by Joyce Lenhardt
This is the second of a series from the Chestnut Hill Community Association Physical Division.
Many people wonder how development is regulated in Chestnut Hill when they see a new building under construction or excavation underway in a fenced-off lot. This article is a primer on how the development process works, and the role of the CHCA and other community organizations. While Chestnut Hill feels like a village, it is, as we all know, part of Philadelphia. Not only do city wage and property taxes apply to us, so does the zoning code.
There are three basic avenues by which development can proceed: by-right, by variance/special exception or by a rezoning. As ofright development proposals are entirely consistent with the zoning laws of Philadelphia and do not require any government or citizen review. Parcel-level rezonings are uncommon in Chestnut Hill, so this article will focus on variances and special exceptions, both of which must be approved by Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.
The Philadelphia Zoning Code identifies what can be built as of right. See Philadelphia’s property website for information on every property in the city.
Zoning categories are based primarily on the existing land use pattern. If a street has primarily single houses, it is probably zoned to allow only single houses. If most houses are attached to another, as in twins, the zoning is likely to allow new construction for attached housing.
Further details pertain to lot size, number of feet of front/side/rear yards from building to lot line, open space, how property will be used, etc. If an application for construction abides with the restrictions listed in the zoning code, it will be granted a building permit by the Department of Licenses and Inspection as of right, and without community review.
If an application submitted to L&I does not comply, the Department issues a “Refusal” which identifies the components of the application that are outside the limitations of the zoning code.
If applicants choose to appeal the refusal, they must present their application to the community and demonstrate why they want to build or use the property in the way they do, and why the limitations of the zoning code create a “hardship.” They are supposed to demonstrate how the hardship makes the property impractical as it is zoned.
The presentation to the community is made to Registered Community Organizations. The CHCA, Chestnut Hill Conservancy, and the Friends of the Wissahickon are our local RCOs. Per the zoning code, one RCO meeting is required, with written notification to all neighbors within a 250-foot radius.
This is the key point at which Chestnut Hill’s practice is unique. The CHCA has a longstanding land use review process that generally requires applicants to present at public meetings to a series of committees:
• The Land Use Planning & Zoning Committee is comprised of professionals in architecture, urban planning, landscape architecture, zoning law, real estate, or other related professions pertaining to land use.
• The Streetscape Committee is comprised of design professionals who review signage and façade projects in commercial locations.
• The Development Review Committee is comprised of representatives of LUPZC plus the Chestnut Hill Business District, the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, and the CHCA Streetscape Committee.
If the project impacts the historical nature of a property, the Chestnut Hill Conservancy conducts further review with its Historic District Advisory Committee. Once the DRC, LUPZC, HDAC, and Streetscape have reviewed a project, it is referred back to a second DRC meeting, which evaluates all input. It is to this meeting that applicants send written notices to neighbors for the official RCO meeting. This is the one meeting that is required by the city. Fortunately, in Chestnut Hill, neighbors and community members have multiple opportunities to voice their concerns about a project, but it does require them to pay attention to the agendas of the various meetings (which are always published in the Chestnut Hill Local).
Then the CHCA board, taking into consideration all input, including that of the community, submits a letter of support or opposition to the ZBA.
ZBA hearings are public and allow public testimony. Their decisions can be appealed. An appeal, the merits of which must established at the ZBA hearing, is then referred to the Court of Common Pleas and, at times, on to the Commonwealth Court. It is uncommon but not unheard of for variance reviews to be taken this far.
The ZBA is not bound by community input. The most important component of the Chestnut Hill review process, however, is to work toward achieving agreement on optimal results with the options at hand before presentation to the ZBA. We are often successful in this.