Well that didn’t take long. Last August, following a four year process, the City of Philadelphia’s comprehensive new zoning code became law. Because of the law’s broad scope and sweeping changes, it was agreed that the Code would be revisited one year after its enactment to determine its effectiveness and to consider making any necessary changes. Yet, on January 24, 2013, a mere 5 months later ,the Philadelphia City Council, overriding a veto by Mayor Michael Nutter, passed Bill No. 120889 by a vote of 13-3 and amended the new Code, significantly complicating pre-hearing interaction between neighbors and developers which the Code was intended to streamline. While Council has enacted some minor “clean-up” amendments to the Code since August, this amendment could have substantial consequences.

Many of the amendments impact developers who have filed an appeal to the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment. Among other things, these amendments (i) significantly increase the number of people to whom a developer must give notice of its appeal, (ii) require that the notices be mailed or hand delivered, and (iii) potentially increase the number of civic association meetings that developer must have before proceeding to the Zoning Board. Whereas the new Code sought to streamline this process, these amendments will likely serve to prolong it.

So now, in addition to providing notice to the local Registered Community Organization (RCO) where the property is situated (which is an existing requirement), developers (owner-occupied residential properties containing three or fewer units are exempt) filing an appeal to the Zoning Board must now also give written notice to:

  • The Councilperson in whose district the property is located; and
  • The owner, occupant, managing agent or other responsible person for:
    • every property on the same block as the subject property; and
    • every property on any blockface adjacent to the blockface of the subject property; and
    • every property on the blockface across the street from the subject property; and
    • every property on any blockface across the street from a blockface that is adjacent to the blockface of the subject property.

Under last August’s version of the Code, where more than one Local RCO existed with boundaries that included the subject property, those Local RCOs were required to coordinate one single meeting for the developer to discuss its application with the community. No longer. This month’s amendment permits any applicable RCO to request that the local Councilperson, the Philadelphia Planning Commission or the Zoning Board determine whether there will be a single meeting with all interested Local RCOs or separate meetings with each Local RCO.

Local RCOs also now have enhanced notice responsibilities under Bill No. 120889, and are required to provide written notice (delivered by mail or by hand) of the public meeting with the developer to: 

  • The owner, occupant, managing agent or other responsible person for:
    • every property on the same block as the subject property; and
    • every property on any blockface adjacent to the blockface of the subject property; and
    • every property on the blockface across the street from the subject property; and
    • every property on any blockface across the street from a blockface that is adjacent to the blockface of the subject property.

Compliance with these and all other notice requirements in the Code is imperative in order for a developer to be able to have its appeal heard by Zoning Board.

The composition of a Civic Design Review Committee has also been altered where the boundaries of more than one Local RCO include the subject property. In such a case, the size of the Committee will grow, with up to two RCO seats, one for each Local RCO, on the Committee, and with the local Councilperson, at his or her discretion, being permitted to add a designee to the Committee.

With several amendments passed, and other proposed Code amendments now in committee, Council does not appear to be done tinkering with the work of the Zoning Code Commission.

Alfred R. Fuscaldo is a Director in the Gibbons Real Property & Environmental Department.