Chestnut Hill wants designated groups to have voice on future developments

The Chestnut Hill Community Association’s move to ask for an amendment to the proposed redraft of the city’s zoning code would create a two-tiered system of influence when it comes to local civic groups and their review of developments proposed for their neighborhood.

John Landis, a co-chair of the CHCA’s land use, planning and zoning committee, told CHCA committee members that the amendment asks the city to create a “first class” of registered community organizations, or RCOs, for groups with formalized development review procedures — like, but not limited to, the CHCA — while relegating others to a “second class.”

On Tuesday, Landis briefed the CHCA’s Design Review Committee on the amendment, which voted to move it to the full CHCA board for consideration. It approved it Thursday night, and the group will now forward it to city officials, though there is no guarantee the language will ever be formally adopted.


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First class vs. Second class

The amendment seeks to give certain civic groups the opportunity to be designated as “the primary neighborhood community association” in a given area, allowing them to continue using established review procedures along with city-prescribed ones. There is no limit on how many RCO’s any neighborhood could have, and under Landis’ model, these top-tier community groups would have to be re-designated as such every year.

In plain language, what it means for Chestnut Hill is that if another civic group wanted to challenge the CHCA’s influence or have a greater say in which projects are developed in town, they would have to first supplant the CHCA as the “primary” registered community association in the neighborhood. Developer Richard Snowden, currently deep into the CHCA’s design review process with his plan for 8200 Germantown Ave., urged the civic association to support the amendment saying it should “go to war on this one.” Snowden’s critics in town, some who are members of another group, the Chestnut Hill Residents’ Association, have long complained of his perceived influence over the CHCA.

Landis said the move isn’t designed to increase or codify the CHCA’s power, but to ensure that civics with strong organizations and established development review procedures wouldn’t have to sacrifice their processes in favor of a new city-prescribed one. The CHCA has committees on traffic and transit, design review, land use and zoning, and historic preservation which, in the case of major plans like Snowden’s proposal for the former Magarity Ford site, each hear presentations and sign off on various aspects of proposals.

In other neighborhoods, where there is no central civic group, or whose civics are without the benefit of having lawyers, architects, planners and designers living in the neighborhood to serve on committees, some plans are approved and built with little meaningful public discussion.


Idea faces opposition

Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Zoning Code Commission, said she hadn’t seen the exact text of Landis’ proposed amendment but was non-plussed, saying a tiered system could muddy what is supposed to be a more streamlined and predictable community development review process for all city neighborhoods.

“We would be uncomfortable not only with setting up two classes, but also with using terms like first- and second-class,” Gladstein said Friday. “We’ve been pretty clear that the city doesn’t want to be involved with these political fights.” While there had been discussions about what to do in neighborhoods where civic groups overlap and what role the city should take in declaring primacy, “we ended up deciding this was untenable for a variety of reasons.”

What the new zoning approach would do, Gladstein said, is encourage neighborhoods without organized civic associations to get involved; the Citizens Planning Institute is designed to educate members of the public on design and zoning procedures in order to empower them. Under the most recent draft of the zoning proposal, developers would have to meet with an RCO and receive its feedback within 45 days; the CHCA’s review process can take months.

Even within the CHCA, there was discussion about whether Landis’ amendment would put the group at an unfair advantage. Patricia Cove, who represents the Chestnut Hill Historical Society on the CHCA board, said she was concerned that a “primary” RCO could undermine the Historical Society’s own well-established review process. Landis said because the CHHS holds a seat on the CHCA, they would effectively function as one voice. There was no discussion about what would happen if the CHHS and the CHCA disagreed on a given proposal.

Gladstein expressed serious doubts about whether a two-class RCO system would work, and whether it would mean the city would now have the responsibility to hold groups accountable and decide who deserves “primary” status.

Jenny Swigoda contributed to this report.

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