by Joyce Lenhardt

This is the first in a new series of columns from the Chestnut Hill Community Association Physical Division.

Why do we keep seeing new buildings going up in Chestnut Hill? Who is letting this happen? Hasn’t there been enough change already? Can’t Chestnut Hill stay just like it is?

These questions and more are on the minds of many here in Chestnut Hill. One of the great qualities of this community is the strong culture of care about its physical attributes. It is part of what makes living and working here feel special. So recently as new development projects have come to the community, when people expressed concern, confusion and frustration, it led us to realize that it could help if there was greater understanding about how the development process works.

If you want to see people’s eyes glaze over, just mention the word “zoning.” It feels dry, boring, bureaucratic and, well, what else can we talk about? Yet not understanding it can impact quality of life, be it business or personal. People may make assumptions about the status quo of their neighborhood and then be surprised to learn how much can change, entirely within the law.

To provide groundwork of understanding how development works in Chestnut Hill, this article is the first of a series by the Physical Division of the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Our aim is to increase awareness because it is easy to forget that our “greene countrie towne” is regulated by the country’s sixth largest city, Philadelphia. Chestnut Hill does not have its own laws; it does not have its own governing body or decision makers. It is governed by the same zoning regulations that apply to Society Hill, Fishtown, and the rest of the city.

Fortunately, we have in Chestnut Hill a large group of people who have the professional expertise to evaluate development proposals. Together they volunteer for committees and task forces to establish guidelines, address aspects impacting development and environment, and seek outcomes with an eye to what will be appropriate to existing standards of the community. This is an ongoing process.

The development review process itself is the first topic we would like to provide information about because we know that, in many cases, when property owners suddenly learn that a change is coming to their block, they feel blindsided. We hope that making more information available about the process of development will help with awareness of potential outcomes and aid people in making decisions.

This series will cover several subjects, including a general primer on zoning, when development is “by-right” and when a variance or special exception is involved. We’ll talk about the Chestnut Hill Development Review Process, registered community organizations, and our role as it pertains to Philadelphia Zoning Code and the Zoning Board of Adjustment. We’ll delve into some specific issues like trees, when to use 311, streets issues, and misperceptions about “grandfathered” structures like fences and decks. We’ll discuss overlays and historic designations and how those mechanisms do and don’t provide controls. And we’ll describe opportunities and considerations for the coming years.

The CHCA came into existence because of concern about a specific large development in 1947. Its Physical Division has existed since the 1950s and is comprised of three standing committees: Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, the Streetscape Committee and the Development Review Committee. These committees, in a collaborative process with other stakeholder organizations, have maintained an ongoing practice of reviewing development and providing input to the city to help achieve positive outcomes.

Over all these decades, the volunteers on these committees, along with other key organizations including the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, Chestnut Hill Business District, and Friends of the Wissahickon, have played an enormous role in providing guidance on growth and change in Chestnut Hill. Their work has helped to maintain many wonderful attributes. Features of the community that may now be taken for granted may be due to the foresight and efforts of these people. This same group of people has been working within the constraints of the city regulations, which are often not as generous as may be found outside the city, to find ways to guide future development. Recognizing that it is not possible or even desirable to stop it, this group is working to develop overlays and other tools that will encourage or require development in the community to be contextual – sensitive to the existing fabric, scale, materials of what is here.

Upcoming articles in this series will be published approximately once a month. We believe you will find them helpful and informative. We want dialogue and encourage you to write to us. We encourage you to visit the CHCA website and to attend our meetings, which are listed in every issue of the Chestnut Hill Local. All of our meetings are public and exist for you. We would like to meet you and hear from you!

Joyce Lenhardt is vice president of the CHCA’s Physical Division. For more information, visit ChestnutHill.org or contact info@chestnuthill.org

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