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The Results Are In: Findings from the One-Year Zoning Code Review

January 6, 2014

The current Philadelphia Zoning Code became effective on August 22, 2012. Since then, civic groups, developers and citizens have spent the past year staking out their ground through the political process, each attempting to mold the interpretation of its provisions in a manner favorable to its respective interests. The prior Zoning Code, Title 14 of the Philadelphia Code (the “Code”), was replaced by the joint efforts of the 31-member Zoning Code Commission, City Council, stakeholders and citizens. Upon the new Code’s one-year anniversary, the Commissioner of Licenses and Inspections, the Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, the Commerce Director, and the Chair of the Zoning Board of Adjustment (“ZBA”) were required to submit a comprehensive “One-Year Review” to outline the goals and achievements of the new Code. Here’s what they reported.

There were thousands of alterations to the Code, from minor technical changes to major substantive revisions. Overall, the Code was made easier to use through reorganization of the sections and improvements enhancing the user’s ability to navigate quickly and efficiently through the chapters. The Code also establishes uniform community involvement procedures by setting notice and meeting requirements for projects appearing before the ZBA. Similarly, the Code creates clear and distinct rules that reduce the necessity of obtaining a variance or other special approval from the ZBA. Applicants can predict the outcome of their application and modify their request accordingly depending on the desired result.

Additionally, the new Code consolidates base zoning districts, reducing the total number from 58 to 36, and reorganizes the overlay districts, condensing the total from 48 to 17. The Code modernizes and updates the list of permitted uses within each zoning classification and reorganizes uses based on categories and sub-categories instead of by individual use. Most of the dimensional standards remain, but some are modified to reflect changing neighborhoods.

In general, development standards are modernized in form and design. Further, heath and sustainability incentives are integrated throughout the Code, including reduction in parking requirements and incentives for transit-oriented development.

The One-Year Review contains six major findings:

(i) First, there is universal consensus that the Code is easier to use, navigate and understand. Applicants can quickly find and interpret relevant Code sections for their proposal and can modify a plan to avoid a hearing before the ZBA.

(ii) For proposals requiring ZBA action, the new Code has created mixed results. In some zoning districts, variance requests have reduced dramatically, while increasing noticeably in others.

(iii) Despite the overall improved language, remaining interpretation issues have resulted in requests for inconsequential variances.

(iv) Nonetheless, the approval rate for variances is much higher than expected, although it remains consistent from years prior to the adoption of the new Code.

(v) Similar to the increase in variances as a result of ambiguities, zoning remapping was cited as a critical reform needed to harmonize zoning classifications with the existing land use and neighborhood context.

(vi) Finally, the most controversial and newsworthy finding related to Registered Community Organizations (“RCO”) and the process by which an applicant before the ZBA must provide notification and convene a pre-hearing meeting.

The authors of the One-Year Review concluded that the RCO process is worthwhile and a vital prerequisite to seeking approval from the ZBA. However, several months after the adoption of the Code, City Council Bill No. 120889 was introduced to amend and heighten the RCO requirements, which, if passed, would result in a process that is unpredictable, uncertain, and extraordinarily unmanageable. Applicants would be required to provide expensive and time-consuming notice to owners and occupants of the nine block faces closest to the applicant’s property. Additionally, because many properties fall within the boundaries of numerous RCOs, applicants would have to coordinate a single meeting among each of them, yet any one RCO would be permitted to opt out of the single-meeting requirement and compel the applicant to hold separate meetings. Failing to meet any one of the many RCO requirements would impose continuous delay and added expense, regardless of the magnitude of the proposal.

After analyzing the findings, the authors of the One-Year Review made several recommendations for the coming years. The reviewers acknowledged the RCO process must be revised; in fact, City Council has already drafted and held hearings on Bill No. 130657 which would reinstitute, with alterations, many of the original RCO process requirements. Highlights of the Bill include heightened qualifications to become an RCO, clearly delineated practices to which RCOs must adhere internally, and enhanced access to information that simplifies the applicant’s burden to provide comprehensive community and RCO notice. The Bill will be eligible for a final vote in January 2014.

Aside from the suggested RCO reforms, the Zoning Technical Committee made a series of recommendations based on approximately sixty defined issues and addressing both minor technical and other substantive recommended alterations. Further, the reviewers also encouraged City Council to adopt zoning map revisions as envisioned by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s Philadelphia2035 District Plans. Finally, the reviewers contemplate enhanced administration and monitoring of objectives, such as a tracking system for ZBA cases, and suggest a biennial update of the review to ensure consistency with the City Code and congruence with the changing landscape of Philadelphia. For further reference, the full text of the One-Year Review can be found here.

For more information regarding the One-Year Review or a zoning matter in general, contact Darwin R. Beauvais at 267-765-9653,; Stephen Pollock at 267-765-735,; or Meredith L. Ferleger at 267-765-7377, members of Zarwin Baum’s Land Use and Zoning Practice Group.

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