New Pennsylvania Law Authorizes Local Governments, Including Zoning Boards, to Meet Virtually
In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Tom Wolf signed Senate Bill 841 into law on Monday, April 20, 2020, which authorized local governments, including zoning boards and other commissions, to conduct business virtually, subject to the following requirements:
- Platform: Unlike recent amendments which allow for remote online notarization, the provisions of Senate Bill 841 related to virtual municipal meetings do not require specific software, and any device which permits audio communication between individuals is authorized under the law, including Zoom, Google Hangouts or other similar platforms.
- Quorum: Quorum requirements are relaxed to allow for virtual attendance, though an ordinary quorum of board members must still be achieved virtually.
- Notice: The government entity shall provide advance notice “to the extent practicable.” This notice should be provided on the entity’s website, in a local newspaper, or both. The public notice shall include the date, time and technology to be used and public participation information.
- Minutes: In the event an entity meets without advance notice to the public due to exigent circumstances, the entity must provide draft minutes of the meeting to the public within 20 days or before the next regularly scheduled meeting.
- Limited Purpose: Entities are authorized to meet virtually only to consider matters related to the COVID-19 emergency, unless the entity provides notice to the public and all interested parties within five days of the planned meeting, then it may discuss ordinary business.
- Public Participation: All entities must allow for public participation during their meetings where practicable. Participants may submit comments to the entity through U.S. mail and/or email.
- Statutes of Limitations: For all pending applications, all time limits related to approvals, applications, plats, plans, submissions, appeals or curative amendments for the board to review, hear, and issue decisions are suspended and tolled for thirty days, until May 20, 2020, at which point the time limits will resume where they left off prior to April 20, 2020. The time limits are paused as of March 6, 2020, or the time when the application was submitted if it was received since March 6.
- Notification: Entities are required to inform parties with pending applications of the above extension of time limits. Applicants are entitled to the time extensions even if they do not receive the required notification.
- Applications for Virtual Hearings: Applicants may request a meeting, hearing or proceeding during the COVID-19 emergency, though entities have total discretion in granting such hearings.
- Expiration: These provisions are only available during the COVID-19 emergency and will expire when the Governor terminates the state of emergency in Pennsylvania.
Developers should take advantage of these opportunities to continue their applications during the COVID-19 public health crisis and keep projects moving forward. Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr attorneys are available to answer any questions you may have regarding issues raised in this alert or other emerging issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.