Registered Community Organizations in Philadelphia, Evolving Regulations

June 2, 2016Articles In the Zone

When the City of Philadelphia approved its new Zoning Code in August 2012, it codified the role of neighborhood organizations. For many years, there was a practical expectation that property owners seeking zoning variances or comparable land use relief would present their plans to the neighborhood organization, which addressed items in the local neighborhood, and seek its support or nonopposition. This approach was necessitated by the practical requirement of securing approval from the local district city council person, and the consistent policy of city council members to confirm that a property owner had informed its neighbors of any new proposed project.

In the new Zoning Code of 2012, the role of neighborhood groups was confirmed in Section 14-303(11A) in a section that defined “Registered Community Organizations” (RCO), provided for their registration with the city’s Planning Commission and specified requirements of meetings before RCOs in connection with seeking a special exception, a zoning variance or a review by the Planning Commission’s Civic Design Review Committee. The provision included specific requirements for notifying neighboring property owners of RCO meetings and imposed limited requirements on the RCOs as to how meetings were to be conducted and when they were to be scheduled.

In the intervening years, the legal structure set forth in the 2012 Zoning Code have generally been effective, with certain exceptions. Some property owners have faced confusion dealing with competing and conflicting RCOs, resulting in difficulty scheduling meetings and occasional requirements for duplicative meetings. Some RCOs have operated less like traditional neighborhood organizations and more like fiefdoms, mainly serving the interest of a narrow slice of leadership. Most significantly, accusations have been raised within the last year regarding racial exclusion by at least one RCO in connection with how public meetings were conducted and how public participation was accommodated.

In response to these issues, the City of Philadelphia Planning Commission has promulgated and preliminarily approved a revised set of regulations relating to RCOs. The central changes in the regulations relate to the required meetings and the administration of RCOs, providing, for the first time, a process for the suspension of an organization’s role as an RCO when the specified practices are not followed.

First, the regulations make explicit a requirement that RCOs may not discriminate against any class protected under the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance. RCOs and any committees that preside over public RCO meetings are required to acknowledge the regulation’s standards of conduct and to agree to operate in compliance with them.

One challenging issue that has arisen for property owners is confusion regarding the identity of the coordinating RCO in instances where more than one RCO asserts jurisdiction over a particular neighborhood. The regulations make clear that the responsibility to designate a coordinating RCO rests with the district city council member, but in an instance where such a selection is not made within four days of request, the executive director of the Planning Commission may so designate.

The regulations confirm the obligation of an RCO to complete a meeting summary form along with a written statement regarding actions taken at a meeting. The form and statement are required to be submitted at least two days prior to any scheduled hearing with the ZBA or the Civic Design Review Board. The regulations loosened the deadline for submission on these materials, but emphasized the need for RCOs to comply. From time to time, RCOs have failed to comply with this formality, resulting in confusion and disagreement before the ZBA regarding whether or not a meeting was held and the results of such meeting.

An important issue addressed in the new regulations is “Community Benefit Agreements.” The new regulations clarify that an RCO may not refuse to schedule and conduct the meeting based upon a property owner’s refusal to enter into a Community Development Agreement. However, such agreements remain permissible, though they now will require disclosure to the city’s Office of the Inspector General upon request of the commission.

Finally, RCOs that fail to follow the procedure set forth by the commission three times within a two-year registration period shall be subject to potential suspension for one year at the discretion of the executive director.

While the regulations have been preliminary approved by the commission, the approval is subject to a public hearing which is scheduled for June 6, 2016. Following the hearing, commission staff will prepare a report to the full commission, which will then decide whether or not to confirm adoption of the new regulations. Adoption is the most likely scenario at this point.

New regulations represent a first step in the efforts by the city government to ensure that RCOs operate in a nondiscriminatory and fair fashion, providing an appropriate vehicle for communication of neighborhood concerns on land use matters.