February 28, 2024

Removing Obstacles to Opportunity: Building Pennsylvania

On February 28, 2024, the Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee convened a crucial hearing in Tamaqua hosted by Representative Jamie Barton. The purpose of this hearing was to address the burdensome regulations and onerous permitting issues stifling the growth of businesses, developers, and builders across the Commonwealth. The testifiers that joined the Committee shed light on the urgent need for reform to foster a more conducive environment for economic development, construction, and community revitalization to meet the growing needs of Pennsylvania families and businesses.

The testifiers that joined the Policy Committee were as follows:

Hon. Mike Tobash - Former State Representative and Principal, Tobash Financial Solutions

Nick Boyle - Developer

James Moore - Manager & Principal Engineer, Lehigh Engineering

Questions for Testifiers

Agenda, Bios, & Testimony

Hon. Mike Tobash, former State Representative and Principal of Tobash Financial Solutions, delivered insightful perspectives on the staggering regulatory landscape in Pennsylvania. Former Representative Tobash highlighted a concerning statistic from a 2023 Commonwealth Foundation study, revealing that Pennsylvania boasts a daunting 166,219 statutes, or 30,000 more statutes than the average state. He emphasized the detrimental impact of unnecessary building code requirements, which often serve as roadblocks to development. For example, in 2010 proposed building codes would have required all new homes to contain expensive sprinkler systems. Thankfully, through the leadership of the late Rep. Everett, this proposal was defeated and Pennsylvanian homes did not need to bear this regulatory burden.

Former Rep. Tobash shared some suggestions with current Representatives, and advocated for replacing discretionary language like "may" with mandatory language like "shall" in statutes to prevent state agencies from obstructing projects and permits. Furthermore, he underscored the exorbitant compliance costs associated with renovation and safety codes, rendering many projects financially unviable without subsidies or tax breaks. It is time to review these subsidies and tax breaks to investigate how the good intentions of the Commonwealth may have limited construction firms’ ability to refurbish and rebuild our communities. These insights underscore the urgent need for regulatory reform to alleviate the burdens on businesses, developers, and builders in Pennsylvania.

“Uniform Construction Codes are not applied uniformly.”

Hon. Mike Tobash
Former State Representative and Principal, Tobash Financial Solutions

Following former Representative Tobash, Nick Boyle, a seasoned developer, elucidated the challenges posed by stringent zoning regulations hindering the revitalization of small towns across Pennsylvania. Mr. Boyle highlighted the inconsistency and ambiguity in permit requirements across municipalities, complicating the development process and burdening consumers with higher rent prices or diminished real estate options. Codes and permitting vary greatly throughout the state, complicating construction efforts. He lamented the unnecessary demolition of historic buildings due to rigid building codes, urging for zoning variations tailored to different community styles and a more nuanced approach to code enforcement that values the preservation of older structures. For example, when he wants to revitalize an old building if the renovation costs exceed 50.1% of the building’s cost he is then required to bring the entire structure up to modern codes. By bringing a building up to modern codes the structures lose their charm, features, and are not necessarily safer or more efficient.

In addition to outlining the challenges faced by developers, Mr. Boyle also offered insightful recommendations aimed at mitigating the regulatory hurdles hindering community revitalization efforts. He proposed instituting zoning variations tailored to the unique characteristics of different communities, such as urban, suburban, pre-1900s, and modern areas. This tailored approach to zoning would enable municipalities to align regulations with the distinct needs and aesthetics of each locality, fostering more flexible and responsive development policies. Moreover, Mr. Boyle advocated for a nuanced approach to code enforcement that prioritizes the preservation of older downtown structures over their demolition. A building should not require total renovation or demolition simply because a stairwell is too narrow by modern standards. By recognizing the cultural and historical significance of these buildings, communities can leverage their unique charm to attract investment and tourism, thereby revitalizing local economies while preserving heritage. These recommendations align with the overarching goal of promoting sustainable development practices that balance economic growth with environmental and cultural preservation, ultimately fostering vibrant, thriving communities across Pennsylvania.

“Housing demand is through the roof!”

Nick Boyle

James Moore, Manager and Principal Engineer at Lehigh Engineering, provided a comprehensive overview of the permitting obstacles faced by coal mining operations in Pennsylvania. Moore highlighted the lengthy and costly permit application process, which can take between 2 to 3 years and entail hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses for a simple mine. He emphasized the massive disparities within the municipal permitting process, even among communities with similar geographics and demographics. Communities that hosted mines for generations now balk at the idea of the same mine lands being used today, even knowing that modern equipment, standards, and best practices will be utilized.

Mr. Moore shared the exhaustive nature of a complete permit application for a coal mine, which includes 95 documents over 6 separate submissions and amounts to 800 pages of documentation. Moreover, Moore pinpointed a significant bottleneck in the permitting process during the environmental review stage, which is time-consuming, ever-expanding, and often abused by activist groups. He specifically referenced the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory (PNDI) environmental review requirement, which mandates an assessment of wildlife impacted by coal operations. This requirement, Mr. Moore noted, is continually expanded and applied unevenly across industries, exacerbating regulatory burdens on coal mining operations and impeding economic growth in affected communities.

“There is a guilty-until-proven-innocent mentality in permitting.”

James Moore
Manager & Principal Engineer, Lehigh Engineering

The testimony presented during the day’s hearing underscored the urgent need for legislative action to streamline regulations, simplify permitting processes, and promote economic growth and community development. The Policy Committee gained valuable insights into the challenges faced by businesses, developers, and builders, reaffirming the commitment to work towards a future where Pennsylvania thrives as a beacon of opportunity and prosperity. Through collaborative efforts at both the state and local levels, Pennsylvania can overcome regulatory hurdles and pave the way for a brighter, more prosperous future for all its residents.