- Pennsylvania Among 'Terrible 10' Most Regressive Tax States
- February 4 Non-Partisan Training: HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013: HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Republican Governors Opt-In to Medicaid Expansion
- The Reports of Unions' Death Are Greatly Exaggerated
- Ask Allyson Schwartz to run for Governor
- Mind the gap: Opting Out of Medicaid Expansion Leaves Low-income Families Behind
- Jan. 14 Workshop:HOW TO RUN FOR ELECTION BOARD IN 2013; HOW TO RUN FOR COMMITTEEPERSON IN 2014
- Seth Williams on Guns, Jasmine Rivera on School Closures @PFC Meetup Wednesday
- PA Revenue Strong Midway Through Year; Tax Cut Could Have Big Impact
- What to Make of the Fiscal Cliff Deal?
Zoning Code Commission - Good Work, but a Hidden Fatal Blow to Neighborhoods
The Zoning Code Commission (ZCC) has produced a set of Draft Recommendations for a New Zoning Code, available at http://www.zoningmatters.org. It's a must-read. It's well-organized and full of good ideas. But it's also got a big, fat poison pill that could destroy the ability of communities to have meaningful input into the future of their neighborhoods.
Among the report's good ideas (presented at a public hearing last week) are reducing the code from 21 sections to 6; consolidating 52 base districts (zoning categories) into 32, and 33 overlays into 11 (pp. 2-3; 55-56); clearly spelling out what L&I and Planning Commission staff may and may not approve (p. 7); providing charts outlining steps of the zoning application process; doing away with almost all use variances (p. 20); restricting the ZBA's ability to grant height and density variances (p. 20); narrowing the definition of "hardship" back to its original intended meaning (p. 21); and using the code to promote sustainability, design, and transit connections (p. 3).
And then we come to the poison pill. Ensuring public involvement in development decisions was the #2 public-input item the ZCC received (provide a clear, fair, and efficient zoning process was #1). Yet the report fails badly in this regard. Section 14-203, Subsection 1 ("Pre-Applications and Neighborhood Meetings") states:
- This section will clarify what types of applications require a pre application conference or a neighborhood meeting prior to filing an application. Generally, this includes applications for large areas of land, large or unique buildings and facilities, and multi building complexes. Where neighborhood meetings are required, the applicant is generally responsible for convening, publicizing, conduct, recording attendance, and documenting the results of the meeting. City staff may attend but are not required to attend the meeting. We recommend that the City not impose a formal structure on [how] these meetings are conducted, but should require the applicant to file an affidavit documenting the meeting as part of the application process. Although adding a neighborhood meeting requirement may appear to be a step that slows down development approvals, many cities find that it speeds them up, because neighborhood fears can be allayed or design changes to avoid neighborhood impacts can be made before the applicant has spent significant money on site planning, engineering, or design. (p. 13; bold italics added by me)
This section reflects a stunning lack of understanding about what neighborhoods and their civics are for, and how community zoning committees work. Specifically:
(1) It proposes requiring neighborhood meetings only for large or complex projects - not ideal but not terrible either. However, at the same time it contemplates only a single community meeting for such a project. Anyone with neighborhood zoning experience knows this is laughable - it just doesn't work like that.
(2) It gives the developer the "responsibility" - but therefore also the sole authority - to set up the meeting, run the meeting, determine how it's structured, and document and report the results to the City! Again, anyone who's been to a community zoning meeting for a larger project knows this is exactly what developers and their attorneys try to do - turn the meeting into a sales pitch, marginalize objections as "fear of change," and then go to the ZBA and smooth over or minimize community concerns. With this language, the ZCC would - wittingly or not - put every civic association zoning committee out of business. Anyone who thinks this would reduce the load on city agencies or improve projects has no idea of what a good civic zoning committee actually does.
(3) The ZCC is made up of some very thoughtful folks, and as I say they've produced a report that's excellent overall. But this language reflects a mindset that's the stereotype of what everyone hates about planners and bureaucrats. They view the public as unorganized rabble - simultaneously an uneducated, passive mass, and an unorganized bunch of atomized individuals. At the same time, they view any sort of community organization - e.g. a zoning committee - as a parochial, potentially corrupt collection of dilettantes who lack formal expertise and add nothing to the process.
The implicit idea here is that the developer presents to a collection of individuals called "the community," then this "community" raises concerns, and the developer addresses them (if he/she wishes). Nowhere is there any acknowledgement of the reality that community associations have institutional memory and tremendous experience - that they can help filter and, organize, and focus individual neighbors' concerns; that they can tell a snowjob from an earnest proposal; that they know exactly what measures must be taken to make developer agreements and concessions meaningful; that they understand how the City agencies work and how zoning law works. In short, without creating a formal place for organized civic organizations to be active participants in the zoning process, the ZCC will destroy the ability of communities to have any meaningful input into development whatsoever.
Now, I raised this with the ZCC's consultant, and one of its members (who shall remain unidentified for now), and I was told that language was put in there for communities that don't have highly organized civics or zoning committees. Fair enough. But when I suggested that the Planning Commission keep an official list of recognized community zoning committees (something they already do now in a slightly less formal way), I got a distinctly less than warm reception.
I think this is an issue progressives really need to participate in. Whether one comes at it from a neighborhood perspective of preserving character and quality of life, or from a broader progressive perspective of curbing corporate power and preventing the City from becoming an arm of the development community, this is a key battleground.