Zoning board approves variance for Fairthorne Ave. home, despite civic opposition

A Roxborough couple will likely avoid a planned sheriff sale on their Fairthorne Avenue home, after the city zoning board approved a switch to a legal two-family use in a case that put the owners at odds with their civic association.

The home at 525 Fairthorne Ave. is in foreclosure and a sheriff sale is set for Tuesday, owner Daniel Negron said. With the ZBA’s approval, Negron said he now thinks he and wife Susan Fitzpatrick will now be able to close a sale on the house late this week, which had been held up pending the zoning board decision.

The buyer, David Branigan, had an agreement contingent on the city approving two-family use — though the house has been a duplex since at least the 1940s, documents show. The variance application went before the Zoning Board of Adjustment without the support of the Ridge Park Civic Association, which issued a letter in opposition to the plan, saying it was part of a consistent position against converting single-family uses to rentals.

A neighborhood’s rental crackdown 

The house has two apartments — one on the first floor and another on the second and third floors, with garages for each — and has been recognized and used as a duplex since at least the 1940s, said lawyer Bill O’Brien, representing the owners.

The couple bought the house in 1990 and lives on the second and third floors, though they haven’t leased out the first-floor apartment, using it for their parents and grown children over the years, O’Brien said.

They submitted to zoning board members the statements of neighbors who have lived on the neat Roxborough block since the late 1940s saying the property has always been two separate dwellings. The house has multiple utility connections, and documents included with the zoning application show Negron and Fitzpatrick purchased it and have been taxed as a duplex — they just haven’t rented to tenants, they said.

With the sale to Branigan, the couple will continue to live upstairs, but a new tenant will be brought in for the one-bedroom apartment on the first floor. That detail lies at the heart of the civic’s opposition, as they try to prevent more rental properties from popping up in Roxborough.

In an April letter to the zoning board, RPCA president Gary Ferris said the group has joined with the Coalition of Civics, a group of local community organizations, to deal with illegal rentals and their effects on the community.

“This property is an example of what is choking the Roxborough/Manayunk community, illegal rentals. The only reason that the owners are applying for zoning relief now is so that they can sell it,” Ferris wrote.

‘It just doesn’t apply to this property’

Given the property’s history, O’Brien said it made little sense for the RPCA to oppose it on principle now.

“I don’t disagree with the coalition’s stand that they’re trying to avoid illegal conversions and rentals, but it just doesn’t apply to this property,” he said, blaming miscommunication with RPCA board member Patti Brennan for the chilly reception he got at the civic’s last meeting, in June.

There, O’Brien showed up to present the plan, but the group’s board wouldn’t let its members vote because, they said, they hadn’t been informed of the hearing and didn’t have the opportunity to give the adjacent neighbors notice. O’Brien disputed that Tuesday, showing a copy of emails between himself and Brennan in which he asks if his client “can get on the agenda for the June meeting” if he had the zoning case continued at its last scheduled hearing, in May.

Brennan said she told O’Brien and the zoning board there was no need for a continuance since they were already in opposition to the application, and asked for it to be dismissed. She told NewsWorks this week that the civic had never been informed that the continuance was issued, so they had no reason to think O’Brien and Negron would show up at the June meeting looking for a vote.

In another letter to the zoning board, on Monday, Ferris re-stated the civic’s opposition.

“Although we sympathize with the foreclosure process that Mr. O’Brien’s clients are going thru, [sic] our responsibility as a community organization is to the community and we could not make a decision on this property without those affected being notified of the presentation,” the letter states. “We are also concerned that a foreclosure would be used as a basis and reason to change the zoning of a property.”

NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.