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The Jury's Out: Is the New RCO Bill Application or Community Centered?

April 22, 2014

After immense scrutiny, hours of public hearings, and several amendments, Bill Number 130657 (the “Bill”), which radically redefines community involvement in the development process, passed City Council on January 23, 2014 and became effective March 1, 2014.  The Bill repeals the former Zoning Code § 14-303(12), entitled “Neighborhood Notice and Meetings,” and enacts a new set of procedures and requirements that applicants and registered community organizations (“RCOs”) must follow.  The One-Year Zoning Code Review (a summary of which can be found at zarwin.com) identified several crucial issues with the former community input process. The Bill sought to address the articulated concerns in several fundamental ways.

RCO Qualifications and Acceptance Process

Formerly, RCOs were required to register their status yearly, providing, among other basic information, the geographic boundaries of the RCO’s concern and its preferred communication method.  RCOs were designated as local or issue-based RCOs.  Generally, local RCOs governed a specific neighborhood with discrete boundaries.  A project located within those boundaries would be required to contact any local RCO for the area.  Alternatively, issue-based RCOs had undefined boundaries, some covering the entire City.  Regardless of having standing as an official RCO, any group or individual was and remains permitted to give testimony during a Zoning board hearing.

Per the new Bill, existing and prospective RCOs were required to register by March 1, 2014 with the Philadelphia City Planning Commission (“PCPC”).  New applications for RCO status will be accepted during June of every year.  RCO status will remain valid for a two-year period, through June 30, 2016.  The Bill also eliminates the “local” versus “issue-based” distinction in favor of a general RCO designation.  The PCPC will evaluate new applications based on six criteria, all of which must be met prior to acceptance.  The RCO must have a clearly stated purpose to identify its intended involvement in land use, zoning, or matters of other concern.  Additionally, RCOs are now limited to a geographic boundary of 20,000 parcels.  The allowable geographic reach of any RCO will vary dramatically based on the type and density of a particular neighborhood.  These boundaries must be described in the organizations’ governing rules.  The RCO must also have open and regular meetings that are publicly announced through hard copy or electronic means.  Finally, RCO leadership must be selected through an election process.  Neighborhood Improvement Districts, Special Services Districts, and Ward Committees are automatically granted RCO status upon application.

Required Notice to RCOs and Neighboring Properties

Under the prior regulations, an applicant seeking approval from the Zoning Board or review by the PCPC Civic Design Review Committee was required to undertake an extensive notification process to RCOs and neighborhood properties.  While the list of RCOs was publicly available, the process for contacting the local neighbors was ambiguous, tedious, and often quite costly.  The applicants were required to notify every property owner or occupant on the nine blockfaces closest to the property.  For some properties, this could be hundreds of notifications.  For projects involving multiple blockfaces, the notification task was even more burdensome.  There was no provision in the former Code to ensure recognition of good faith efforts.  The new Bill sought to streamline and simplify the process.

Now,  within seven days of filing an appeal or making an application to the PCPC Civic Design Review Committee, the PCPC will provide the applicant with all necessary information including (1) applicable RCOs, including a “Coordinating RCO” to be selected by the District Council office as the responsible RCO for scheduling and hosting the required public meeting (if the property falls within the boundaries of multiple RCOs); (2) each property owner or occupant required to receive notice, which has been reduced to those properties on the same block, across the street, and within 200 feet of the subject property; (3) the District Councilmember; (4) the PCPC contact person; and (5) the Zoning Board or Civic Design Review Committee contact.  Upon receipt of the information, applicants are granted ten days within which they must provide the required written notice.  The notice must include information such as contact information, a description of the zoning proposal, and details of any public hearings or community meetings.  Applicants are advised to use the PCPC’s suggested template, a copy of which can be found at http://www.phila.gov/CityPlanning/projectreviews/PDF/RCO_ALL_LETTER_TEMPLATES.docx.

Conduct and Timing of Community Meetings

The repealed version of the Code provided that when the applicant’s property fell within the boundaries of multiple RCOs, a single community meeting was encouraged, but not mandatory.  Any RCO could opt to hold their own meeting, forcing applicants to make repeated presentations to groups which often catered to opposing interests.

Under the new provision, within forty-five days of the applicant’s filing of the appeal, the Coordinating RCO must schedule a public meeting date, time, and place to consider the applicant’s proposal.  Only one community meeting is required.  Should the non-coordinating RCOs fail to cooperate, the applicant is not required to undertake additional efforts to schedule a private meeting.  In addition to the notice provided by the applicant, the RCO must consult its own internal procedures for providing notice to its constituents.  Upon conclusion of the required meeting, the RCO must prepare and submit a written summary to the Zoning Board or Civic Design Review Committee, as applicable, the PCPC, and the District Councilmember.  Should the Coordinating RCO and the applicant fail to convene the required meeting, the RCO must document the efforts made and provide an explanation as to the reasons for the failure.  The Zoning Board or Civic Design Review Committee may not hear the case until it receives the mandatory report or until forty-five days have lapsed since the filing of the appeal. 

Summary of Impact

Although the Bill took effect March 1, 2014, general impressions of its effect are already beginning to emerge.  From the perspective of an RCO, the Bill heightens qualification prerequisites, making it more challenging to achieve RCO status.  Yet, once such status is acquired, RCOs need only re-register once every two years, instead of yearly.  In addition, the new Bill ensures that appropriate RCOs will receive notification of an impending hearing or review.  However, some RCOs have expressed frustration that only one group will have meeting coordination power.  Likewise, under the new code there is now only one compulsory community meeting, unlike the former Code which encouraged, but did not require a single, coordinated meeting.  RCOs have been stripped of their opt-out ability and are now forced to cooperate with their counterparts.

Conversely, applicants are pleased that the RCO registration criteria have been definitively established, as it will eliminate those groups without a true interest in the zoning process.  However, it is unclear whether the new RCO boundaries will eliminate the high occurrence of overlapping groups, which has become a notable frustration for developers.  Additionally, applicants will now be provided with every group, neighbor, or other interested party requiring notice.  This will eliminate the ambiguity in the former process and ensure that good faith efforts are recognized and rewarded.  Finally, although forcing the RCOs to convene a single meeting will reduce the burden on the applicant, it may serve to alienate the non-coordinating RCOs and make it more difficult to garner overwhelming support.  Undoubtedly, the first few months of the new process will be unpredictable for the City, RCOs and applicants alike.  Only time will reveal the true consequences of the Bill and whether it favors RCOs, applicants, or, as the City intended, falls somewhere in between to complement the interests of all parties.  For further reference, templates, and instructions, visit the PCPC website at http://www.phila.gov/CityPlanning/projectreviews/Pages/RegisteredCommunityOrganizations.aspx

For more information regarding the new community outreach process or a zoning matter in general, contact Darwin R. Beauvais at 267-765-9653, drbeauvais@zarwin.com; Stephen Pollock at 267-765-735, spollock@zarwin.com; or Meredith L. Ferleger at 267-765-7377, mlferleger@zarwin.com, members of Zarwin Baum’s Land Use and Zoning Practice Group.


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