Pennsylvania Enacts Law Clarifying Local Government Functions During COVID-19
Today, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed Senate Bill 841 into law, which permits the limited suspension of certain requirements to allow municipalities to conduct business remotely during the COVID-19 emergency. The bill covers several topics, including: (i) virtual public meetings and hearings, (ii) limited tolling of expirations of development permits and “deemed approvals” by municipal agencies, (iii) limited property tax relief, and (iv) remote online notarization. Highlights from the bill are summarized below. For specific guidance, please reach out to members of the Ballard Spahr Zoning and Land Use Team.
Virtual Public Meetings and Hearings
Under SB 841, local agencies may conduct public meetings or hearings through an “authorized telecommunications device” that allows, at a minimum, audio communication between individuals. The local agency must notify the public of the proceeding and allow for public participation to the extent practicable, with questions or comments submitted via e-mail or postal mail.
Notably, SB 841 does not require local agencies to conduct virtual meetings, and municipalities retain their discretion to proceed with such meetings. If an applicant submits a request for a meeting and an agency does proceed, the applicant and parties receiving notice of the proceeding are deemed to have waived any challenge to the proceeding under laws governing notice or participation in the meeting. In Philadelphia, it is not clear if SB 841 covers meetings convened by Registered Community Organizations (RCOs), which are required under the Philadelphia Code to hold public meetings as part of the Civic Design Review and Zoning Board of Adjustment processes. The current RCO meeting requirement is holding up many midsize to large projects in Philadelphia, even those that are as-of-right under the Philadelphia Zoning Code.
Limited Tolling of Development Permits and Deemed Approvals by Municipal Agencies
The new law hits the pause button on municipal approvals, tolling—for a 30-day period—the number of days otherwise provided by law to satisfy statutory time limits. Specifically, time limits for reviews, hearings, and decisions are suspended as of the date of the COVID-19 emergency declaration, or as of the date an application is received during the emergency. Time limits will resume 30 days after the effective date of SB 841. This suspension of deadlines applies to the expirations of zoning and building permits, as well as the deadlines for municipal agencies to act on applications before they are automatically deemed to have been approved.
Limited Property Tax Relief
SB 841 allows taxing districts to (i) collect taxes at the prescribed discount rate until August 31, 2020, and (ii) waive any late fee or penalty on property taxes if they are paid in full by December 31, 2020. For example, the bill would permit Philadelphia to extend its 1% early payment discount through August 31, 2020, and provide that all payments made in 2020 are considered timely for late payment penalty purposes.
Remote Online Notarization
In general, SB 841 permits notarization of documents remotely by allowing communication technology to satisfy the typical personal appearance requirements. Notaries performing such services must use specific kinds of communication and identity-proofing technology and create an audio-visual recording of the notarial act, which must be retained for at least 10 years.
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