Last Tuesday, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission voted against new regulations—regulations the Commission staff itself proposed—which would have streamlined the approval process for smaller projects subject to special zoning requirements for steeply sloped areas. The proposal was met with stiff opposition from community organizers in affected neighborhoods.
Max Marin reported on the controversy earlier this month for PlanPhilly and explained the issues well: “Written into the Philadelphia Code in 2012, steep slopes protection applies mostly to the city’s hillier neighborhoods in the northwest, as well as some parts of Cobb’s Creek and the Northeast. Within these areas, disturbing the earth on land with a 25 percent soil slope or greater is strictly prohibited. On land with a 15 to 25 degree slope, property owners must first get the Planning Commission’s approval before making alterations.”
The proposal would have allowed commission staff to handle some of the less controversial development proposals—smaller projects like repaving a driveway, for instance—without having to go through the full process of securing a variance from the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Critics said the regulations were too broadly written. In the end, the Commission staff didn’t think this was a fight worth waging, and backed down, recommending the Commission reject its own proposal.
The winners here: community groups in the Northwest and parts of Cobbs Creek and the Northeast where the steep slopes ordinance applies. This gives them more control over neighborhood developments, another source of leverage over their neighbors’ plans.
The losers: anyone falling under the ordinance’s purview with minor home improvement project in mind. The regulation would have saved “them thousands of dollars, for basically very routine matters,” said Gary Jastrzab, Planning Commission executive director.
It’s unlikely that the commission staff will try to streamline the regulations again, said Jastrzab. “We heard loud and clear from the community that they did not want that kind of discretion given to the staff.”
The Planning Commission also approved some tweaks to the regulations on Registered Community Organizations (RCOs), including a new appeals process for RCOs that are denied certification from the Commission.
RCOs need to register every two years with the Commission, pledging to hold open meetings in public spaces, demonstrating a leadership structure, and fulfilling a few other simple minimums. Those that don’t fill out the paperwork properly risk being denied certification—meaning that they won’t be to go-to neighborhood group to hear developer proposals.
Jastrzab said that the staff worked hard with the groups to help them through the registration process, but some still fell short of the requirements during the first registration period two years ago. Now, if any RCOs are denied during the current round of RCO certification, they will have 10 days to appeal the denial.
The RCO certification process isn’t onerous, so in the end this shouldn’t matter much. The appeals process would be far more consequential if City Council passed Councilman Kenyatta’s proposal to impose an enforceable standard of conduct on RCOs, but the bill was left off Council’s long list of ordinances voted on before its summer recess. The bill was introduced in March, after reports emerged of anti-semitism and general anarchy at some RCO meetings in Point Breeze, where debates over the neighborhood’s gentrification have been heated, to say the least.
The Commission adopted elements of the standard of conduct outlined in that bill, which prohibited discrimination based on sex, race, and religion, among others. But because the bill hasn’t passed, the Commission won’t be able to enforce those standards, making them voluntary for RCOs for the time being. Johnson’s legislation would have empowered the Commission to suspend or revoke certification of RCOs that failed to comply with the standards.