CDAG heartened at Squilla’s stance on zoning ordinances, plans open letter to city council

Central Delaware Advocacy Group members liked what First District Councilman Mark Squilla had to say about single-parcel zoning legislation at their Thursday night meeting.

Squilla said he would only introduce such legislation if all parties, including the community, thought it was a good idea.

“I would say, 99 percent of the time, absolutely not.”

The zoning discussion was introduced during a Q-n-A session with Squilla by CDAG members Mary Stumpf and Phillip Stoltzfus.

Stumpf asked Squilla to discuss something he’s said in past interviews – that he would, under certain circumstances, support a zoning variance that would grant relief from the rules  laid out by the interim Central Delaware Waterfront Overlay or its eventual replacement.

Squilla said he would lend his support if a project came along that was beneficial to the city, the waterfront, and the neighborhood in question. It would be a mistake not to support something like that, just because it required a variance, he said.

“So, are you saying that we would have your commitment, moving forward, that if variances are granted, and they are on the riverfront, that number one, they would fall in line, ideally with this document (Stoltzfus held up a copy of the Vision for the Central Delaware) and number two,  that the communities that would be represented there would be involved with the planning process, and meeting with the developer, to come to some sort of common ground?”

“Any variance we need throughout the district, I would do the same exact thing,” Squilla said.

“It’s encouraging to hear that, and I hope you don’t mind that we’ll hold you to that,” Stoltzfus said.

CDAG Chairman Matt Ruben explained that the discussion had really covered two separate processes of zoning relief. Variances are granted through the Zoning Board of Adjustment, where a councilperson can lend support or express opposition to the ZBA at a hearing. Relief has  also been granted legislatively, with a councilperson introducing a zoning ordinance that is adopted by council, circumventing the ZBA and the kind of judicial-style hearing where witnesses testify under oath and can be cross examined.

While CDAG and many community groups have long expressed frustration over ordinance-granted relief, Ruben said that parcel-by-parcel zoning changes are understandable when so much city land is wrongly classified for today’s uses. The new code and mapping is supposed to fix that, however, he said.

“Under the new zoning, wouldn’t it make more sense to say to a developer, ‘This seems sensible, but you should apply for a variance. I’m not going to introduce an ordinance to re-map one parcel?'”

“Under the new zoning code, that’s the way it’s supposed to work,” Squilla said. A lot more development is supposed to be possible as-of-right, he said, and in the much rarer instances when relief is needed, a ZBA variance, rather than legislation, is supposed to be the way to go.

How well it all works “remains to be seen” once the new code is in place, Squilla said. But he reiterated that he would only go the legislative route rarely, and then only with community support.

“His responses were encouraging,” Ruben said in a later interview.

Sometime before Council comes back in session later this month, CDAG plans to write an open letter to all city council members regarding zoning-by-parcel.

Watch the entire CDAG meeting

“We feel it is appropriate to re-iterate what the zoning reform process has said, and what the Master Plan (for the Central Delaware) process has said – that spot zoning should come to an end,” Ruben said.

“There is not yet a permanent (Central Delaware Waterfront) overlay, there is an interim one. The new zoning code does not yet include the final overlay. The Master Plan has not yet been adopted by the planning commission and codified by city council into zoning. Potentially, this is a very vulnerable time for the waterfront. The fear has always been death by a thousand permits.”

Ruben said the letter will ask that until the Central Delaware Master Plan and the new Central Delaware Overlay are in place, the city grant waterfront variances very rarely and carefully, and that council not adopt any ordinances that change the zoning of individual parcels at all.

Contact the reporter at

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal