Clarke drafting new zoning rules for community groups

Registered Community Organizations could soon be required to operate under the city’s official Standards of Conduct and Ethics, if a draft ordinance circulating around City Hall becomes law.

The bill, prepared by Council President Darrell Clarke’s office in cooperation with the Planning Commission, would be the latest in a series of changes to the rules for RCOs, community groups that are given official recognition—as well as certain privileges and responsibilities—under Philadelphia’s rewritten zoning code.

Codifying the role of those groups, which for decades exerted varying degrees of influence over development projects in their neighborhoods, was seen as a marquee achievement of zoning reform in Philadelphia. But the rules have been in flux almost since they first took effect, starting with changes introduced by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell that made the process of becoming an RCO more permissive and expanded notification responsibilities for developers.

A number of the amendments included in Clarke’s draft bill seem to be aimed at compelling RCOs to operate transparently and in the neighborhood’s interest. In addition to the ethics requirements, the bill contains provisions that would cause RCOs to lose their status for deliberately falsifying information on applications, for refusing to coordinate meetings with other groups, or for failing to carry out the basic requirements for notification of public meetings. It would also require groups to summarize their meetings and provide a rationale for positions they take, or to document their efforts at setting up a meeting with developers if the meeting doesn’t take place.

In rewriting the code, officials decided early on that they didn’t want to put themselves in a position of appointing specific groups to represent certain neighborhoods. The upshot of that is that some neighborhoods have a bevy of overlapping RCOs, and the District Council person or the Planning Commission tasks one of those groups per application with convening a public meeting with all the other groups.

In addition to those changes, the bill would also expand the area to which developers would be required to send notification letters when they are seeking zoning variances or going before the Civic Design Review committee. It would expand the notification area to any property within 300 feet of the property being developed, up from 200 feet. The expanded requirements would result in an average of 50 additional letters being sent per project, according to the Planning Commission.

Representatives of Council President Clarke’s office were not available to comment on Monday. Planning Commission representatives did not want to discuss the bill publicly before Clarke’s office weighed in.

It’s not clear how often RCOs have falsified information on their applications, refused to convene meetings, or carry out their notification responsibilities. But one hears stories. In 2013, City Paper reported that Southwest Philadelphia District Services, an RCO, had suggested that a developer make donations to a local rec center in exchange for the group’s support of a zoning application. Other groups have been accused of refusing to convene meetings among all the RCOs in a given area, or of failing to properly notify neighbors when meetings are taking place.

See the draft ordinance here. Keep in mind the bill hasn’t been introduced, and may be changed.

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