We granted review in this appeal from the Commonwealth Court to explore the question of whether the construction of billboards qualifies as "land development" for purposes of the Municipalities Planning Code, 53 P.S. § 10107 ("MPC"), and the Upper Southampton Township Subdivision and Land Development Ordinance § 202 ("SALDO"), thereby authorizing a township to require land development approval before the billboards can be erected. We hold that the term "land development" does not encompass the construction of billboards and, therefore, we reverse the Commonwealth Court.
Appellant Clear Channel Outdoor proposed to erect six billboards on four lots in Upper Southampton Township, Bucks County, and entered into leases with the owners of the four lots, which were already being used for commercial purposes. The proposed billboards would be free-standing, V-shaped, double-sided signs measuring fourteen by forty-eight feet, attached to a single pole and illuminated by indirect lighting. The Township Ordinance prohibited the construction of any billboards in the Township, a limitation which Clear Channel and another billboard company successfully challenged in an unrelated matter. Baker v. Upper Southampton
After the conclusion of the Baker appeal, Clear Channel submitted separate applications for a sign permit and a building permit to the Township. The Township Zoning Hearing Officer rejected both applications, finding that the applications required the submission of land development applications pursuant to the SALDO. Clear Channel appealed to the Upper Southampton Township Zoning Hearing Board, which consolidated Clear Channel's appeal with an appeal of another billboard company, Outdoor Partnership, L.L.C., involving the same issue, that is, whether a land development application was required for the construction of billboards. The Zoning Hearing Board held three hearings and rendered separate written decisions in the two appeals, finding in both instances that the proposed construction of billboards did not require land development approval and, therefore, the permits had been wrongly denied.
The Township appealed to the Court of Common Pleas of Bucks County. Again, the appeal was consolidated with that of Outdoor Partnership, as the two appeals involved identical issues. The court took no additional evidence and on January 10, 2005, the trial court reversed the Zoning Hearing Board, finding that the Board had misread the MPC and the relevant Township's ordinances enacted under authority of the MPC.
The MPC's definition of land development and that contained in the SALDO are consistent and nearly identical, with the MPC providing:
53 P.S. § 10107.
Supplemental Op. at 4.
The Commonwealth Court affirmed in a published opinion, agreeing with the trial court that the allocation of land to the construction of billboards constituted land development within the meaning of the MPC and the SALDO. Upper Southampton Township v. Upper Southampton Township Zoning Hearing Board, 885 A.2d 85 (Pa.Cmwlth.2005). The court contrasted the situation sub judice with prior decisions in which it had held that the expansion of capacity of an existing antenna or pole did not constitute land development because there was no allocation of land involved. See Marshall Township Bd. of Supervisors v. Marshall Township Zoning Hearing Bd., 717 A.2d 1 (Pa. Cmwlth.1998); Tu-Way Tower Co. v. Zoning Hearing Bd. of Township of Salisbury, 688 A.2d 744 (Pa.Cmwlth.1997). Further, the court pointed to cases where it had found that the allocation of land to a specific purpose fell within the meaning of land development. See Lehigh Asphalt Paving and Construction Co. v. Board of Supervisors of East Penn Township, 830 A.2d 1063 (Pa.Cmwlth.2003); White v. Township of Upper St. Clair, 799 A.2d 188 (Pa.Cmwlth.2002). Finding the case sub judice to be analogous to Lehigh and White, the court deemed them to be controlling.
Before this Court, appellant Clear Channel argues that the lower courts' finding that land development approval is required results from an artificially narrow and hyper-technical reading of the statutory definition of land development. Under the reasoning in the lower courts, appellant argues, if the owner of the property at issue here had elected to construct signs of identical proportions to those proposed here, a land development plan would not be necessary because there would be no allocation of land between two occupants. Thus, according to appellant, the sole reason for the requirement in this instance is the fact that the sign and property would be owned by separate entities, a fact which has nothing to do with the development effect upon the land. If the lower court decisions stand, appellant asserts, any miscellaneous use structure not owned by the property owner would implicate the cumbersome procedure involved in securing approval for a land development project.
Appellant further contends that a common sense approach to the statutory provisions governing land development recognizes the legitimate interests of municipalities in controlling residential and non-residential development where that development involves sanitary sewer, water, storm water management, parking areas, driveways, roadways, curbs and sidewalks, and similar effects. The construction of a billboard does not implicate any of these concerns. Nonetheless, appellant notes, the Township permitting authorities possess broad power to ensure compliance with all applicable code requirements and to address any safety issues involved in the construction of billboards.
Finally, appellant argues that the Commonwealth Court's decisions in this area are confused and that the court's decision in this instance is not consistent with those prior decisions. Citing to Marshall Township, supra, and Tu-Way, supra, appellant claims that if the construction of a tower and equipment cabinets on a developed property (Marshall Township) or the construction of three towers together with unmanned accessory buildings (Tu-Way) does not require land development approval, then construction of billboards, which require no accessory buildings, should not. According to appellant, the lower courts placed undue emphasis on the fact that appellant and the property owners entered into lease agreements for the placement of the billboards and, therefore, found White, supra, and Lehigh Asphalt, supra, controlling. Appellant asserts that the White decision, though well-founded, is distinguishable because the telecommunications company there intended to install on a delineated parcel of land a communications tower and three adjoining buildings, all to be surrounded by a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire, along with a¼ mile long, 20-foot wide road to provide access to the leased parcel. Appellant likewise distinguishes Lehigh Asphalt, which involved the expansion of a quarry operation, because the Township instructed the applicant to file a land development application, which was subsequently denied. By contrast, here, appellant sought permits for the construction of billboards, which were denied for failure to file a land development application.
Appellee Upper Southampton Township responds that the lower courts correctly determined that the construction of a billboard falls within the definition of land development contained in the MPC and the SALDO. The Township contends that the proposed billboards at issue are land developments because they divide or allocate land and space by means of a leasehold. Appellee asserts that the Commonwealth Court appropriately found that the leases conveying a portion of the property to appellant for the construction of the billboards constituted an allocation of a portion of the owner's property. As evidence of this allocation, the Township points to the provisions in the lease that (1) permit appellant to remove any objects that obstruct the billboard, and to trim any trees and vegetation and (2) grant property rights to appellant in the event of condemnation.
Appellee argues that Tu-Way, supra, is inapplicable because that case does not involve a change in the interest in land but rather a question of what company's antenna might be mounted on a tower, while here, the property interests of the owners will change due to the leases they entered into with appellant. Attempting to distinguish both Tu-Way and Marshall Township,
The question of whether the construction of billboards is "land development" under the MPC and the SALDO involves a pure question of law regarding statutory construction, and therefore, this Court's review is plenary and non-deferential. E.g., McGrory v. Commonwealth, Dept. of Transp., 591 Pa. 56, 915 A.2d 1155, 1158 (2007); MCI WorldCom, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Public Utility Comm'n, 577 Pa. 294, 844 A.2d 1239, 1245 n. 3 (2004); Mosaica Academy Charter School v. Commonwealth, Dept. of Educ., 572 Pa. 191, 813 A.2d 813, 817 (2002). As in all matters involving statutory interpretation, we follow the Statutory Construction Act, 1 Pa. C.S. § 1501 et seq. (the Act), which provides that the object of interpretation and construction of statutes is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the General Assembly. See 1 Pa.C.S. §§ 1903(a), 1921(b). A statute's plain language generally provides the best indication of legislative intent. See, e.g., McGrory, 915 A.2d at 1158; Commonwealth v. Gilmour Manuf. Co., 573 Pa. 143, 822 A.2d 676, 679 (2003); Bowser v. Blom, 569 Pa. 609, 807 A.2d 830, 835 (2002) (citations omitted); Pennsylvania Financial Responsibility Assigned Claims Plan v. English, 541 Pa. 424, 664 A.2d 84, 87 (1995) ("Where the words of a statute are clear and free from ambiguity the legislative intent is to be gleaned from those very words."). Only where the words of a statute are not explicit will we resort to other considerations to discern legislative intent. 1 Pa.C.S. § 1921(c). See also Canvass of Absentee Ballots of November 4, 2003 General Election, 577 Pa. 231, 843 A.2d 1223, 1230 (2004) (citing O'Rourke v. Commonwealth, Dep't of Corrections, 566 Pa. 161, 778 A.2d 1194, 1201 (2001)); Ramich v. Workers' Compensation Appeal Bd. (Schatz Electric, Inc.), 564 Pa.656, 770 A.2d 318, 322 (2001). However, the Act also directs, as one of its "[p]resumptions in ascertaining legislative intent," "[t]hat the General Assembly does not intend a result that is absurd, impossible of execution or unreasonable." 1 Pa. C.S. § 1922(1).
