New zoning code takes effect Wednesday

If you’re looking to build a small deck on the roof of your house, you should wait until tomorrow, when you can legally do so, under certain guidelines, without clearing your permit at the zoning board. But if you’re more interested in building a 40-story condominium tower on the Central Delaware without submitting your plans to a special Civic Design Review committee, go ahead and get your zoning application in today.

Philadelphia’s zoning code takes effect tomorrow, August 22, 2012. That means that at midnight tonight, the residential neighborhood you’ve come to know and love as R5 turns into RSA-3, for Residential Single-Family Attached – 3. The old, tagged-up piers north of Penn Treaty Park are reclassified from G2 into I3 – Heavy Industrial. Urban Agriculture will suddenly come into codified, legal existence. New developments will be required to provide fewer parking spots. And the code itself will become shorter by a few hundred pages.

All of that happens automatically. But for the various City agencies charged with enacting the new law, and the developers and lawyers who use it daily, the transition may take a bit longer, though the eight-month interim since the code was passed last year has given them all a decent head start.

Of all the agencies responsible for implementing the zoning code, the Department of Licenses and Inspections plays the central role. L&I receives zoning applications, processes permits, examines plans, and issues violations. But according to Mike Fink, the Department’s deputy commissioner, while the rules will switch tomorrow, the day-to-day procedures of L&I will remain substantially the same.

“I think the hardest thing is for [plans examiners] who have been doing this for a long time to kind of wipe their mind clear of what they knew things to be, and forget those rules, and start to incorporate a new set of rules,” Fink said.

He added, “It’s the code that’s changed. So, what criteria is applying to your particular piece of ground? What kind of controls are there or not there as a result of the changes?”

In order to get the Department’s team of examiners up to speed on the new code, Fink said, they were sent to Zoning Code Training Sessions organized by the Citizens Planning Institute. Those sessions included two core courses on the basic tenets of the new code, and three elective courses.

Fink said that since the sessions concluded in June, the Department has been holding internal practice runs several times a week, in which plans examiners take real applications and evaluate them using the new code.

In addition, L&I has hired a handful of engineers to be new plans examiners in the last few years, and held off training them in the zoning code until City Council had passed the new one. Fink said the new hires were trained in the building code, but the Department decided that they’d be better off starting with a clean slate on zoning, rather than learning and then unlearning the old code.

Fink said that, after a transition period for the longtime examiners who’ve become very comfortable with the old code, the new code will make processing applications and examining plans easier.

“Personally, I think it’s simpler,” Fink said. “You have these charts that tell you these are the uses that are allowed in these neighborhoods … to me that’s easier to use.”

Fink said that L&I will have some new provisions of the code to get used to, such as identifying projects that require Civic Design Review, though the triggers for that type of project are clearly laid out in the new code. But there are other new processes, such as conditional zoning permits, which allow developers of large projects to get approval of preliminary plans and to fill them out with specifics like façade materials after going through CDR.

“A lot of our staff thinks [conditional zoning] makes it more difficult,” Fink said. “They’re uncomfortable with approving a plan not knowing the full details. They’re just not used to it. So, to me, it’s just a comfort level.”

Conditional zoning, among other new provisions, will make the whole process easier for developers of certain kinds of projects. Without conditional zoning, for example, a developer has to submit detailed project plans knowing that he or she is going to go through a community review process that may well result in numerous changes to those details. The new provision lets developers engage the community even before articulating some of the finer points of the plan.

Carl Primavera, an attorney at Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg who’s no stranger to large-scale projects, said that some developers are waiting for the new code to take effect before initiating certain projects, while others were making sure to get certain applications in before the effective date. He said he’s advised clients on both options, comparing the two codes and deciding which would be easier to work with. The eight-month interim period made those kinds of decisions inevitable, but Primavera said that on the whole, the light-switch effect of the new code going into law won’t be drastic.

“The truth of the matter is that, for most things, the difference under the codes is not material,” Primavera said.

He said that the main question for developers is whether there may be delays in the process as L&I starts working with the new code. But, he said, “My suspicion is that there should not be a huge learning curve.”

“I’m optimistic it’s going to work really well,” Primavera said. “It’s going to be a breath of fresh air.”

(An attorney at Saul Ewing who has been writing a series of posts about changes in the new code feels perhaps slightly less optimistic. The last post in the five-part series warns: “During the transition to the New Code over the next six months or longer, we are all in for a bumpy ride.”)

The staff of the City Planning Commission is making preparations for the new code as well. Tomorrow, it will roll out a new website on the same basic template as the new L&I site launched last week, according to Natalie Shieh, a former ZCC staffer who now works in the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. Shieh said the City would add two new layers to the app, one showing the new zoning classifications, and one showing the location of all Registered Community Organizations.

Shieh said the Planning Commission won’t be immediately prepared accept RCO applications online, but plans to add that feature in the future. She also said the staff has been working to prepare new procedures for Civic Design Review and updated submission guidelines.

For its part, L&I has technology integrations it hopes to make for the new code in the future as well.

“We’d like to see additional things like electronic plan review,” said Deputy Commissioner Mike Fink, “so that when our Art Commission and Streets and Planning are looking at a set of plans, we’re looking at them too, so there’s not this sequential review process—it’s concurrent.”

Much of the integrity of the new code will also be in the hands of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which decides when and whether to grant relief from the code for different projects. As of the time this article was published, PlanPhilly was unable to speak with ZBA Chair Lynette Brown-Sow about any preparations the board was making for the new code taking effect.

But Mike Fink, whose department provides administrative support to the ZBA, said L&I is working with the board members to draft new regulations and prepare for new requirements, such as officially recording board decisions. He also said he believes the board, which lost a member last week, “understands that the code has been changed enough that they shouldn’t have to grant so many variances.”

The City Council bill which enacted the new code requires that representatives of L&I, the Planning Commission, the Commerce Department, and the ZBA prepare a report for Council after one year “setting forth their analysis of the City’s experience with the requirements of the Zoning Code during the previous year, and their recommendations, if any, to further amend the Zoning Code.”

So the same bill that overhauled the code also allowed that it was meant to be a work in progress, while calling on various city agencies, departments, and boards to respect the work of the Zoning Code Commission over the last half-decade.

Said Mike Fink, “Developing a code is a monumental task … This has been done in Philadelphia with a relatively small group of folks and a lot of public input, and it took a lot of effort. And it’s going to take effort to keep it correct. Council needs to be respectful of all of the work that was done there and hopefully not make too many alterations. Let’s give it a chance to see how it works.”

Contact the reporter at and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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