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Zoning for Dummies

Philadelphians have a number of pressing issues occupying our daily lives as city dwellers — crime, police brutality, racial discrimination, rising rents, zoning — wait, zoning? The City of Philadelphia has had the power to zone — or regulate the size, shape and use of buildings in the city — since the early 20th century. Zoning regulates whether a developer can construct a high rise condominium in your neighborhood or whether a dirty new industrial plant can move next door.

For such an important issue, many residents feel excluded from participating because of the legalese in which zoning debates take place. Stripped to its essentials, however, the process is relatively simple:

City Council is in charge of approving an official Zoning Code and a map that designates different standards for size, shape and use in different parts of the city. For instance, the code regulates what can be built in a residential zone, and the map shows exactly where those zones are located.

Before a building is physically altered or begins to be used for a different purpose, the owner applies to the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) for a zoning permit, or a permit certifying that the changes conform to the zoning district(s) the building is in. If it meets the appropriate height, size and use restrictions in the Zoning Code, there is little to no opportunity for community input, apart from requesting a change in the code and map itself.

If the new plan doesn’t meet the zoning code, the owner may appeal to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a special exemption or a variance from the code. When an appeal is filed, the developer must notify community organizations in the area, such as the Fishtown Neighbors Association (FNA) or the Olde Richmond Civic Association (ORCA).

The local organization holds a public meeting and writes a letter informing the Zoning Board about the community’s position on the plans. The city councilperson for the area also plays a role — if there are multiple local organizations, the councilperson chooses which one coordinates the public meeting, and if there are no organizations, they control the hearing themselves. The hearing before the Zoning Board is another opportunity for residents to present their opinion.

A similar process occurs for zoning of large buildings in particular areas — a process called civic design review. If a plan requires both an appeal and a design review, the required public meetings for both are combined into one. There are other steps that may be involved, but the public meetings and the hearings which occur before the Zoning Board and when City Council considers amending the zoning code are the avenues for public participation.

For more information on the process, The Spirit spoke to Leo Mulvihill of Fishtown Law, who is a former zoning committee chair of ORCA and has represented area clients in zoning matters.

Mulvihill told us that while the zoning board isn’t required to listen to community groups, the process “does actually allow a good dialogue to happen with community members” and that “the zoning board looks at what the community’s overall opinion on the project is.” He also told me that the community meetings can be an opportunity for developers to address issues and negotiate with the community before the board gets involved.

As the overview shows, apart from L&I and the Zoning Board, the real movers and shakers in the zoning process are City Council members, registered community organizations and other interested citizens who have the time to present before the Board or City Council.

Since many community members don’t have the time to individually research and present their views on a project, the most accessible way for residents to get involved may be to join a registered community organization to insure it fairly represents the neighborhood and to vote for a City Councilperson who shares the same concerns. According to Mulvihill, however, for a project that you feel very strongly about, “going down to a board meeting in person makes a big difference… because the board realizes that it’s a big burden to take time off of work.”

For more information on the zoning process in Philadelphia, the following links may be useful:

The official City maps page; click on “map browser” to select the Zoning Map or the map of Registered Community Organizations: http://www.phila.gov/Map/

The city’s Zoning Administrative Manual; despite the name, the publication is a plain English review of the zoning process, including areas outside the scope of this article: https://business.phila.gov/Documents/ZoningAdminManual.pdf

The Official Philadelphia Code; Chapter 14 is the Zoning Code, and it includes more info on the meaning of each district displayed in the Zoning Map and the general regulations applicable to the whole city: http://amlegal.com/library/pa/philadelphia.shtml

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