by Wesley Ratko
What the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s role in dealing with zoning issues will be if proposed changes to Philadelphia’s zoning code become a reality was the focus of discussion at the Nov. 4 meeting of the association’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee.
Chief among the committee’s concerns was a new process for conducting neighborhood meetings that could supersede the community association’s existing review process.
“The requirements for community review meetings would be much less than what we do now,” said LUPZ chairperson Larry McEwen.
The current process requires an applicant to appear before the Development Review Committee at least once before a recommendation can be sent to the CHCA board. Often, an applicant must present his project to other committees like Land Use Planning and Zoning, Aesthetics, and Historic Preservation for input before returning to the DRC, which considers the comments of the other committees before making a final recommendation.
Under the new code, only a single meeting would be required.
According to McEwen, community groups like the CHCA would have to register annually with the city to get early notice of projects requiring ZBA approval. Registration would include naming a contact person and an agreement to meet with zoning applicants within 21 days of receiving notice of the project from the city. Both the applicant and all community groups (there could be more than just the CHCA) would submit documentation of this meeting to the ZBA, prior to the applicant’s meeting with the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
“There is a minimal description of what the applicant would be required to present at this meeting,” said committee member John Haak, voicing concern about the new process.
Committee member and former CHCA president Betsy Masters explained that if this were to take effect, the CHCA board would no longer make decisions to either support or not support applications for variances.
“This would require a jostling of responsibilities,” she said.
“This seems to run contrary to our existing operation,” said committee member Ned Mittinger.
Committee Member John Landis put the changes in context and suggested that the Zoning Reform Commission had a few goals in mind. The first would be to identify the applicable stakeholders affected by a given project and ensure that a developer enters into discussions earlier in the planning process than is now the case.
“The purpose here is not to cut off debate but to make sure that the conversation is happening sooner,” he said. “The intent is to promote communication – however, it doesn’t ensure it.” Landis suggested that some language is needed to protect the CHCA and its process. He also suggested the possibility that the CHCA would not be the only recognized community organization in this process.
“That would dilute our power – we need language that recognizes that we are the de facto organization,” he said.
McEwen recognized that in neighborhoods without a process for review, these changes would be a step up, noting that the process in Chestnut Hill was well established and served the community well.
“We want it the way we have it,” he said.
Masters said that the changes were designed to make the review process easier. She said, however, that by simplifying things, “our process would be cut off at the knees.”
Landis proposed that a mechanism called a “Finding of Overriding Consideration” be employed to require the ZBA to go on record when they make a decision that is contrary to the recommendation of the local community groups. Now in use in several places around the country, Findings of Overriding Consideration provide for transparency in these kinds of decisions.
Masters noted that even if provisions for this mechanism were added, it would merely be advisory and carry no weight – the ZBA could still make whatever decisions they wanted independent of the wishes of the Chestnut Hill community.
McEwen countered that while that might be true, the comments would go into writing and, from there, back to the planning commission, which could lead to another meeting and grounds for appeal.
Committee member Jean McCoubrey asked which recognized community organization the developer would go to. Committee member Joyce Lenhardt answered that the RCO would be designated by the local City Council person.
In addition to this issue, the committee also offered comments on the length of the transitional period that will run between the adoption of the new code and the date it becomes effective, and the maximum allowable height of buildings in the newly consolidated commercial districts along Germantown Avenue.
Comments must be submitted to the Zoning Code Commission by Nov. 12.