Zoning: When, Where, Why, & How

Zoning: When, Where, Why, & How

Have you ever had a dream crushed by a Zoning Ordinance? Have you ever wondered what brought all these wonderfully specific laws into play? Legend has it; we owe it all the Equitable Building.

The Equitable Building, designed by Ernest R. Graham located at 120 Broadway in Lower Manhattan, is a 38-story steel frame building. It provides 1,200,000 square feet of rentable office space and the capacity to hold 16,000 office workers. Graham was instructed to design the largest building that could fit on site, and he did not disappoint. The Equitable Building rose straight up from the street lot-line without any setbacks! As you can imagine, the neighbors of this massive building were not pleased. There were complaints of blocked sunlight and less air flow. In response to the Equitable’s construction, the Heights of Buildings Commission in New York City was formed.

The final report of the Heights of Buildings Commission was delivered June 2, 1916. It presented the first Zoning Resolution of the City of New York, also known as the first comprehensive zoning ordinance in the United States. The report included a zoning map which restricted building heights for the entire city based on the setback principle. The setback principle was more complex than stating a simple fixed maximum building height. Depending on the zone, the building height could not pass a certain ratio to the width of adjacent streets. However, extra height could be gained for every foot it was set back from the street. For example, in a one and a half-district, adding a foot to your building setback gained you an additional three feet in height. Additionally, in any zone, 25% of the lot had no height restriction at all. The idea was to keep New York City’s dense streets more open. The Zoning Resolution Act also set rules for how land could be used in certain areas of the city, such as industrial areas versus residential areas.

Congress passed A Standard State Zoning Enabling Act in 1922, using the Zoning Resolution of 1916 as a blueprint. Modifications were made as time went on. And we have come full circle. Imagine what a dim square world we would live in without zoning!

Golden State Mandate

Golden State Mandate

In our line of work, we deal with countless municipal regulations that dictate everything from the footprint of a house to the type of sewage disposal method. Although we can achieve credits with certain regulatory entities by incorporating solar panels into the design, there is no law in Pennsylvania that requires houses to have them. But that is not the case on the west coast.

Back in early May, California introduced a law that states that new houses constructed in 2020 and beyond must have solar panels. What was previously a choice for each individual homeowner is now a mandate for anyone looking to build a house in the golden state. While California has long been at the forefront of progressive environmental regulations, this comes at an interesting time. High housing costs continue to be a concern and including solar panels to the build would bump up the cost about $10,000, experts estimate.

It will be interesting to see what impacts this has moving forward. The solar industry already has a huge market in California and this law is only expected to grow that. On the flip side, homebuilding companies are predicting a decline in stocks as a result of the law. Only time will tell…

What are sinkholes and how do they form?

What are sinkholes and how do they form?

Ever wonder how a sinkhole can seemingly appear out of nowhere and swallow up people’s cars or homes in minutes? Turns out, the makeup of the dirt beneath your feet plays a large part in the creation of these sinkholes.

We’ve seen this problem start to occur more frequently over the years in places like Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and, most recently, the White House. They can vary in size from as small as a foot to large enough to consume an entire building. One such instance of this phenomenon occurred back in 2014 when a large sinkhole suddenly opened at the National Corvette Museum, swallowing eight of the Corvettes on display into its depths. Luckily, the sinkhole formed during the night and no one was injured. The building had been up and running for nearly 20 years before this happened.
These sinkholes form typically when Karst features, meaning soil and rock composition of either limestone or dolomite, are slowly dissolved over time by water. This leaves a void in the ground that could become unstable and collapse given the right conditions, which means a major problem later down the road. Sinkholes typically take a long time to form, occurring over the span of months or even years. Warning signs typically include rapidly forming depressions and holes in the ground or cracks appearing in walls and pavement.

Since there are many karst soil formations in Pennsylvania, it’s an important feature to look for when working on a job that requires the runoff to be infiltrated on site. This can be done by checking eMapPA or hiring a Professional Geotech to take borings across the site and determine if the offending materials are present. If nothing is found: great, business as usual. However, if Karst is detected, then the runoff will need to be mitigated without infiltration. We avoid infiltration beds on sites with karst areas because beds will act as concentrated sources of water which could accelerate or cause the formation of a sinkhole.

Depending on the scope of the project, this could require the use of underground storage tanks that will hold the runoff and slowly release it into the Municipality’s storm sewer system. If the site isn’t close enough to connect, then BMPs such as rain gardens, vegetated roofs, and shallow detention ponds can also be used in lieu of infiltration.

Ordinance Autopsy

“clear”,   “clear”, 

This is the sound of a land development project being burned by a section of the ordinance that lacks common sense or could use some remediation.  If you’ve worked in this industry long enough you have experienced one of these first-hand.  I think it’s time to analyze some of the currently adopted ordinance regulations and shed light on the absurd, unrealistic and/or out-dated text of the Zoning Code.

