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How Local Government Works: How does municipal planning work in your community?

The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code lays out how land use decisions in local governments are made.

  • Min Xian/SpotlightPA
How Local Government Works illustration

 Dan Nott / For Spotlight PA

How Local Government Works illustration

How Local Government Works is a series that focuses on issues and trends in Pennsylvania local governments and provides tools for readers to hold their local officials accountable.

Local government officials shape the daily lives of constituents with a mundane but critical power: making land use decisions.

Land use affects population density and access to jobs, housing, and transportation, and it determines how a community balances its natural and industrial resources. Municipal planning decisions in many ways set the course of a region.

So how are these decisions made?

The Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code, also known as the MPC, applies to all municipalities in the commonwealth except Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

This law, which has been in effect since the late 1960s, aims to guide the way land is used, promote economic growth, and protect precious resources, among many other goals. MPC establishes the powers and duties of planning agencies, the requirements for comprehensive plans, and rules regarding ordinances for zoning and subdivision and land development.

Pennsylvania’s 67 counties must produce comprehensive plans every decade. These documents detail how each community envisions its future through what they consider appropriate land use. Counties and municipalities can then enact a variety of ordinances to enforce those visions.

Because of Pennsylvania’s fragmented local government system, control over planning matters can be divided between counties and the municipalities within them.

Boroughs and townships can adopt their own ordinances for zoning, building permits, and stormwater management — which supersede county regulations, said Chris Schnure, subdivision and land development planner for Centre County. If no local ordinance exists, then county rules apply.

“Pennsylvania is quite unique,” Ray Stolinas, director of the Centre County Planning and Community Development office, told Spotlight PA. “With the Municipalities Planning Code and municipalities having the ability to adopt their own regulations, you have 2,700 different potential governing bodies in Pennsylvania. It can be a challenge.”

Municipal planning involves more than planning agencies. Property owners, developers, engineers, conservation groups, utility companies, and state departments — as well as taxpayers — can also play a role.

If you’re curious about your community’s land use decisions, here are some basic ways to learn more:

  • Find what planning agency or commission exists in your municipality.
  • Request a copy of an adopted comprehensive plan from your county (and municipality, if there is one).
  • Request a copy of all planning ordinances your municipality or county has enacted.
  • Reach out to your municipality, county, or regional planning agencies and ask when the next review for comprehensive plans will take place.
  • Attend a public hearing (find which ones are required in the MPC).

While seeking out such information might seem daunting, under Pennsylvania law, the public has a right to access and participate in planning processes.

Have a question about your local government? Email Min Xian at

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