Community Matters: ZBA is back in action

Posted 8/19/20

Eighth of a series

from the Chestnut Hill Community Association Physical Division

By Celeste Hardester

When the City of Philadelphia shut down due to the Covid-19

crisis, the …

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Community Matters: ZBA is back in action

Posted

Eighth of a series from the Chestnut Hill Community Association Physical Division

By Celeste Hardester

When the City of Philadelphia shut down due to the Covid-19 crisis, the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) suspended hearings. Getting started again proved complicated because Registered Community Organizations (RCOs), such as the Chestnut Hill Community Association, were no longer holding live meetings. RCO input is required for the ZBA to review an appeal.

Hearings of the ZBA are the final step in the zoning appeal process, and come after the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I), has issued a refusal, and after the RCO has had a chance to review the application and form an opinion as to whether the permit should be issued anyhow.

In June, the City determined that most RCOs can conduct virtual meetings, and, for those who can’t, alternate plans can be made with the help of City Council members. With that settled, the ZBA resumed hearings on July 14. They are virtual, making attendance much easier.

If you have never attended a live ZBA hearing, it ranges from boring procedure to episodic drama. The room is a sort of controlled melee in a courtroom – like setting, with three to five “judges” on the bench reviewing an agenda of multiple properties. Ready to present are all the lawyers, architects, developers and property owners. Members of the public, representatives of RCOs and staff of City Council members are there as well. Everyone is in the hearing room at the outset of the hearing, filling the hundred plus seats, to be sworn in together. Once the hearing is underway, many people leave the room to conduct business in the hallway until their appeal is called, talking about the case at hand, other business, planning testimony, talking to or avoiding people on “the other side,” as the case may be.

Now all of this is virtual. ZBA hearings are held using Zoom. The link to attend the hearing is on the ZBA website: www.phila.gov/departments/zoning-board-of-adjustment/

All the same people attend: ZBA board, ZBA counsel, Planning Commission and stenographer. ZBA staff administer the meetings, unmuting people to speak, granting screen-sharing privileges. Every time someone speaks, they are first sworn in by the Chair. Members of the public “raise their hand” by using the Zoom feature (available in the Chat panel) to notify staff that they wish to testify. (In a recent hearing, plans for the large property at 30 Pelham Road in Mt. Airy were presented, and many members of the public had an opportunity to speak. In this case, the ZBA voted to hold a decision until Aug. 26, 9:30 AM.) Three Chestnut Hill appeals, held over since the spring, are on September agendas.

To date, this virtual process seems to be working well enough. While the ZBA hasn’t been overly ambitious with the number of cases they are hearing, they are making progress cutting into the backlog of cases. The ZBA is patient with everyone as they become accustomed to how Zoom works. These virtual hearings are not nearly as stimulating as the “real” thing, but they make it possible for this aspect of life to get back to normal, and that’s a good thing.

Celeste Hardester is the Development Review Coordinator, CHCA Physical Division.

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