The CHCA zoning process, used recently to debate the dialysis proposal for 10 E. Moreland Ave., is not necessarily going anywhere.

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.

See this letter to the zoning commission by CHCA president, Walter Sullivan.

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.

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  • Jenna Thompson

    The real story of how this will NEGATIVELY affect Chestnut Hill is found here.

    Zoning code reform doesn’t sound very sexy. But all that esoteric talk of “allowed uses” and “C2 districts” can determine how bike-friendly a city is, whether a gun shop can open in your neighborhood, or how urban farms operate. Philadelphia’s Zoning Code Commission is currently finalizing a whole new draft of the city’s zoning code, which will go to City Council next year. In this short series, PlanPhilly will analyze how the new code affects neighborhoods in Northwest Philadelphia.

    Chesnut Hill

    At least one aspect of zoning reform will seriously affect Chestnut Hill, and it’s got nothing to do with land use, building height requirements or anything else usually associated with planning.

    It’s the Civic Design Review Committee standards. This committee — which doesn’t exist in the current code — will be comprised of architects, urban planners, developers and one member of the community where the project is being proposed. These members will provide a recommendation for projects with a significant impact, such as buildings with more than 100 residences or 100,000 new square feet — and it’s totally advisory. In other words, the Department of Licenses & Inspection, the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the Planning Commission and City Council don’t have to listen to the committee’s ideas whatsoever.

    But here’s the real game-changer: This review process will replace the many community meetings that developers now attend to court neighbors. Since Chestnut Hill is home to both the Chestnut Hill Community Association and the Chestnut Hill Residents Association — and there’s only room on the Civic Design Review Committee for one community member — that means somebody will be left out.

    In fact, it means many people will. The Chestnut Hill Community Association’s current review process involves four separate committees of lawyers, design professionals, business owners and historical experts. Under the new code, one representative from the Chestnut Hill Community Association might not even make it onto the Civic Design Review Committee for every large-scale project.

    Stella Tsai is the usual mouthpiece for every want and need of the powers that be.