A New Technical Requirement in Securing Zoning Relief

December 8, 2016Articles In the Zone

For many years, securing variances or special exceptions in the City of Philadelphia has required careful dealings with local neighborhood associations. Obtaining either letters of support or letters of non-opposition from neighborhood organizations has been a necessary step. And now a new notice requirement is about to be added.

In August 2012, in connection with its broader amendment to the city’s Zoning Code, the Philadelphia City Council codified many of the practices relating to neighborhood associations that had previously been a matter of custom. Associations were required to become registered community organizations (RCOs) under Section 14-303(11)(a) of the Zoning Code. Once an RCO had registered, any property owner or developer seeking either a variance or a special exception in Philadelphia was required to provide notices and secure meetings before each RCO that asserted jurisdiction over a particular address.

Section 14-303(12) of the Zoning Code specifies the required notices to be delivered by property owners who file an appeal with the Zoning Board of Adjustments (ZBA) for a special exception or variance or for a development that requires review under the city’s Civic Design Review process. As a matter of law, the Planning Commission staff is required to provide applicants with notices specifying the RCOs for the subject property, including identification of a “coordinating RCO” in circumstances where there are more than one and a list of properties that are required to receive an individual notice of the appeal seeking a variance or special exception. The requisite notices are required to be sent within 10 days of receipt of the information from Planning Commission staff (see 14-303(12)(d)). The code specifies what is required to be included in the notice to the RCOs and the specified near neighbors and the Planning Commission staff provides a template for notice letters that can be utilized by a property owner or its attorney.

Following delivery of the notice, the coordinating RCO is required to schedule a meeting for review of the appeal with interested members to be held within 45 days after the applicant has received the requisite notice from the Planning Commission staff.

This complicated notice and meeting process codifies the role of the Philadelphia neighborhood associations and imposes upon a property owner or developer the burden of delivering the requisite notices within the timeframe specified by the Zoning Code.

In a bill introduced in Philadelphia City Council on October 6, 2016, (Bill No. 160865) and passed through the Rules Committee with a positive recommendation on November 15, 2016, the City of Philadelphia seeks to propose an additional requirement on property owners and developers. While currently there is an obligation to post at a property at least 21 days in advance of a ZBA hearing, an orange zoning notice poster advising neighbors of a pending hearing, this requirement has been deemed insufficient by certain community organizers and members of the City Council. The new ordinance, which is likely to be approved by the City Council prior to the end of 2016, and which will take effect 60 days after being signed into law by Mayor Kenney, will require a posting of the refusal or referral received from the Department of Licensing and Inspections, alongside the orange zoning notice.

This new requirement is designed to provide additional information to interested passersby regarding not just the nature of the proposed development and the scheduling of a hearing, but the details regarding the variances or special exceptions being required for the project to move forward. While this incremental obligation may provide some additional information to interested neighbors, it also generates one more requirement that must be carefully followed by property owners and developers as they complete the complicated journey to securing zoning relief in Philadelphia.