New rules for RCOs and another stab at billboard regulations

Councilman Bobby Henon introduced two bills Thursday that would address major unfinished business of the city’s year-old zoning code.

The first would largely restore the zoning code’s original Registered Community Organization provision, which was changed—prematurely, many felt—early this year by legislation from Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. In its one-year report released in August, the Planning Commission and other city agencies pointed to several problems created by the amended language. Henon’s bill addresses most of the concerns outlined in that report.

Among the major changes that would be enacted by the RCO bill:

  • Eliminate “issue-based” RCOs, groups such as the Bicycle Coalition or Scenic Philadelphia, whose interest in zoning issues is not targeted to a specific neighborhood

  • Reduce the maximum size of a group’s boundaries from 7 square miles to 3½ square miles

  • Revert to the original requirements of the new zoning with respect to neighborhood notice: zoning applicants only, not community groups, would be required to notify neighborhoods where they’ve proposed development projects

  • Require overlapping RCOs to convene a single meeting with each zoning applicant

  • Allow one neighborhood representative on the Civic Design Review Committee; the code, as amended by Councilwoman Blackwell’s legislation, allows up to two representatives

  • Require groups to re-register every year, rather than every three years as allowed under the amended provision

The bill, which Henon’s office drafted in cooperation with the Planning Commission, is likely to test Council members’ fairly weak appetite for disagreeing with one another. At the end of the Council session, Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell gave a speech suggesting that the new bill is an attempt to undermine the authority of District Council members. She objected particularly to the striking of a provision that says applicants must notify Council members in addition to community groups, and called on the Planning Commission to reconvene all the meetings it had during the zoning reform process to verify that the new changes are acceptable to community groups.

“They [the Planning Commission] have decided that we as District Council people don’t have any right to have a say in this,” Blackwell said. “I resent people who try to undermine this council.”

Councilman Henon said that his bill is meant to address concerns raised by community groups this summer while the Planning Commission was preparing its one-year report, and said that there are bound to be adjustments to the bill as it works through committee.  

Henon’s other bill creates a comprehensive set of regulations for billboards, also known as Non-Accessory Signs. Last year, members of the Zoning Code Commission put together a new set of sign rules, but Councilman Henon set that legislation aside. His office spent part of the summer working on regulations with members of the outdoor advertising industry as well as Scenic Philadelphia, formerly SCRUB, a group that advocates for public space. For a bit of context on the difficulty of regulating non-accessory signs in Philadelphia, read this story.

Most significantly, it seems, the new bill contains this commandment: “A new non-accessory sign shall not be erected or constructed in any location.”

That means no new billboards, ever. A bold statement, certainly, but less bold perhaps in context: billboard companies have already said that, given the current regulations, there are virtually no locations where a new billboard could legally be built.  

Other changes:

  • Converting static billboards into digital billboards will be permitted by right in certain districts, to be determined in a Council committee

  • For every billboard that goes digital, the owner will have to remove two other billboards

  • Any sign without “bona fide advertising” for 12 months or more will be considered abandoned, and must be removed

  • Digital billboards may not “directly face” any residential district within 1,000 feet

  • Billboard companies must submitted a geocoded inventory of all their signs within 90 days of the bill’s passage, and that inventory will be verified by a third party.

The bill also includes regulations for advertising on municipal property, which was adopted by Council earlier this year. Many of the provisions of that program need to be worked out in committee as well, and the Nutter administration will need to issue a Request for Proposals from potential vendors before the program is implemented.

PlanPhilly will have more detailed coverage on each of these bills as they move through the legislative process.

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