I think they shouldn’t have to be required to do it, they should do it if they so choose,” Rader said.

R. Lee James, the Republican chairman of the committee, echoed Rader.

“I’ll be a no vote on this, I’m fundamentally opposed to the concept,” James said. “The country around the early part of the 20th century started forming zoning boards. I disagree with the maker that the zoning boards are faulty in the use of their judgment, I think they use judgment that applies directly to the places they live … Local control, in my mind, is the right way to go.”

Democrats defended the changes as having the support of the building industry.

“If you look at the way towns were built up until the 1950s, that was commonplace: there were apartments above stores, there were housing units alongside a shop,” said Rep. Robert Freeman, D-Easton, and committee chairman. “It’s a time honored way in which people live, and it worked quite well.”

Debates over housing have not divided cleanly among partisan lines. Other Republicans have warned about zoning restrictions that stop homes from getting built and even suggested pre-empting local control as a fix.

“As sacred a principle as local control is, there’s probably one that’s even longer and more sacred, and that is the idea that municipalities are creatures of the state,” Siegel said. “We giveth the power – we also take it away. Municipalities have no right to exist except for the fact that the commonwealth sanctions their existence.”

He pointed to accepted preemption of local control like the General Assembly preventing local officials from passing local minimum wage laws.

“Municipalities have had decades to do the right thing. They have refused to. They are directly contributing to the housing crisis,” Siegel said. “We are in danger of becoming the next California or Connecticut where we are so cost-prohibitive that residents cannot find a home to live in – and they flee the state.”

He said loosening zoning restrictions statewide has popular support and can help grow the economy, keep young people in Pennsylvania, and allow elderly residents to age in place.

“If we want to resolve the housing crisis here in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, we are going to have to recognize that, at a certain point, we need to step in and make sure housing can be built where it’s needed most,” Siegel said.

James remained wary of exerting power from Harrisburg.

“I am in favor of the time-honored tradition of electing local people to zoning boards,” James said. “I think they’ve done a fine job in my experience, and I think we should restore the trust that we have had in them for 100 years,” James said.

“At the end of the day, this bill is about freedom,” Siegel said. “It’s about the freedom to live in the community that you want to live … this gets to the heart of what I think we all want to do: Make sure our families have the freedom to chart their own course.”