Development Decision Making


“Subdivision” and “land development” are separate but similar processes by which land is divided or converted from one use to another. A “subdivision” occurs whenever land is divided to create a new lot (or lots) that may then be sold or leased. A “land development” may be generally defined as the construction of a building (or an addition to a building) along with related work, like grading and the installation of utilities. A “subdivision” is also defined as a type of “land development.” In order to make things simpler for homeowners, the law excludes the construction of a single-family home on a single lot from the definition of “land development.” The full, legal definitions of these terms are found in §107 of the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (Act 247 of 1968).


In Pennsylvania, the authority to regulate, to review, and to approve subdivisions and land developments is given to the most local level of government: West Whiteland Township in our case. Commonly used regulatory tools include the Comprehensive Plan, by which the Township establishes its development policy; the Zoning Ordinance, which provides details on permitted land uses, standards for lot size, and the size and arrangement of structures; and the Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance, which describes in detail the review and approval process for subdivisions and land developments and provides design standards for many kinds of improvements.

Getting Started

The person who submits a plan for a subdivision or a land development is the “Applicant". The Applicant may be the owner of the property or someone who has some other kind of interest in the property, such as a development company that wants to build a particular project on the site. Before submitting a plan for review, the Applicant must know the size of the property, what deed restrictions and restrictive easements affect it, what the zoning allows, and whether the site is served by public water and/or sanitary sewerage. The Applicant should also make some sketches of how they want to develop the site. Ideally, these sketches should be done on a plan of the property prepared by a professional surveyor. If no such plan exists, a map from some public source, such as a tax parcel map, an enlargement of a USGS map, or even an aerial photograph from Mapquest or GoogleEarth may be used instead. Township personnel can help identify the availability of sewerage and water supply as well as with understanding what the zoning allows, but the layout and design is the responsibility of the Applicant; the assistance of professional designer is especially useful at this point.

In Pennsylvania, any variation from the strict interpretation of a Zoning Ordinance requires the approval of the Township Zoning Hearing Board. The approval process includes a public hearing. So, if the zoning regulations do not accommodate the desired development, the Applicant must receive one or more “variances” from the Board. Most municipalities require that all zoning issues be resolved before a subdivision plan is submitted for their review.