Explain That Term: Zoning Board of Adjustment

Explain That Term is an occasional feature we’ll use to demystify some of the jargon we inevitably use covering planning issues. See a term in one of our articles you aren’t sure about? Send us a message and we’ll unpack it on the site. Note: the photo above depicts the Zoning Code Commission, not the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment is a five-member body that decides whether and when to grant exceptions to the zoning code. If you want to use the first floor of your house for a hair salon, or build a fourth story on your rowhouse, or extend your kitchen into your backyard, you’ll probably need the board’s permission.

The members of the board are appointed by the mayor. They’re not professional planners—usually just citizens who’ve shown some level of civic involvement. The former chairwoman, Lynette Brown-Sow, is a vice president at Community College of Philadelphia, and the current chair, Julia Chapman, worked for Mayor Michael Nutter for more than a decade.

Cities need boards like the ZBA, quasi-judicial but composed of civilians, to avoid being sued repeatedly over regulations in the zoning code. Developers or homeowners who think a part of the zoning law prevents them from using their properties in legitimate ways may go to the zoning board for relief. If they’re denied—and in Philadelphia, only a small fraction of variance requests are denied—they can appeal the board’s decision to a higher court.

The members of the zoning board are paid $100 per meeting, and can’t receive more than $22,000 in a year.

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