Planning Commission recommends citywide stream buffer of 50 feet

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission recommended approval Tuesday afternoon of City Council Bill No. 120654, which would adopt the Water Department’s hydrology map and enact a 50-foot buffer to new development on all the watercourses the map identifies. The Commission also recommended an amendment clarifying the amount of time City Council has to overturn a Commission decision about development within the buffers. Council’s Committee on Rules will consider the bill on Wednesday, October 31st.

The bill was presented by Commission staffer Paula Brumbelow, who also summarized the history of the issue:

  • The zoning code adopted by Council last December included a provision enacting a 50-foot buffer on all waterways identified on a hydrology map to be developed by the Water Department;
  • In June, just prior to the end of the spring Council session, Councilmen Bill Green and Bobby Henon introduced an amendment to the code requiring Council approval of the hydrology map prior to the provision’s enactment;
  • Councilman Green’s office convened a working group over the summer to review the map and draft an ordinance that would officially adopt it and enact the buffer;
  • Councilman Jones introduced that ordinance on behalf of Council President Clarke on September 13. It calls for a 50-foot buffer on all waterways identified on the map.

Speaking on behalf of the Commission staff, Brumbelow recommended approval of the bill.

Craig Schelter then testified, both as a consultant to the owner of a Delaware River property on Orthodox Street and on behalf of the Development Workshop. Schelter gave a fuller description than usual of the latter group, which he identified as “a 501(c)(6) not-for-profit trade organization promoting the interests of real estate developers in Philadelphia to help the City realize its full potential, create construction and permanent jobs, increase the tax base and support the development in the context of vibrant, safe neighborhoods.”

Schelter has been providing testimony about the stream buffer provision since the issue was first raised early in the zoning reform process. On Tuesday, he raised several points.

Schelter said that buffer controls on rivers should be different from those on streams. He argued that a setback would not provide the same environmental benefits to the many portions of the Delaware and Schuylkill waterways which are bulkheaded as they would to smaller streams with natural banks. He asked why no scientific studies had been done to justify the buffer’s specific benefits to the rivers. And he reiterated his suggestion that the “whole effort [is] an indirect effort to ultimately restrict private property for public use.”

Schelter said that the buffer provision would be inappropriately applied to industrially zoned sites on bulkheaded portions of the rivers because the uses on such sites are necessarily incompatible with parks and open space uses that the provision recommends.

“In each of those sites,” Schelter said in a prepared statement,” a 50 foot setback does nothing to achieve any of the stated purposes [of the provision.] Therefore, a way must be found to exclude such properties from the setback provisions.”

Commission Chairman Alan Greenberger argued with the premise of Schelter’s comments, which he characterized as a “distrust” of the Planning Commission to make “common sense” exceptions to the buffer rule for industrial developments on the rivers. The Commission ultimately rejected Schelter’s recommendation to exempt some properties from the provision.

But it did recommend another of his suggestions, which would give City Council ample time to review any of the Commission’s determinations on such exceptions even if Council is on summer recess. In its current form, the bill gives Council 45 days to reverse any such determination by the Commission; it recommended on Tuesday to clarify that it has 45 days while it is in session.

The final vote for approval of the bill was unanimous with the exception of Commissioner Patrick Eiding. Eiding voted against the bill in sympathy with Schelter’s concern that the Commission was applying zoning restrictions that might delay active use of properties that are currently undeveloped.

Contact the reporter at and follow him on Twitter @jaredbrey

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

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal