Debate over Registered Community Organizations heats up

The ticking time-bomb embedded in Philadelphia’s overdue, comprehensive zoning reform is the redefined role of community groups in the zoning process. New, more formal rules create a threshold for all community groups to meet in order to have standing in neighborhood-level zoning concerns. It remains to be seen if the bomb will be defused or detonate.

As PlanPhilly’s Jared Brey reports, Eva Gladstein explained the new regulations for Registered Community Organizations (RCO) at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting and Commissioners heard public testimony.

The new regulations [pdf] create two types of RCOs. Jared explains: Local RCOs are required to have written rules, regularly scheduled meetings open to the community, elected leadership, and membership drawn from their registered boundaries. In size, they must cover at least 5 blocks and at most seven square miles. There is an exception for community organizations smaller than five blocks which existed prior to December 22, 2010.

Issue-based RCOs must have governing documents and be incorporated as nonprofit organizations. Sounds reasonable, right?

But some folks worry, perhaps rightly, that this relatively low bar will create a barrier to entry for less organized neighborhoods or places where community groups have lower capacity. I’ve heard objections ranging from the unreasonable (groups wanting to keep closed meetings and membership anonymous) to entirely plausible and problematic (ad-hoc coalitions that convene around a particular issue or project that might not incorporate).

In defense of the basic RCO rules, Jared recounted two testimonials: Greg Pastore, a former Zoning Code Commissioner, and Bryan McHale, a concerned citizen and might-as-well-be-former-Zoning-Code-Commissioner, testified in defense of Registered Community Organizations.

McHale said that RCOs were created in order to force conversations between developers and communities, particularly in projects that involve Civic Design Review. He said that the RCO provision imparts both an opportunity and an obligation on communities to discuss developments in their neighborhoods.

“The fundamental reasons why this was created are sound ones,” McHale said. “Everyone has to have skin in the game.”

Greg Pastore gave an emphatic defense of the RCO provision, saying that if the regulations regarding those organizations were any less burdensome, they wouldn’t exist at all. Pastore said the qualifications to become an RCO amount to little more than self-identification. Exactly.

If your group wants to stake a claim as an RCO, your group should have some standing first. And nothing (except time and awareness) will prevent a citizen from testifying at a Zoning Board of Adjustments hearing or expressing his or her views at a neighborhood meeting.

The new regulations also include a really important change: a conflict of interest clause. The new rule states: “Any Local RCO submitting a project for zoning approval or employed in a professional capacity in reference to the project shall not serve as a Local RCO for that project.” Hallelujah.

Even though it seems counterintuitive or crooked, some neighborhoods have historically seen community groups hold public zoning meetings for their own development proposals. Sometimes this happened for the practical reason that there was no one else to do it. And in general the dual role of civic-as-developer did not create an atmosphere of transparency surrounding some very real projects.

Consider the recent example of Norris Square Civic Association’s (NSCA) plans to create limited-equity co-op housing and a community center at the former St. Boniface complex. If NSCA needed a zoning variance for its development, under the new rules NSCA could not act as the RCO – holding the public meeting or appearing at the Zoning Board of Adjustment as the community voice in support of their own project  – because they have a clear interest as the project’s developer.

Transparency matters, and any group that believes in the quality of their work as a developer or community organization will welcome the change in rules.

Now that the Planning Commission has adopted the new regulations, the process to revise the Home Rule Charter to incorporate them has begun. Stay tuned for a public hearing about the new regulations. This is only the beginning.


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