ZCC debates zoning recommendations for public input
October 14, 2009ZCC debates zoning recommendations for public input 10/14/2009 | ZCC Regular Session
The Zoning Code Commission took on the biggest challenge to zoning reform in Philadelphia – the role the community plays in the development process. The ZCC is charged with updating the zoning code and streamlining approvals. The new code must be fair, easy to understand, and simple to use. Yet the main issue that bogs down Philadelphia’s system – the number and variety of cases that must be heard by the Zoning Board of Adjustment – is considered an indispensable opportunity for input by the community.
ZCC consultants found no other city that relies so heavily on case-by-case review and recommended reducing the number of zoning variances by establishing clear, objective standards and then allowing more development by-right. However, community groups have expressed serious concern that less variances means less public involvement and a diminished ability to protect neighborhood interests. The ZCC must balance the rights of property-owners and developers with the rights of all stakeholders to participate in a fair process.
ZCC members discussed when a neighborhood meeting should be required, establishing a clear set of rules about what can take place at the meeting, providing sufficient notice, and defining the roles of the applicant, community groups, and other participants. They want to provide a neutral forum and set up a process that will create the same opportunity for input in every district, whether or not the neighborhood is organized around these issues or is dominated by a group that does not necessarily represent the entire community. Commission members emphasized the need to codify the role of the community, but to communicate clearly about how and when public input can be used.
The ZCC discussed when, if ever, the community should be able to comment on by-right development proposals. While some commission members cautioned that inviting public input on by-right projects can create problems, others viewed it as an opportunity for real collaboration on projects of a certain size or level of impact. Although decisions on by-right projects can be appealed, the ZCC will need to have public buy-in for the new rules, i.e. by-right uses and design standards in the new code must truly reflect community interests and character.
Most ZCC members agreed that any new procedure for community involvement must be thoroughly vetted and introduced carefully. A work group will be set up to review best practices and engage investors, neighborhood groups, and other stakeholders in developing a new process.
Other recommendations will be discussed by the ZCC over the coming months and are organized into the following topic areas: common procedures and requirements; non-conforming structures, uses and lots; design review committee; overlay districts; development standards and floor area bonuses; relationship to plan documents; and interpretation.