Cutting through the Zoning Code: “Signs,” “Historic Preservation,” “Definitions”

Is this the end? Zoning Code, I can hardly believe that I won’t delve into your depths again until December 1 or thereabouts, when tracked edits should be posted to zoningmatters.org. Ten days isn’t too long to be apart, Zoning Code. After the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ll come back to you, I promise. After all, I’ve yet to meet your Administrative Manual and your Regulations.

Today, I’ve teed up the last three sections: Chapter 14-800: Signs, Chapter 14-900: Historic Preservation, and Chapter 14-1000: Definitions. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

The rules about signs that were sprinkled throughout the old code are brought together in this section, but the very first footnote reminds us that the sign regulations are still being revised and reworked. Still, a few fun facts:

  • The “Intent” subsection clarifies that the “Signs” chapter will not regulate the content of signs. The First Amendment prohibits such regulation, so the chapter targets “location, size, type, and features,” but not “content-based regulation.”
  • The special sign controls governing signs near Cobbs Creek Parkway, Roosevelt Boulevard, and Fairmount Park all remain in the draft revision.
  • The Planning Commission has drafted new rules governing digital billboards; based on the text, the rules seem aimed at limiting driver distraction. For example, messages must stay up for no fewer than five minutes, billboards must be at least 500 feet away from entrance and exit ramps to highways, and billboards are not allowed to move or use animation to create movement.

Historic preservation regulations have not changed in any substantive way from their previous versions. The question that haunts folks concerned about preserving Philadelphia, of course, is whether such regulations will be seriously enforced. In the meantime, take your pick of cop-out phrases: only time will tell whether enforcement will be successful—or—whether enforcement will be successful remains to be seen.

The “Definitions” section is kind of fun. Like the “Signs” section, “Definitions” brings together definitions that previously were spread throughout the code. Spending time with a section like “Definitions” really does matter, because any strange changes to how terms are defined would affect the entire code.

To my (admittedly, no, proudly) layman’s eyes, strangeness is strangely absent. New definitions are footnoted, but they tend to be along the lines of how “lot area” is defined: “The total area of the horizontal plane of a lot width at ground level.” It could be a touch more clear—the area of a width is technically zero, so the ZCC may want to delete that “width”—but (I think) I get it.

By my count, the code revision includes 58 new or revised definitions. At first glance, the number seems substantial, but most changes are pretty commonsensical. For example, I’m pretty sure we can all agree that “construction” is, in fact, “The erection of a new building or structure.” Another: “Mechanical Access Parking Garage” (robot parking!) needed a definition since first, we already have it at the 1706 Rittenhouse Square condo building, and second, it wasn’t defined before, so it may not have been clearly regulated. Having a glossary to return to when reading the code is very convenient, but we still need to pay attention to how our terms are defined.

Overall, plowing through the code has been very illustrative. And I gotta say, the code is readable. It’s not readable in the way a children’s book is readable, but with close attention, and fairly frequent cross-referencing to other sections (did you see how many sticky notes are in my code?), I feel like I’ve been able to understand what it says, and what it means. I’m neither a planner, nor a land-use attorney, nor an urban-studies expert—I’m just a reporter. But if I can figure this stuff out, the code has at the very least achieved the goal of being comprehensible.

As zoning reform coverage moves forward, I hope we PlanPhilly folks will be able to keep uncovering what the code means for residents, neighborhoods, and commerce. If you think this series has mis-read anything in the code, or if you have different thoughts or perspectives or concerns about zoning than what we’ve done in this series, email me.

Contact the reporter at ngilewicz@planphilly.com

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