Just what I always wanted?

If Chestnut Hill news had a theme this year, it would be zoning debate. From the Fresenius dialysis center at Winston Road and Moreland Avenue to the Green Woods Charter School proposal for Chestnut Hill Avenue to the Magarity Ford site and on up to Chestnut Hill College, Chestnut Hill has seen some pretty big disputes about how best to develop property.

Last week, City Council passed new zoning legislation that will dramatically change the way developers address zoning and the way in which civic associations have a voice in the process.

The latter part of that last sentence has been a cause for alarm in Chestnut Hill for nearly two years now. The worry is that the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s process will be put in jeopardy.

The CHCA’s current process uses the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s variance process as leverage. Whenever a developer or property owner needs a variance, he or she is told to solicit the local civic association for support.

The CHCA has used that practice to require all variance applicants to submit to its review process, which includes the Development Review Committee, the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, Traffic Transportation and Parking, Aesthetics and a Historic District Advisory Committee that is part of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society.

That process allows the CHCA to give everything from major projects to fence installations a thorough vetting and allows neighbors to have a say, too. It also slows down the average application, as the process requires at the very least one month of review, but often takes two.

Now that the code has been approved – though it will not take effect for eight months, meaning there is an opportunity still for tweaks – the old tried and true  CHCA process will likely have to change. And by change, the CHCA is likely to lose some control of the process and have less leverage.

Although many in the CHCA have expressed concern about the erosion of the process, perhaps it’s not the worst thing to happen to the CHCA.

First, to be clear, although the CHCA process is often long and seems at times infuriatingly redundant, the people who make up the CHCA’s committees, particularly the LUPZ, are a group of dedicated and professional architects that provide the kind of service you’d have to pay millions to get. The amount of work-hours put in and the professionalism by volunteers like Joyce Lenhardt and Larry McEwen is remarkable. I can’t imagine any community that has a more capable group of people perusing its zoning applications.

The process of reviewing zoning, however, puts the CHCA and its committee volunteers in the interesting dilemma of acting like government, which is not the most enviable position to be in, especially when the decisions impact your near neighbors. The opinions of the LUPZ, DRC and CHCA are advisory, but they carry weight. And they also carry the likelihood that you’ll upset or alienate a group of people that you would also very much like to participate through CHCA membership.

A case in point is the recent Bowman Properties/Magarity Ford decision. The CHCA appears to have made the best overall planning decision. The investment Bowman is putting into the site is larger than anything you could reasonably hope to attract to the property. Nearly every professional planner I’ve spoken to says the project is the right move. It might not be perfect, but it’s a solid planning decision that makes sense for the community.

In making that decision, however – whether it’s right or wrong – the CHCA is left to deal with the fact that it sided against 600 Hillers who signed a petition in opposition to the project. That’s 600 Hillers who may be a harder sell to join the CHCA or participate in its events.

There’s no question that the zoning process of the CHCA has been a big net gain for Chestnut Hill. It’s architects, planners and other volunteers have spent countless hours working to manage progress and preserve the neighborhood’s character at the same time. Yet, more and more, the CHCA has been put in the no-win position of needing to take a side. It doesn’t matter what side it takes – right or wrong – every time it takes a side it has to face a group of people upset by the decision.

Perhaps the new zoning code will take a lot of that decision-making power away from the CHCA and centralize zoning decisions downtown.

Perhaps that won’t be the worst thing that’s ever happened to the CHCA.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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