By Kellie Patrick Gates
In almost any discussion about zoning reform in Philadelphia, someone brings up the number of cases that go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
The board was designed to decide when to grant property owners an exception to the rules of the zoning code. But in Philadelphia, a trip to the ZBA is far from an extraordinary circumstance. The board hears 75 to 80 cases each week, including those continued from previous weeks. In New York City, a similar committee meets 35 times each year – three times most months – and hears 23 or 24 cases each time.
One person who does not fret about the Philadelphia board’s numbers is ZBA Chairman David Auspitz. “There is no burden, there is no problem,” he said. “The board itself is not complaining – we are happy to hear the cases, and we are pretty good at it, and pretty quick at it.”
Auspitz says you can’t judge a zoning board by its numbers. You should look at the work it does.
“We hear 75 to 80 cases each week, but that’s not a negative. The ZBA in Chicago hears 60 cases a month – that’s not a positive,” he said in a recent interview. “What it means is if you want a deck in Chicago, the plans examiner can give it to you. The plus in Philadelphia is if you want a deck, your neighbors get to weigh in.”
Auspitz thinks it’s better to have a committee of people decide such things in a public forum than to allow a bureaucrat to make such a decision. He also points out that taking cases like this from a zoning variance committee reduces that body’s workload.
Auspitz cited requests to open day care centers as an example of a more time-consuming system yielding a better result.
Day care centers offer an essential service, he said. But having one in the middle of a block can create a bad situation, he said, especially at drop-off and pick-up times, when people are also trying to get to work.
“We could cut out 10 cases a week if no more day cares were allowed in residential blocks,” he said. “But what we do is, we let them come in. If somebody wants to put one in a corner store instead of a hoagie shop or Chinese takeout, we let them.”
So why not simply change the code to allow day care centers on commercial corners? “We need a board to hear this stuff, because every corner is different,” he said.
Perhaps the most vocal critic of how zoning happens in Philadelphia is mayoral front-runner Michael Nutter.
Of the ZBA, he said: “It’s time to close the circus-under-the-big-top atmosphere and make land use decisions like grown ups.”
“Currently, even the most minimal variance request requires a hearing in front of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. The current backlog of cases results in a waiting time that can be months. This holding period makes projects more expensive — a cost which can derail worthy projects if it cannot be passed on to the end user. A public hearing is not the appropriate setting to decide on minimal dimensional variances.” (Nutter says this in a position paper on his website. And he’s also made similar public statements. Nutter did not respond to a request for comment made via his campaign staff).
Auspitz was not interested in responding to Nutter’s claims. He had only praise for him, in fact.
“The man’s going to be the next mayor. I think he’ll do a great job. I assure you, I’m voting for him,” Auspitz said. “This is a pivotal moment in time, with a leader coming in who I really think is going to make an important difference in Philadelphia.”
Auspitz said his respect for Nutter comes in part from Nutter’s regular input at ZBA meetings as a city councilman. When anything happened in his district, he sent a representative with a letter stating his point of view, Ausptiz said. And if he had exceptionally strong feelings about it, he would personally attend the meeting.
If Nutter names someone new to head the ZBA, Auspitz said he will still “help Mr. Nutter take this city where it should be, with or without a title.”
Auspitz, a member of the Zoning Code Commission, does believe that some changes are needed regarding zoning. The code must be updated and made simpler and clearer, he said. When change happens in the code, the ZBA’s caseload would likely decrease, but no changes should be made with that as the only goal.
Auspitz said the time-delay problems are not a result of cases lingering at the ZBA.
“The reason it takes so long to come in front of the ZBA is not us – it’s downstairs (at Licenses & Inspections) where it takes 30 days or more from the time they turn you down to the time they assign a date for you. When they turn you down, they should give you the date right there.”
The city should also act in a “timely fashion” once the ZBA makes a ruling, he said.
And Auspitz believes the Philadelphia City Planning Commission should take on design review responsibilities, deciding whether the aesthetics of a project fit in with the neighborhood for which it’s planned. “We’ve taken that on, because the board feels we’re the only ones to do it,” he said. Cases would take less time if that work were done prior to the ZBA hearing, he said.
When PlanPhilly recently asked Zoning Code Commissioners – the people charged with amending the zoning code – what they thought was the most pressing zoning issue in Philadelphia, a reference to the ZBA was common.
Said John Westrum, CEO of Westrum Development Co: “Consolidation of zoning classifications and elimination of the need to go to the zoning hearing board for every application.”
Said Narasimha (Nick) Shenoy, Electrical engineer and President and CEO of S&G Electric and the executive director of the Asian American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia: “I think there are a lot of zoning variances. Everyone needs a variance because the zoning is not up to date. That takes a lot of time, effort and cost, which isn’t necessary.”
Yet Zoning Code Commissioners agree with Auspitz, who is also President of The Bainbridge Group, Inc., that it is important to keep community involvement in the zoning process. They see ample opportunity for public comment as one element of Philly style zoning that should be kept.
Greg Pastore, a ZCC member who is also a property manager/developer and President of Bella Vista Town Watch, said neighborhood input needs to remain strong as changes are made to the system. But he also wonders if the current method is a sort of public participation crutch.
“The variance is now so much a part of public policy – everything needs a variance and so there’s always a hearing,” he said. “We are all so used to this chance to get the neighborhoods’ feelings, I think it’s a bit of a panacea.”
Kellie Patrick Gates is a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org