by Wesley Ratko
In an interview with Chestnut Hill resident Stella Tsai, the appointee to the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission clarified the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s role under the proposed changes to the city’s zoning code.
Tsai pointed out that while the requirements stated in the new code would be less than what Chestnut Hill now asks of applicants, the new section on neighborhood meetings would be greater than what is currently on the books.
“There is nothing in the current code which requires a developer or other person seeking approval from the ZBA to meet with the community,” Tsai said. “Our goal was to ensure a citywide baseline for citizen input, which never existed before.”
Last month, CHCA’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee dedicated an entire meeting to discuss changes to the zoning code now being debated in Philadelphia. Chief among its concerns was a new section in the code that would require zoning applicants to convene one community-based meeting for projects that require Zoning Board of Adjustment approval.
Larry McEwen, co-chair of the LUPZ, expressed concern that this new requirement could take the place of the current process now in effect in Chestnut Hill, which involves an appearance by the applicant before the Development Review Committee, appearances before any other committees (Aesthetics, Historical, etc.) that the DRC prescribes, a second concluding appearance before the DRC and, finally, an appearance before the board.
“The requirements for community review meetings would be much less than what we do now,” McEwen said at that time.
Tsai explained that the new code will not prohibit the Chestnut Hill Community Association from asking an applicant for additional meetings with its committees in any instances where the CHCA thinks more meetings are required. Under the new code, the CHCA will still have the freedom to support or oppose an applicant’s request for zoning relief from the ZBA.
“The proposed Zoning Code is designed to be predictable, transparent and fair to the stakeholders,” Tsai said.
Minimum requirements for civic engagement have never been a part of the code. They will now be required from a developer either when a project requires Zoning Board of Adjustment approval or when a by-right project triggers the need for Civic Design Review (CDR). Civic design review, an advisory panel of civilian experts — is a new process for Philadelphia.
For projects that require Zoning Board approval, the community will have 21 days after receiving notice of the project in which to schedule a meeting with the developer and all stakeholders, followed by a one-week period in which to document the meeting. This meeting must occur and be documented by the time the Zoning Board of Adjustment hears the case.
The new code sets a minimum standard by establishing a forum for public input so that all neighborhoods in Philadelphia (including those that lack the resources available in Chestnut Hill) may engage in the planning and development process. Developers and communities can choose to have more than one meeting, but it would not be required by the code.
For by-right projects — those that do not require a zoning variance — that are substantial enough to require Civic Design Review (CDR), the community will have the opportunity to offer “timely, meaningful input on aspects of the project in a public forum,” according to Tsai. A representative of the registered community organization for the area will sit on the seven-member CDR committee for that project.