by Wesley Ratko
Voting on a bill that, if passed, would amend the city’s zoning code to allow parking in the front yards of all homes citywide has been put on hold indefinitely.
This, according to community manager Celeste Hardester, who was present in City Council chambers Thursday, Jan 23, to deliver testimony in opposition to Bill #130699-A, which would have changed language in the code to allow driveways to be located in any area around a home that is now required to remain open (like a front yard), and to allow cars to park there.
For more than three months now, members of both the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review and Land Use Planning and Zoning committees have been working with the office of 8th District City Councilwoman Cindy Bass and civic groups to delay passage of the bill until it can be better understood.
Originally introduced last October by City Councilmen Brian O’Neill (10th District) and Mark Squilla (1st District), the bill was first tabled in November, after the CHCA sent a letter opposing the bill through Bass’s office.
An amended bill with simplified language was introduced in December.
Many CHCA committee members believed that the amended bill made the zoning change even more ambiguous about where parking would be allowed on residential property, and felt that it presented the possibility of increased visual clutter and decreased property values across the city.
DRC members remain uncertain that they understand the full impact of the bill and worry that there could be “unintended consequences.” They were pleased with the news that another vote has been delayed.
“We’re making a little headway here,” said committee co-chair John Landis at the DRC’s Jan 23 meeting.
DRC co-chair Larry McEwen suggested that there may not be any misunderstanding about the proposed change to the zoning code.
“This may just be a disagreement about whether this is good or bad,” he said.
Several members expressed a desire to have an attorney with a background in zoning to look at the bill and provide advice, although no formal action was taken at the meeting to seek one out.
Landis thanked Celeste Hardester for her work on the issue and for taking the time to attend the City Council hearing. Hardester said she has been in touch with “8 or 9” other civic associations throughout the city, but noted that Chestnut Hill has been the only community association to offer any resistance to the zoning change.
Petitioner Laura Stanton, of 401 E. Willow Grove Ave., was not present at the Jan 23 DRC meeting to discuss the status of her request for a variance from the zoning code that would allow her to keep her 6-foot-high fence. Stanton first brought the issue to CHCA’s Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee just two short weeks ago, after receiving a violation notice from Licenses and Inspections.
Community Manager Celeste Hardester told the DRC that she had spoken with L&I, who told her Stanton has to go through the permitting process before any appeals process can move forward.
Committee member John Landis said he felt that LUPZ took the zoning code too lightly in trying to extend assistance, a sentiment he conveyed at the LUPZ meeting. He told the DRC that Stanton hadn’t made a factual case that demonstrated hardship, a necessary element for a variance application.
LUPZ co-chair Larry McEwen told the DRC that he thinks LUPZ presented her with a workable solution. Support for her application for a variance to keep the fence as-it is along E. Willow Grove Avenue would be contingent on her agreeing to reduce the height and opacity of the fence along Crittenden Street.
Landis agreed this was a workable solution, adding that the fence along Crittenden Street is too high. He said the the zoning ordinance exists to counteract negative visual impacts like a fence that is too high and not sufficiently opaque.
McEwen was blunt, saying that the offer of support for keeping the fence at 6 feet along the front of her property depends on the change along Crittenden Street. Without that concession, he said, he wouldn’t be able to offer his support for the variance.
“We’re not trying to pressure her,” he said, “we’re just stating what it is.”
Joyce Lenhardt, vice president of the CHCA’s Physical Division, expressed annoyance with the contractor who built the fence. While it has been established that the responsibility for acquiring the fence permit fell on the applicant – a responsibility that was stated in the contract Stanton signed – Lenhardt felt that some blame lies with the fence company that initiated work without proof of a permit.
Without additional input from Stanton, there was little the DRC could do. It took no action on the issue.
The January DRC meeting ended with an informal discussion about two other bills pending in City Council. Bill 130694 would change the city’s zoning to allow the School District of Philadelphia to place outdoor advertising signs “on any land, building, or structure” it has the right to. Ads for alcohol and tobacco products would remain prohibited.
“This makes parking in front of people’s houses look good,” Lenhardt said.
Landis observed that there was a third party involved that was not addressed by the bill.
“It’s not just the school district and the advertiser,” she said, “but the community as well. If we can’t kill [the bill], we should at least push for some provisions requiring that the community have an approval vote as well.”
The other bill, a 19-page document with several items relating to billboards, had not been reviewed by DRC members and prompted little discussion.
“It’s a visual justice issue,” said Landis, adding that the billboards covered under the bill “would not likely come to Chestnut Hill.”
On either bill, the committee took no formal action.