Every time I come across one of these nuisance regulations I think to myself, “Why is this in here and who comes up with this stuff?”.  It’s possible that they made sense at one point in time but advances in technology and/or construction techniques have made them irrelevant and unnecessary, or maybe they were devised out of spite.   Who knows; but either way, they can be really annoying and ruin the developmental potential of a parcel, and even worse, take away from developmental creativity.

The first item I would like to examine is steep slopes.  This is a subject that I’ve written about before and is probably the one that bothers me most.  “Generally speaking”, steep slopes are defined as areas that exceed 15% grade.  They are usually broken down into two categories, precautionary & prohibited, and in most municipalities, they come with a lot of restrictions.  How each municipality defines steep slopes is what’s so problematic.

What qualifies as a steep slope?  In some ordinances, to qualify as a steep slope, the area in question must exist over at least 3 consecutive two-foot contours (or 6 vertical feet), or they need to cover an area of at least 500 square feet, and/or extend at least 50 feet horizontally.   Other ordinances will make exclusions for man-made slopes.  Meanwhile, other municipalities consider “any” area that can be calculated as steep slopes to be governed and restricted no matter how small and even if man-made.

The frustrating part about using “any” area of steep slopes, no matter how isolated or small an area, is that these areas are usually anomalies in the TIN generation.  “What is TIN generation?” you ask.  The person writing that code should have asked that question.  Historically, surveyors would go out to a site and shoot in 50’ foot gridded pattern and along certain break lines in the terrain.  They would then interpolate the contours based on the triangulation of these points.  That’s one ground shot/250 sq.ft. of an area.   This means that an area of steep slopes, 500 sq.ft. in size (+-), may be depicted due to the lack of ground data when it doesn’t even exist.  Same goes for an isolated area of non-slopes in a sea of steep slopes.

If steep slopes truly are unanimously thought of as a valued and protected environmental resource in Chester County, all the municipalities should consider creating and adopting one standardized definition and regulation for steep slopes.

How to be Stormwater Smart

How to be Stormwater Smart

Urban stormwater runoff pollution is a problem that has no boundaries, however, neither does the solution.



Recently, DEP labeled approximately 19,000 miles of rivers and streams in Pennsylvania impaired for water supply, aquatic life, recreation, or fish consumption. Stormwater runoff pollution is one of the biggest reasons for this impairment.

Over the past years, streets, parking lots, sidewalks, and roofs have been a steadily increasing part of communities as the landscape has become more developed. As a result, rain that would otherwise soak into the ground instead rushes over these nonporous surfaces and into storm drains, which send it directly into rivers and streams.

Stormwater carries an enormous amount of pollution, including sediment, car oil, lawn fertilizers, and pesticides. As you might expect, this has many negative impacts on streams and rivers.



Here are actions you can take to reduce stormwater runoff pollution at your residence and in your community.


You can capture rainwater off your roof with a rain barrel, and then use the water in your garden or let it infiltrate slowly into the ground. There are various options, from very simple to more involved.


Don’t overwater your lawn. Consider using a soaker hose instead of a sprinkler. Use pesticides and fertilizers sparingly. Use organic mulch or safer pest control methods whenever possible. Compost or mulch yard waste. Don’t leave it in the street or sweep it into storm drains.


Volunteer, professional organizations, and businesses throughout Pennsylvania are taking action to reduce stormwater pollution. They offer classes on how to set up rain gardens and rain barrels at home. They hold events to plant rain gardens in city neighborhoods or vegetation on streambanks or to pick up trash. They work to find funding solutions for municipalities’ stormwater efforts. And the list goes on.

Below are just a few examples of organizations in Pennsylvania to reach out to. There are so many there’s surely one near you. If not, start one!

Urban Stormwater runoff pollution can be greatly reduced through the efforts of community members. Take the required steps to become informed.  For questions, answers, and solutions to stormwater management of all capacities, please contact D.L. Howell & Associates, Inc. at (610) 918-9002 or visit our website at www.dlhowell.com.


DL Howell & Howell Kline are Proud Sponsors of the 2018 Chester County Envirothon

DL Howell & Howell Kline are Proud Sponsors of the 2018 Chester County Envirothon

On May 4th a group of volunteers from D.L. Howell and Howell Kline were privileged to offer assistance at the 2018 Chester County Envirothon.

“The Chester County Envirothon is a component of the Pennsylvania Envirothon Program which helps students understand the natural environment and their role in it. The Envirothon provides a means for students to demonstrate what they know about the environment. – 2018 Envirothon Handbook”

This program, sponsored by The Chester County Conservation District along with Chester County Facilities and Parks as well as many local companies, provides an opportunity for students in grades 3-12 from public, private and parochial schools to meet at Hibernia Park for a day of fun outdoor competition.

D.L. Howell & Howell Kline would like to congratulate the 2018 Chester County Envirothon Champions!

 Seniors – Grades 9-12

First Place – West Fallowfield Christian Academy

Second Place – Downingtown East

Third Place – Great Valley A


Middle School – Grades 6-8

First Place – Hopewell B

Second Place – West Fallowfield Christian School A

Third Place – Penns Grove B