When City Council adopted a new zoning code two years ago, after more than four years of work, the new system of Registered Community Organizations—which formalized the practice of meetings between developers and community groups when zoning approvals were needed—was trumpeted as one of the document’s major achievements.
Soon, though, the trumpets gave way to a sad trombone.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell amended the rules after they were in effect only six months, putting in place a new system which was intended to be more inclusive, but which many community groups and members of the Planning Commission found burdensome and confusing.
Over the summer, the Planning Commission solicited feedback on the new code from developers, community groups, and other code users; much of the criticism was related to the amended RCO process.
In the fall, Councilman Bobby Henon introduced a bill, drafted in cooperation with Planning, that would restore much of the process initially adopted along with the rest of the code. Councilwoman Blackwell balked; a contentious hearing ensued, and Henon held the bill.
On Wednesday, the Rules Committee will take up a deeply amended version of the bill. The meeting will be a meeting only, not a hearing, which means there will be no testimony from the public. Henon said he intends to bring the bill to a vote at committee. Because Council’s last session of the year is Thursday, however, the bill won’t be able to come to a full vote until January, at the earliest.
The latest version* of the bill is wholly rewritten, though it keeps the basic structure of the RCO process intact. Developers seeking zoning variances or going to the Civic Design Review Committee will still need to notify and meet with local RCOs about their projects before a hearing takes place.
Some of the changes are likely to be crowd-pleasers. For example, arguments about whether or not issue-based RCOs should exist could be muted by one change in particular: under Henon’s amendments, any group or individual can sign up for electronic notification from the Planning Commission when projects are proposed in their areas of concern.
Other changes are head-scratchers. In the amended bill, there are seven qualifying criteria to become an RCO. The first states that RCOs must be a nonprofit group, an unincorporated association, a special services district, or, among other things, a political committee or ward. The other criteria include things like requirements of regularly scheduled, open meetings; land-use-related statements of purpose; and member-chosen leadership. But political committees do not have to meet criteria 2 through 7.
Henon said that provision is intended to be inclusive of the gamut of organizations that care about neighborhood development issues.
“[Political groups] are a part of the community, and they’re elected and things like that, so I’m just trying to make sure that people who weigh in on community matters are thought about,” Henon said.
Another amendment would require District Council members to select a “coordinating RCO” in situations where a project falls within the boundaries of more than one group. If the Council member fails to do so within five days of notification, the Planning Commission will select the coordinating RCO. The coordinating RCO would be required to host a single, public meeting with the developer and invite all other overlapping RCOs.
The bill maintains a provision requiring developers to notify not only each RCO and District Council member affected by a project, but also every property on the blocks surrounding the project. A list of those properties that require notification—by mail or door-to-door delivery—will be provided by the Dept. of Licenses and Inspections and the Planning Commission within a week of the date the application is filed. Meetings must take place within 45 days of the date of application.
RCOs will be required to re-register every two years—currently the rule is three years; initially, it was one year.
Coordinating RCOs will also be required to provide a meeting summary to the Planning Commission and the District Council member after meetings take place.
The composition of the Civic Design Review Committee will stay the same: up to two representatives of local RCOs, as well as one seat for a District Council member’s representative.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell could not be reached for comment on the bill on Friday. Henon said he is still working with her office on amendments. They haven’t agreed on everything, he said, but he plans to bring the bill to committee on Wednesday regardless.
“Although zoning may not be a sexy topic, or sexy pieces of legislation, they certainly have a great impact on our neighborhoods,” Henon said. “Clarifying the zoning code to create a framework for responsible development and community input is extremely important.”
Note: this article originally contained a slightly different version of the bill; it has been updated with the latest version as of Monday afternoon.
Jared Brey is a freelance reporter based in Philadelphia. His work has been featured in Philadelphia magazine, Hidden City, The Philadelphia Inquirer, City & State, and other publications. He covered development, zoning policy, historic preservation, and city government for PlanPhilly from 2011-2016.