Proposed River Road overlay removal sparks concerns

Tonight, a group of Roxborough residents is holding an emergency meeting on how the city’s proposed zoning code rewrite could affect a quaint residential area on River Road. But according to Eva Gladstein, executive director of the Zoning Code Commission, their worries are much ado about nothing.

The need for a last-minute meeting came about when Nancy Johnston, a former president of the Residents of the Shawmont Valley civic group, discovered a tiny footnote last week in the Commission’s zoning code draft, which it will submit to City Council in February. It reads: “The River Road (/RRO) overlay has been deleted.”

In an email to fellow neighbors living on and around River Road, Johnston wrote that this would lead to “the rezoning of all of River Road to mixed-use, which allows intense commercial uses. …This action will have very high impact on the residents.”

The Residents of Shawmont Valley Association then hastily scheduled a Jan. 18 meeting with Gladstein, since the deadline for the public to submit comments on the zoning code draft is Jan. 21.

Under the current zoning code, the area on River Road between Shawmont Avenue and the county line has a district control overlay, which makes it all but impossible for commercial development to take place. City Council passed the overlay in 2008 in hopes of safeguarding the ecologically fragile site, which floods frequently. Another unique quality of the area, according to neighbors, is the fact that it’s the last place in the city where you can buy a residence right on the Schuylkill River.

In the current code, restaurants and multiple dwellings are banned on River Road between Shawmont Avenue and the county line. Additionally, commercial uses are only permitted in the area at a maximum rate of 50 square feet per each dwelling unit in the community. With 40-some residences in the area, that turns out to be very little room for a commercial property — and the neighbors like it this way.

“It’s a huge piece of land that’s tempting to developers,” says Johnston. “We need to protect it.”

“If the new code allows for more commercial development, we’d oppose that,” says Dave Cellini, president of the Residents of Shawmont Valley Association. Cellini adds that he is perplexed by the overlay deletion, and doesn’t know for sure if it will impact the community.

But Gladstein says that when it comes to River Road, the proposed code differs very little from the current one. It’s true that the overlay will indeed be removed, and the zoning district for the area, which is now “RC-6,” will become “RMX-1.” The reason that residents are anxious is because “RMX-1,” unlike “RC-6,” allows for restaurants, multiple dwellings, medical offices, business support, farmers markets, pharmacies, convenience stores, bed and breakfasts, and mounted wireless antennae.

But, says Gladstein, both the current and proposed zoning district for this area are “master plan” districts. Therefore, she says, “The uses must conform to the master plan. The current master plan does not permit multiple dwellings or commercial uses. Therefore, without a change to the master plan, which requires City Council action, these new uses would not be permitted.”

Plus, in the proposed code, commercial uses must conform to the aforementioned 50-square-foot requirement.

Put simply, Gladstein says, “We are confident that the residents of this area will be afforded the same level of protection as in the existing code.”

But Johnston, an active member of her community who has a background in real estate, says she is most upset that the Zoning Code Commission didn’t inform the neighborhood about the overlay’s deletion. One of the Commission’s major priorities is to involve the community at every step as it rewrites the city’s zoning code, which it hasn’t done since the 1960s. Additionally, the Commission says that the new zoning code will be easier to understand — a claim that is called into question when a whole community becomes confused over a footnote.

“Why are you doing something like this and not informing the public of it?” asks Johnston. “I’ve been to the meetings, and I didn’t hear anything about the overlay. This process is supposed to be so wonderful, with all this public input, but it’s not up to par.”

Gladstein counters that residents who missed this haven’t been paying enough attention.

“While we might not have specifically pointed to this overlay,” she says, “we have made it clear in all of our written materials, on our website and at public meetings that we were reducing the number of overlays.”

Tonight’s meeting, held by the Residents of Shawmont Valley, is at 6 p.m., at the Andorra Library on 705 East Cathedral Road.

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