Debate over Registered Community Organizations in full bloom

City Council’s Committee on Rules heard half a day of testimony Tuesday on a bill that would amend some regulations related to Registered Community Organizations, neighborhood groups with a formal role in the zoning process. The hearing ended without a decision, and the bill was held for a future hearing.

The issues at stake—who should be notified about pending zoning applications? by whom? in what manner?—are fairly granular, so the intensity of the current debate can seem vexing, especially without context.

In 2007, voters approved a referendum to create a Zoning Code Commission, charged with reviewing and streamlining the city’s unwieldy zoning regulations. During the reform process that followed, the ZCC elected to create a system of Registered Community Organizations (RCOs), which was designed to codify the already prevalent but not universal practice of developers meeting with neighborhood groups before going to the zoning board.

That system required developers to notify those groups that would be affected by certain projects, and to hold at least one meeting with them prior to any zoning hearing. If the project would affect more than one group—RCOs’ boundaries were allowed to overlap—the groups would have to work together to hold a single meeting with the developer. The RCOs were not required to agree. Each group and any other affected individual could still send letters or testify before the zoning board or the Planning Commission and put any position they held on the record. RCOs were not to be given any greater sway than any other groups when the zoning board was deciding whether to grant variances.

At its core, the RCO system gives registered groups two rights: the right to be notified when projects in their areas need zoning approval or design review, and the right to meet with the developer before the hearing.

Required notification. Required meeting.

City Council voted unanimously to adopt that system, along with the rest of the ZCC’s recommendations, in December of 2011, and the new code went into effect in August of 2012.

Not long after the code went into effect, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell put together a bill that would amend the system, partly in response to claims from Tiffany Green and Theresa McCormick of Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze that the RCO rules were exclusionary, and benefited well-organized groups at the expense of smaller groups with fewer resources.

Blackwell’s bill loosened some of the requirements for becoming a Registered Community Organization, so that groups could re-register every three years rather than yearly, and so that RCOs did not necessarily have to have zoning committees or open public meetings. It also required that both RCOs and zoning applicants notify every resident and business owner on the nine block faces surrounding the proposed project.

Council adopted that bill early in 2013 with two “no” votes. Mayor Nutter vetoed the bill, and Council overrode the veto with three votes against the override.

Councilman Bobby Henon, who voted both for Blackwell’s bill and to override the Mayor’s veto of it, introduced a bill this fall that would largely restore the regulations that were part of the code adopted unanimously by Council in 2011.

The bill, which was the subject of Tuesday’s hearing, responds to complaints lodged by an array of civic groups about the current RCO rules, as amended by Blackwell’s bill earlier this year. It also includes some other recommendations from the Planning Commission, which helped to draft it. It restores the yearly recertification requirement and requires that registered groups have zoning or land-use issues written into their statement of purpose. Councilwoman Blackwell is opposed to the changes, and a number of witnesses at the hearing were opposed as well.

It was clear from Tuesday’s hearing that almost all consensus about how best to regulate community input in the zoning process has broken down. That breakdown has been in process since the initial consensus that created the code, and it has become more widespread with each public discussion about the regulations.

Once it was a disagreement between a small number of civic groups and the Zoning Code Commission, which was resolved once by Council when it adopted the new zoning code. Now it is a disagreement among civic associations, between some civics and the Planning Commission, between the Planning Commission and some members of City Council, and between individual members of City Council.

Some of the questions raised but not resolved at Tuesday’s Committee hearing:

  • Should Registered Community Organizations exist at all?

  • What types of groups should qualify as Registered Community Organizations?

  • Should the Planning Commission take over the responsibility of notifying community groups when developers propose projects in their neighborhoods?

  • Should that responsibility fall to District Council members?

  • Should issue-based RCOs—those that don’t deal with neighborhood-specific zoning issues—receive notification of every zoning application? Should they be removed from the zoning code altogether?

  • When a project falls within multiple RCO boundaries, should the developer be allowed to pick which group convenes the meeting of all the groups?

  • What is the minimum and maximum number of meetings that should be required between developers and RCOs prior to a zoning board hearing, and should District Council members get to decide how many meetings is enough? Councilman Henon said after the hearing that he hopes to change the text of the bill so it says that “at least one meeting” is required.

Henon said he would try to resolve the outstanding questions about the RCO process and would amend his bill accordingly. He said it has already been subject to a series of amendments that came from Councilwoman Blackwell’s suggestions—an updated version of the bill was not shared on Tuesday—and that he would keep talking with her office until they come to a resolution.

“I think it was a good day,” Henon said. “I’m happy on the conversation that we had. I’m happy on the people that are paying attention and that came down here and voiced their opinions. In my amendments, it adds a tremendous amount of changes for the betterment of policy in the City of Philadelphia when it comes to zoning.”

Gary Jastrzab, director of the Planning Commission, said the Commission’s goal is to create an RCO system that assists groups that deal with zoning issues and want to meet with developers, but that doesn’t force developers to notify and meet with groups that don’t deal with zoning issues.

“This is politically charged and people feel very strongly about it, but I think we’re making very good, professional judgments, and we want as many involved in the development process as possible,” Jastrzab said. “But we also want RCOs to be responsible to their communities as well. So if they’re truly representative, that’s a real plus. If they’re not representative—if RCOs are being created by realtors or developers or other parties that really don’t have an interest in these matters—maybe they don’t need to be recognized as RCOs.”

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