The pertinent portion of the MPC definition of land development (and the identical SALDO definition) provides that land development includes "`improvement' of land `for any purpose involving ...' (ii) the division or allocation of land or space, whether initially or cumulatively, between or among two or more existing or prospective occupants by means of, or for the purpose of streets, common areas, leaseholds, condominiums, building groups or other features." 53 P.S. § 10107(1)(ii); SALDO § 202. This is a very dense and broad definition, as the "`division or allocation' it contemplates may be triggered by two different contingencies, i.e., `by means of'
The definition of land development, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. The significance of the definition is in the consequence of a finding that a proposed land use involves development; that consequence is the requirement of a land development plan. The statutory definition of development plan in the MPC plainly speaks of large-scale development and the issues that necessarily arise with such development:
53 P.S. § 10107. Section 10507 of the MPC, which sets forth the effect of a municipality's SALDO, likewise speaks to developments on a large scale:
53 P.S. § 10507.
The MPC, when viewed as a whole, clearly is intended to apply to the allocation of land in such a way that issues related to public use, water management, sewers, streets and the like must be addressed. Consistently with this focus, the case law typically involves the division of a tract of land into smaller parcels for the construction of either residential or commercial buildings. See, e.g., Kassouf v. Township of Scott, 584 Pa. 219, 883 A.2d 463 (2005) (residential subdivision); Mountain Village v. Bd. of Supervisors of Long-swamp Tp., 582 Pa. 605, 874 A.2d 1 (2005) (110-unit expansion of mobile home park); Meadows of Hanover Development, Inc. v. Board of Sup'rs of South Hanover Tp., 557 Pa. 478, 734 A.2d 854 (1999) (construction of homes and commercial buildings on 221-acre tract); Shoemaker v. Lehigh Tp., 544 Pa. 304, 676 A.2d 216 (1996) (subdivision of property into 65 one-half acre residential lots); Hart v. O'Malley, 544 Pa. 315, 676 A.2d 222 (1996) (increase in number of units in mobile home park); Pocono Green, Inc. v. Board of Sup'rs of Kidder Tp. (Carbon County), 523 Pa. 601, 568 A.2d 612 (1990) (planned residential development). We believe that it is precisely this kind of large-scale development of land, with an inevitable and concomitant effect on the public generally, that is contemplated by the MPC and the SALDO.
Again, although it is not determinative that billboards are not specifically mentioned among the examples of matters that qualify as land development, the absence of that example is consistent with the statutory focus, in land development plans, upon large-scale issues such as the "location and bulk of buildings and other structures, intensity of use or density of development, streets, ways and parking facilities, common open space and public facilities." The type of division or allocation of land contemplated by the MPC—e.g., a housing development, condominiums, or building groups—implicates many
We also agree with appellant that this case is more closely analogous to Marshall Township and Tu-Way than to White or Lehigh Asphalt. In Tu-Way, the applicant intended to expand a communications tower or erect two new ones and to construct accessory buildings. The Commonwealth Court found that this proposal did not rise to the level of land development requiring a land development plan:
Tu-Way, 688 A.2d at 747.
Similarly, in Marshall Township, the applicant sought to replace an existing light pole located on a parking lot with a larger light pole and antenna and to construct five equipment cabinets at the base of the pole. Relying on Tu-Way, the Commonwealth Court held that the construction of this larger pole and cabinets did not fall within the definition of land development. The common thread in these decisions is that the proposed use of the land did not include the construction of residential or commercial buildings. Thus, Tu-Way and Marshall Township comport with our plain reading of the statute to refer to the development of land involving the construction of residences or buildings that give rise to concerns regarding the provision of municipal services such as water management, streets, public convenience and the like.
By contrast, White and Lehigh Asphalt both involved a greater and more extensive use of land than the mere construction of a billboard. The applicant in Lehigh Asphalt sought to extend existing mineral rights by expanding its quarry over an undetermined amount of land. The White applicant intended to construct a 350-foot tower in a public park along with three equipment buildings, all surrounded by an 8-foot cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. The applicant also planned to construct a 20-foot wide access road to the site of the tower. Both of these proposed uses contemplated a substantial encroachment upon the land.
In the case sub judice, appellant proposes to construct a single billboard on each of the properties, which entails only the construction of the pole and sign atop the pole with no accessory buildings, fences or access roads. None of the concerns addressed by land development plans is applicable to this minor use of the properties in question. In our view, it would be an absurd or unreasonable reading of the statute to conclude that a use that does not involve such development of the land becomes one merely because the property
Accordingly, because we find that the proposed construction of these billboards does not fall within the MPC or SALDO definition of land development, we reverse the decision of the Commonwealth Court.
Former Justice Newman did not participate in the decision of this matter.
Chief Justice CAPPY, Justice SAYLOR, EAKIN and BAER join the opinion.
Justice BALDWIN dissents.