by Wesley Ratko
Members of the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee discussed the city’s ongoing efforts to reform the zoning code and its impact on Chestnut Hill’s zoning hearing process.
Under the proposed zoning code, any applicant seeking zoning relief would be required only to conduct a single neighborhood meeting with a new entity identified as a Registered Community Organization (RCO) within the project area before they could present their case before the Zoning Hearing Board. An RCO is defined as a community organization that is registered with the City Planning Commission, and “maintains its registration status pursuant to rules established by the CPC.” RCOs are organized around geographical areas, not specific issues. Any developer or property owner seeking a zoning variance from the ZBA must notify and meet with any or all RCOs within the boundaries of the property in question.
Language pertaining to the registration of RCOs has raised concerns that the CHCA may be undermined as the recognized community organization in Chestnut Hill. The one meeting requirement has prompted fears that the established development review process could become extinct.
LUPZ Committee co-chair John Landis and committee member Steve Gendler met with Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Philadelphia Zoning Code Commission, to discuss these concerns.
“It was a cordial meeting, but I think Eva was not particularly sympathetic to our position,” Landis said.
According to Landis, Gladstein felt that a significant amount of work has been done to date and there is little interest in making additional changes that would uphold the CHCA’s process.
Landis said Gladstein told him any conflicts between the CHCA and other RCOs would be settled before the ZBA. Landis offered that the CHCA was a value-adding organization that worked with developers to make proposals better – more than just concerned residents. She was “not sympathetic to that.”
Her response was “almost eye-rolling,” Gendler said.
“Let them all roll their eyes at us,” said committee member and co-chair of the Development Review Committee Larry McEwen. “I only care about the value-added process we provide.”
Landis proposed two possible solutions: a change to the new code that would make the CHCA the permanent RCO or the creation of a second level of review that would preserve the established process in Chestnut Hill.
“We spend some time being considerate about these projects and engaging in dialogue with the project sponsors and the community to try and improve them,” said Landis. “For whatever reason, Eva doesn’t feel that that process added value and…I think it’s fair to say her general view is that if there are conflicts or disagreements they should be brought before the Zoning Board of Adjustment. And that’s not our position.”
McEwen asked about the position of a group called the Cross Town Coalition, saying he’d be surprised if the CHCA were the only group with concerns. He suggested the next step should be coordinated with other groups that would be affected by these changes.
McEwen said his concern was with the “truncation” of the entire review process.
Ned Mitinger said that the professionalism of the participants in CHCA committees provide greater input and offer a broader grasp of the facts, although other groups may feel more strongly about certain issues because a project is in their back yard.
“A lot of entities here in Chestnut Hill would probably qualify in the new RCO category,” Mitinger said.
He concurred that the new code should be written as clearly as possible to emphasize the community association’s role as the established RCO.
“I would recommend that we have the Board meet with the City Council person as well as any other person who represents Chestnut Hill,” Mitinger said.
Landis told the Committee that he would reach out to the other groups in the city to gauge their concerns with the one-meeting requirement and report back at the September meeting.